Ignore that tax accountant behind the curtain

Numbers intimidate me. Tax forms, with their confusing formulas and convoluted IRS regulations, downright scare me. But when I went freelance full time, I decided to take the plunge and do my own.

I had several reasons. First, energized by a spirit of self-reliance, I figured if I could make a living as an independent writer, I could do my own taxes. After all, what is a freelancer if not the ultimate “do-it-yourselfer”? Second, at that point I had more time than money, so it made sense for me to spend the time doing my own rather than spending the money to hire someone. Third, I wanted to learn more about the tax rules that apply to sole proprietors, figuring that if I understood them I could make better business decisions. And finally, my old tax accountant was literally old – he was retiring – and had made a major mistake on my last return, one that even I could catch. (He had forgotten that I had worked as an employee for part of that year, and did not include my W-2s.)

So I’ve done my own taxes for the last five years. I’ve gained several advantages. I have assuaged my number/tax phobia and have learned much about the tax implications of certain financial decisions. I’m more tax savvy. It’s also forced me to better organize my accounting and recordkeeping. The downsides: hours and hours spent gathering records and entering data into TurboTax, and the annoying, nagging worry that some critical error or omission will come back to haunt me.

Last year was a good year, and so far this year looks good, too. So now that my time is at a premium, I decided to hire an accountant. That would save me those seemingly endless hours of work, plus I would be rid of that nagging feeling that something might be wrong. Tax accountants know all the answers, right?

Wrong.

I had forgotten that accountants do not go through your files and gather all the numbers for those tax forms. Hiring someone saves me from having to sit at the computer and enter information, but that’s probably only about 30 percent of the work. The rest is actually hunting down the information, such as reviewing credit card bills to figure out business expenses or calling clients whose 1099s don’t agree with my records.

Still, I figured that this guy would answer important questions that I’d had for years. There were deductions that I didn’t take because I wasn’t sure about them, so I brought a list of questions when I delivered my records to him. Could I deduct my doctor’s concierge from my Healthcare Savings Account? He wasn’t sure. When we got into a discussion, it became clear that he didn’t know the different between an HSA and an FSA (flexible spending account), a savings program some employers offer their full-time workers. What about including among charitable contributions that online payment to a fund to help a colleague’s uncovered medical expenses after she was hit by a car? Gee, he wasn’t sure. I also asked him for advice on what I might do differently this year to save on taxes. He suggested becoming a Subchapter S corporation. But I was hoping for more tactical tips, such as keeping better records on the use of my car for business. He didn’t have much to offer.

He did, however, try to sell me a long-term care policy.

The last straw was when I received my completed forms for review. All I did was compare his work to last year’s forms – the ones that I had done myself. My worst fear was that I would find something that I had overlooked or done wrong on the forms that I did. I did indeed find a major mistake. But it was his. He had forgotten to apply education credits to which I’m entitled because I have a son in college, credits that reduce my final tax bill substantially.

The guy even had the nerve to try to charge me $100 more than he initially quoted to do my taxes. When I asked why I should pay extra after his mistake almost cost me more than $1,000 in additional taxes, he backed down.

So ends my quest to find tax expertise. I’ve pulled the curtain back on the “great and powerful Wizard of Accounting,” and found a weak little man pulling the same switches and levers that we could all pull ourselves. He tries to impress and intimidate us with fancy offices and complicated language. In the end, we all have the power to do this ourselves, and probably more thoroughly and accurately than he does.

Guess who’ll be doing my taxes next year?

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