My Life as a Volunteer Tax Preparer – Week 2
Yesterday was my second weekly visit to the AARP Tax-Aide office where I am volunteering as a tax preparer for elderly and low-income taxpayers. I had not originally planned on writing a lot about these experiences but it turns out I am learning so much – about people, not taxes – that I have decided to continue to share with readers.
I had five appointments yesterday and was able to complete five returns. All of the taxpayers that came in were retired (collecting pension income and/or Social Security). Here are my week two observations:
1. Unlike week one, everyone who came in yesterday was very appreciative of the free service they were receiving. Also unlike week one, they were all making less than the guidelines set for users of volunteer services. I felt like I was doing the job that I had signed up for.
2. Only one of the five appointments was a married couple. The other four were widowed or divorced and living alone. That made me sad to think about and very grateful for my marriage.
3. Two of the five appointments owned their homes. The others rented. I was pleased to learn that the homes were fully paid for. The married couple has lived in the same home for 46 years. Amazing. Both of the homeowners were pleasantly surprised when I told them that for 2008, they could deduct at least a portion of their real estate taxes even if they didn’t itemize. Ironically, even though they were ignorant of this feature when they came in, both of them called me after they left, asking where on the return did I give them the deduction. It’s confusing because when the tax software we use prints the return, it hides the fact that the real estate taxes are added into the standard deduction.
4. One of the appointments had to report gambling winnings. This couple liked to visit casinos and on two occasions had hit jackpots large enough to trigger receipt of W-2G gambling winnings forms. While sharing this with me, they told me that their losses exceeded their winnings. They assumed that this would zero out the income effect of the winnings reported by the casinos. They were not very happy when I explained that they could not deduct the losses unless they itemized. They did not have enough other deductions to itemize. I hope they stay away from the casinos this year!
5. Four of the five taxpayers were still working. This was very interesting because all of those working (one full-time) were also collecting Social Security. For two of them, this made a big chunk of their Social Security taxable. One of the taxpayers was under age 66 and told me that she was going to stop working because her benefits were reduced by working. I explained to her that although her benefit would be reduced by working now (until full retirement age), the benefits she lost during that period of working would be re-captured by being added to her benefit after she reached full retirement age. Most retirees are not aware of this benefit re-capture and make poor decisions about not working after claiming Social Security at age 62 because of it.
6. One woman said she was going to use her tax refund to buy a cemetery plot. This woman was in her early 60’s but had experienced some health problems. She was literally concerned about not making it through 2009. She actually looked healthy to me. I tried to encourage her to think optimistically and use that refund for something fun. (Me – Mr. ToughMoneyLove – giving pep talks?) I don’t know if I was persuasive or not. Can you imagine sending your taxes to the government all year, then having them returned to you the next year so you can prepare to bury yourself?
7. Two of the taxpayers were still helping support adult children. One of those adult children was disabled. The other recently divorced. The unwealthy are still sacrificing to help the even less-wealthy.
8. One of the taxpayers needed an amended 2007 return. She had used one of the franchised tax preparation services last year. They had neglected to evaluate her entitlement to an earned income credit, which is a refundable credit. She is coming back next week so that I can try to undo that and put a little more money into her pocket.
This brings me to the final – and to me the most important – thing I learned from week two. These people were generally happy and getting by fine on not very much. We are talking about folks living simple lives on minimal incomes. But no one complained (unless you count being worried about your mortality.) They smiled on their way into my office and were smiling when they left.
I think they were able to achieve a level of contentment because (a) they had little or no debt and (b) had learned to adapt and live on what they had. There was none of the money envy and constantly expecting more that seem to affect so many of us. They knew that there wasn’t going to be any more. So they dealt with, accepted it, and lived their lives that way. Refreshing. Inspiring.
I hope some of these little life lessons are affecting you as they are me. Please drop a comment and let me know.
Photo Credit: Ewan M.