This Side of the Pond – April 24

By Sarah Pridgeon

My entire family is pathologically incapable of filling out forms. Even the box that asks for your name takes us two or three attempts to get right and complex calculations are virtually impossible, which explains why I was never much good at doing my taxes back in England. Now that I’ve been tasked with learning a whole new way to file them, things have degenerated even further.

When you start a new life in foreign climes, the last thing you’re thinking about is the paperwork. I was excited to live under the big skies with my brand new husband, but hadn’t yet acknowledged that I’d be faced with a whole new system of government.

This is the third time that tax season has rolled around for me and the third time that I have failed spectacularly to be any help. I’m capable of collecting receipts (for unspecified purposes) and putting my W-2 in a safe place (though I’m not completely sure what it is), but that’s as far as it goes.

I think my poor mom-in-law has now explained the requirements more times than I can count on my fingers – and has had about as much luck as she did when outlining the rules of American football. I have a vague awareness of the basic concepts, but I’m murky on the details.

Back in England, taxes work quite differently. If you are a salaried employee, they are calculated on your behalf and removed from your monthly pay check. It’s similar to how things work here, except that you can’t opt to change the amount you pay and your marital status doesn’t make much difference. Everyone pays separately and your contributions are calculated based on your own earnings, not those of your family as a whole.

You are also not required to do any filing at the end of the year. For the first half decade of my career, because I fell into that convenient category, my taxes were done for me by the secretive squirrels in the walls of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Department.

I worked for a salary, my wages were deposited into my bank minus the cash that was earmarked for the taxman and I didn’t think twice about a filing deadline. I was never asked to specify how much tax I would like to pay along the way – my tax category was set, as far as I can tell, entirely according to how much cash was coming in. There was no such thing for me as a tax return, because my contributions were worked out to the penny.

My National Insurance was included in this deal. National Insurance is Social Security under a different name – it works in just the same way. You pay a contribution every month and hope that there’s enough left in the coffers to fund your grocery bill when it comes time to retire (which, in England at least, is optimistic at best).

When the magazine company that I had worked for since leaving university happened to dissolve under the weight of a changing industry, I decided to go freelance – and everything changed. Suddenly, I was responsible for calculating my own tax burden and saving up to pay it along the way.

As you may know, taxes in the UK are a little bit higher than they are here. This is because we’re paying for a couple of things that America is not, including our wonderful free health service.

The best piece of advice that my father ever gave me was to make sure I never spent the money I would later need for my taxes. To cover all eventualities, I kept a third of the cash I earned as a freelancer in a separate account, ready and waiting for the day that the taxman sent out his dreaded forms.

The second best piece of advice that my father gave me was never to file taxes by myself. This is partly because he knows exactly where I inherited my inability to fill in forms from. It’s also partly because this particular form is the weight of a serious novel and full of questions that no sane person should ever be able to answer.

Because I knew that I would never comprehend the intricacies of deductibles and expenditures – and because I’m about as good at math as I am at forms – I dealt in generalities. If I spent money furthering my business, for travel or office supplies, the cost could be deducted. That was as far as my knowledge stretched on the question of finagling a tax bill.

I kept every Tube ticket stashed away, along with all my printer paper receipts, until the day of reckoning, when I handed them with trepidation to a wizened old accountant. He may have been a really good accountant, he may have been terrible at it, but he was the one that all my former colleagues were using and that was quite enough recommendation for me.

My tax bill wasn’t even close to the amount I had calculated through my generalities, but that didn’t worry me because it was actually considerably lower. My approach from then on was to continue being ignorant, as that seemed to always mean that I had enough in the bank to cover the bill. This served me perfectly adequately until I emigrated.

When my green card arrived and I was permitted to enter the American workforce, my very first task was to decide how much tax I would like to pay – and I had no idea how. Even now, looking at a W-4, I cannot fathom what all the different options mean.

Fortunately, mom-in-laws are a very handy resource for such things and I had simply to tick the box she pointed at. To this day, I could not tell you from memory what decision I eventually made, but it seems to be working just fine.

The positive side of this change in my circumstances is that filing my taxes no longer wears out my printer. There’s no need for me to print the same page eight times because I’ve ticked the wrong box or spelled my address incorrectly, just a quick trip to our lovely accountant to hand her some pieces of paper.

I might not be a math whizz, but I can now claim the distinction of tackling two entirely different tax systems without getting myself in too much of a pickle. It might not seem like much to the math-inclined, but it’s not too shabby an achievement for a woman who can barely count to ten.