My Life as a Volunteer Tax Preparer – Week 4
I am back with another installment in the education of Mr. ToughMoneyLove in the world of people and their money. Yesterday was my fourth session as a volunteer at the AARP Tax-Aide office, preparing income tax returns for mostly older, lower income adults.
I had five appointments this week. One was a no-show. Fortunately, it was my last appointment of the day so after 15 minutes, I left and returned to my office to do some work that pays the bills.
Of the four appointments that showed, all were retired, three were women, and all were widowed or divorced. The ratio of low income single retirees to low income married retirees continues to be high, further supporting the various studies that show that married couples do better financially later in life. Boy do I believe that now.
Two of the women lived in their own homes (the others were renters). One home was paid for, the other still had a small mortgage. When I asked about property taxes, both told me that the state and local governments paid most of their taxes as part of a program for lower income retirees. There’s another program that I had never heard of before. I can’t complain about it, at least for the woman who was diligent enough to pay her mortgage down to zero. Anyone who is barely surviving on limited retirement income deserves some help with the never ending property tax increases if it allows them to stay in a home they paid for.
Yet another one of these women was supporting an adult disabled daughter in her home. I asked (because I had to) if the daughter was receiving income. The mother told me that her daughter had just started receiving disability checks from Social Security. She added that her daughter could not work because – and I’m quoting here – “she was messed up in the head.” That’s an interesting medical condition to say the least. Then Mom told me that her daughter had recently moved out because she didn’t like living according to Mom’s house rules. I guess she took the disability money and ran.
There is still a lot of confusion out there about stimulus payments. One appointment admitted that the primary reason she came to see us was to learn when she was going to receive her stimulus check for 2009 and how much it was going to be. I explained to her that most of the tax relief this year was going to be in the form of lower withholding and that any direct payments to retirees would be issued later, independent of our roles as volunteer tax preparers. She left, chagrined.
My last appointment (that showed up) was by far the most interesting and educational. This was a good ol’ boy in his early sixties, living by himself on a small Social Security retirement benefit and small disability check from the Veterans Administration.
He also was receiving a small monthly payment from an annuity he had purchased from an insurance company. He was upset that a 5% surrender charge was being deducted from every payment. He said he was misled about the terms of the annuity. From what I have learned about some annuity salesmen, I can believe it.
He really opened up to me as I was finishing his return. I swear I am not playing amateur reporter with these folks and asking a bunch of probing questions. For some reason, the discussion of their limited incomes at tax time brings stuff out. I just happen to be there when they start talking.
Out of the blue, he told me that he was planning on moving this summer. Trying to be a good small-talker, I asked him where he was moving. That’s when he told me about his sister, living in a coastal town in another state. She is living in a house that he and his sister had inherited from their father. He was going to move in with her to help get her straightened out financially.
I won’t bore you with all of the details (of which there were many) but it seems that sister likes to spend. He told me that even though her income was less than his (ouch), she did things such as shop at Whole Foods when she was living on an Aldi and Dollar General income. (That’s where he shopped.) She was running three freezers in the house – for one person. It went on and on. She was broke and getting broker, as he told it.
He proceeded to tell me that he was going to get her straight with money or he would force a sale of the house. He told me that the house sat on some land that was quite valuable, high six figures. This is where it got real interesting so I am going to try to use his exact words. He said “if it seems like I’m scheming a bit here, well I guess I am. But I am not scheming for me, it’s for my son.” He wanted to preserve his share of that property for his son.
He then told me that if you added his retirement income to his sister’s, the total would still be less than what his Dad received in his retirement. This is where he made a statement that was both profound and startling in its honesty: “But I am not complaining” he said. “My sister and I – we don’t deserve any better than we are getting. My Dad, he worked hard for his money and paid that property off. My sister and I, we didn’t try very hard to get ahead in life so this is the income we deserve, no more.”
He added that his son had worked hard and unlike him had gone on to earn a degree – in nursing. So Dad wanted to be sure that the value of grandfather’s property would be preserved for the benefit of the grandson.
Wow. How many people who are just getting by financially are willing to step up and, looking back on their lives, admit that maybe the reason they are poor or broke is that they didn’t try very hard to better their situation? Not many. I almost congratulated this man on his attitude. I believed every word that he said.
Unlike this good ‘ol boy, most people today seem to take the position that they deserve more money, more stuff, more help from the government. If you challenge them on why they deserve more, what you typically hear is that because others have more, it’s unfair that they have less. That reasoning is not persuasive to me, just as it wasn’t for this good ol’ boy.
This man seems content with his life nonetheless. He told me that he lived in a small basement apartment that had a stove that “worked most of the time” and a refrigerator that he was proud to say he had paid for himself. He was most happy about the fact that there was “good security” for his small fishing boat and fishing tackle. Fishing was his one life passion where he spent his few extra dollars. And finally, he was proud of his son.
Well, that’s it for week 4 in the life of a rookie volunteer tax preparer. I continue to surprise myself by how much I am being taught by the people I meet.