The unemployed guide to taxes

1040 tax form and federal government building

Taxes during Armageddon, as imagined by someone who just discovered Photoshop. (courtesy of

I like doing my own taxes. And, no, I’m not insane, at least not like the drunk guy dressed as a female clown who rides his three-wheel bike around my neighborhood with a live parrot on his shoulder. My insanity – since that’s what it probably is – is more pedestrian and middle class. There’s something satisfying about sitting down with a pile of forms, statements and receipts, and ending up with a single number. This is what I owe the federal government or, preferably, this is what the federal government owes me.

Another number tells me a lot more about my life this past year. It sits near the bottom of page one of the 1040 – line 22 to be exact – after the words, “This is your total income.” That number sums up an entire year of working. It’s not a perfect measure. It lacks detail and nuance. It glosses over the personal and societal value of my accomplishments. It entirely ignores what I’ve learned and experienced. It does tell me one thing – how much money I earned. And that number was pretty damn small in 2009.

I’ve been doing my own taxes since the ripe old age of 15. That’s when I had my first real job – pumping gas at the local Amoco – and drew my first paycheck. Like many a suburban teenager, I’d mowed lawns, shoveled driveways and babysat kids. But people paid cash for those services. And as any waiter, bookie or financially savvy homeless person will tell you, cash is much harder for the tax people to track.

My taxes were much simpler then. There wasn’t much to report. All I had was a whopping $3.60/hour income, a bank account with a few hundred bucks and a mutual fund with another few hundred more. As a teenager, I rarely earned more than the standard deduction. So most of the taxes withheld the previous year came back to me. That day in May when the government sent me a nice fat check ranked right up there with my birthday and Christmas and the last day of school and, of course, Arbor Day, the granddaddy of all holidays. Tax refunds sure can buy lots of CDs and prepackaged Donettes from 7-Eleven.

Life is a little more complicated 8 (by which I mean 20+) years later. My expenses include more than music and convenience store food. I do my taxes on a computer using advanced (and awesome) tax software rather than on paper forms using No. 2 pencils with dried-out erasers. And if 2009 is any indication, my earning power has decreased.

If we ignore government unemployment insurance payouts, that total income number – line 22 – has decreased since 1987. I earned less as an experienced worker, with undergraduate and graduate degrees, than I did as a high school sophomore. The government paid my way this past year. And while I was entitled to the money, having been previously employed full-time, I didn’t earn it in 2009. I earned it in 2008 and 2007 and every other year I held down a staff position at a company that paid into the system. We can quibble over the meaning of “earn.” After all, I did spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours looking for work; and looking for work is most definitely work. But I wasn’t paid directly for it.

The realization of how little I earned didn’t sink in right away. Maybe I just didn’t want to think about it. And maybe I was too busy rushing to finish my taxes by the April 15 deadline. I always plan to do my taxes in March, and always fail. There’s always something more pressing to get done. This time the culprit was a freelance project that was and continues to sap all my time. Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m happy for the paying work, as is my bank account. It just leaves precious little time for everything else, like blogging, sleeping and filing taxes.

The bright side of all this is that 2010 won’t be a repeat of 2009. I will once again earn more money this year than I did as a high school sophomore. There are many parts of my youth that I’d like back. My income bracket isn’t one of them.

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  1. Emily wrote:

    Nice to see you back!

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  2. Norm wrote:

    Thanks. I’ll try to be more regular in posting. Work seems to be getting in the way of my unemployment lately.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Tina wrote:

    Glad 2010 will be a better year for you Norm. It’s such a friggin’ struggle.

    I only have an associates degree – and people with masters’ are applying and getting my previous type of position (Middle management – always met budget and exceeded revenue…ALWAYS). When I apply for lower level positions I’m “over-qualified”.

    Frustrating. But more frustrating are the a-hole comments I read on other sites that just don’t really get the unemployment situation right now. I want to get in their face and scream, “We’re not sitting on our asses. We are trying. Extended benefits are a blessing. And, I can’t wait to see you on THIS side of the unemployment line…it means one more position I can apply for.”

    Friday, May 21, 2010 at 1:10 am | Permalink
  4. Gina wrote:

    Just heard Norm being interviewed on NPR with Robin. I’m not much of a blog reader but I think this is a much needed forum for those searching for work.
    I am a freelancer who is looking for my next project or a full time, or regular part time job. I’m 57 yrs. old and though I have lots of experience, and some very good skills, there is always one (apparently) must-have skill that I don’t have for a position. Or, maybe I don’t have the inside referral. I get no unemployment checks. Never have received unemployment. I pay my own health insurance. $543. a month! I’m living on my life savings right now and it’s scary to keep withdrawing and putting nothing in the bank but an occasional small(very small) project check. People say, “just take anything”. Well, I’d be happy to do that but the employer has to want you. They know when you are just “taking anything” and they must figure that you’ll be gone if you find a job that fits your experience and pays a living wage. I’m signed up with 2 temp agencies and the average pay quoted is $8.50 to $11. an hour! No benefits either.
    So, I just thought I would add to the picture of unemployment, from one who isn’t even counted in the statistics.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink