A rude (and taxing) awakening

It’s almost tax season, so I thought I’d share this story from the archives of my memory. Even though it occurred a decade ago, the memory is still as fresh in my mind as anything.

It’s early February of 2009. I’m a 23-year-old newlywed getting ready for one of the most exciting things (to me, anyway) I’m going to do that year–file taxes. It’s not taxes that I’m excited about, really. It’s the fact that it was my first year being married, and my first time ever doing taxes with my husband.

I imagined all the things that I could do with our tax refund. Save up for a down payment on a house? Pay student loans? Buy a new couch? I had so many ideas. Little did I know that none of those things will happen.

But at the time, I was SO excited to file as a married couple, because as little as I knew about taxes at the time, I knew that being married has tax benefits. So I went to the local library, got a tax booklet and some forms (back then, we were old school. We didn’t know a thing about online programs), and one day in February we sat down on the teeny tiny dining room table to do our taxes.

I remember sitting there, one of us with a pencil and a form, the other reading the tax booklet, which was like a technical manual. It had words like “filing status” and “interest and dividends” and “capital gains and losses,” and we didn’t understand any of it! Finally, after awhile we decided that the form 1040EZ was the best form to use…simply because it was “easy.” Get it?

Anyways, armed with a calculator, he did the math while I read the booklet, both of us poring over the information and developing a headache in the process. Who knew taxes would be so boring? I thought.

Fast forward four hours later, we’re both exhausted. We were done. As I looked at the last line on the form, where it says, “if line 12 is larger than line 9, this is the amount you owe” and comparing it to the number we got, it stopped me dead in my tracks.

The result was true. Line 12 is larger than line 9.

I stared at the number for a moment, in shock. This was the first time we did our taxes together and we owe money?

I told my husband to look. He did. He couldn’t believe it either. Then the number “$1500” flashed in front of his eyes in the same manner that it flashed in front of mine–with disbelief.

“Your math must be wrong,” I told him. “Go to H&R Block and have someone double check it, please.”

So he did. He came back an hour later, and said, “Yep, we owe that much.”

Now, $1500 isn’t really a big deal nowadays, but back then, it was 2009, and we were young college grads. We didn’t know a thing about money, like saving for a rainy day or anything like that. We had jobs, yes, but we’d always spent whatever we made, thinking there will never be a rainy day.

On that day, it was definitely a downpour.

Even after my husband came back and told me the truth (again), I refused to be believe it. Not just because we didn’t have the money in the bank (how dumb is that?!), but because it happened at a bad time. It was 2009, and we were still in the midst of a recession. Just a month before, I had been laid off from my job at a third party health benefits administrator. So I was counting on taxes to save us, for a little while anyway, until I could find a new job.

The realization of having to pay the IRS back without having that money was terrifying.

By now, you’re thinking – wait, you can ask your parents for help, right?

Well, we did. But we had to be selective about it. Since neither one of us comes from well-to-do families, we figured we couldn’t ask my mom since she made so little money, and same goes for my mother-in-law, so we decided to ask my father-in-law.

He came back and said, “Nope.” There wasn’t a specific reason, just no.

Another shocker. Okay, by now I’m freaking out. We don’t have the money. I’m unemployed. My husband just started a job as a front desk associate at a hotel, and it’s a little well kept secret that front desk people don’t make a lot of money. There was no way he could support both of us. So we thought that his dad would come to our rescue but we were wrong.

I remember crying uncontrollably. After I realized that we didn’t have the money, I cried. After my husband came back from H&R Block, I cried. After he came back from his dad’s rejection, I cried. I thought, “Why is this happening to me?”

Thus, it was the beginning of many important life lessons, the first one being–save for a rainy day. You can’t save all the time, and you may not be able to save a lot, but saving is better than not saving.

Somehow, we managed to pay the IRS back without any help. Terrified of being unable to pay our rent and bills, I got myself a job a month later, which would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life–that’s a story for another day.

But from 2009 until tax season of 2010, we made some drastic changes in our lifestyle. We stopped driving often. We spent $30 per week on groceries. We set aside money for the IRS payment before any bills. And I vowed that I would educate myself on taxes so I would never have to experience it again.

Since then, we’ve never owed the IRS any money, and if I play my cards right, we’ll never have to owe them again.

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