I’M A DINOSAUR. Not only do I prepare my own tax return with no help from an accountant or tax preparer, but also I do it by hand. Yep, that’s right—no TurboTax or other computer program.
I really can’t use the computer programs because I often attach an oddball form or two that they don’t offer. On top of that, I always add “annotations” to parts of my return. These additional explanatory notes may be helpful to the IRS. But just as important, they’re reminders to me of why I did things a certain way, just in case I’m later called on to explain.
Why not just hire a pro to do my tax return? It probably wouldn’t cost all that much and it would save me many hours of hard labor. Back in my working days, our small law firm had an accountant who did our partnership return, and he often kidded me about my unusual habit. I once remarked that I’m probably the last person in America to do their taxes by hand, to which he replied, “No, I think there are two others.”
This eccentricity had a pretty natural origin. When I finished school and started working, I did my own taxes. In those days—the late 1970s—there were no computer programs to assist and I didn’t want to spend money on hiring a pro. In any event, my return was extremely simple, so I just did it. Well, it became a habit, an annual ritual. And habits can be, well, habit forming.
Moreover, as painful as the process can be—nobody thinks wading through countless IRS forms and often-confusing instructions is enjoyable—I found it valuable. For starters, it helped me understand, at least at an elementary level, how our tax system works. Of more importance, it gave me a once-a-year overview of my and, after I married, my family’s financial situation. It forced me to consider where our income came from, how it was being taxed and what measures I could take in the coming year to reduce our tax burden.
Happily, something has come along to make the whole complicated process much easier: the internet. In the early days, one of the most frustrating parts of the undertaking was getting the right forms. It never failed that, invariably while at home and during the weekend, I’d find myself deep in the weeds of our tax return, only to discover that I needed such-and-such form to proceed.
Well, of course, I hadn’t anticipated that one. I was stopped in my tracks and instead, at the next opportunity during regular business hours, I had to drive out to the IRS office, which was always inconveniently located, and stand in line waiting for my turn at the counter, so I could ask for the magical form. In those days, the IRS would include in the package it mailed out at least some of the forms you used the prior year, but never the more obscure ones. Those forms weren’t available at the post office, either. The upshot: When the internet came along, it was the happiest event in my long history as a tax filer. To be able to find any form, no matter how esoteric, on the IRS website, and then print it out at home, was a godsend.
But even beyond the forms and instructions, the internet has been a huge help. Now, when I encounter one of the confusing issues that inevitably comes up, I’m not just stuck with whatever the IRS has to say about it. Instead, I can usually find some learned explanation from the tax pros on the web. Heck, if you’re really brave, you can access the entire Internal Revenue Code online.
Another advantage of this self-imposed chore: If you do it yourself and keep decent notes, you can likely also handle any inquiries from the IRS on your own. When my kids were in college and I was using their 529 accounts to pay for expenses, I received a “letter audit” from the IRS, requiring me to justify all the outlays. I won’t say it wasn’t a pain. But equipped with my notes and records, I put together a detailed response. Ultimately, I got a letter saying that not only were they satisfied with my explanation, but also they had determined they owed me money—and a check was included.
As our kids came of age, finished college and entered the world of work, I encouraged each of them to tackle their own return. It truly is an important learning experience. If I hear a complaint that it’s so boring, I have a ready answer. When I was young, I likewise couldn’t imagine anything more tedious than spending a few hours with a tax return. But once gainfully employed and paying taxes, I eventually had a revelation: This is my money we’re talking about here. Suddenly, the whole business was a lot more interesting.
Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with four beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. His previous articles include Weekend Warriors, Cheap and Proud and Slim Pickings.