Tuesday, September 6, 2011

not so taxing times

There was a time when tax time was dead simple. The tax return form had 4 pages, and most of the questions were irrelevant to Josie Average. [These were the days before the government passed An Act to Simplify the Tax Act, and a Master Tax Guide was no thicker than Encylopaedia Britannica.]

For many years I faithfully made the journey to the little house [by which I mean a house that was small, not a ‘little house’] in the bush where my mother and stepfather lived and filled out their tax returns for them. The dead simple process was a form of torture because of the filing system my mother used.
Working out how much interest they had earned on their bank deposits should have been simply a matter of looking at some statements. After all, mother carefully kept everything together in one of those A to Z accordion files.

“So”, I would ask, “can I have a look at your bank statements please?”
Mother was very good at keeping important pieces of paper during the year and filing them as she got them, but where she filed them depended on her mood. Each statement could be filed using any of the following possibilities:
A for "A" Bank
B for Bank
C for Commonwealth [as in Commonwealth Bank]
D for debentures
I for interest
R for ‘I’m a rich bitch’
S for statement
T for tax or T for term deposit
W for Which Bank? [the advertising slogan]

Every year I would beg them to do two things:
  1. Open separate bank accounts and put $X in each; and/or
  2. Take out a credit card each with a limit of $X.

As children of the depression who both had a very strong working class sense of pride, they were horrified by the credit card suggestion. If I had thought they would spend money they did not have I would never have suggested it. On the other hand if they were off travelling somewhere, a buffer would help if they couldn’t access their usual bank, or needed more than their daily withdrawal limit.

The dirty part they did not like hearing is that if one of them popped the clog, the joint bank accounts would be frozen and the surviving party would not have access to cash til the problem was sorted. [As it turned out, when my stepfather passed away I had to pay a solicitor to get access to the joint accounts for necessary expenses before probate.]


A friend of the Primary Producer variety asked me for some help one year. His missus had been nagging him since forever to get his act together, so eventually we picked a day when we were both free to go through his box of bits of paper. In no time at all the lounge floor of their farmhouse was covered in little stacks of paper as we sorted through all the little bits, trying to read dates on faded thermal paper receipts and so on. After about an hour of focused effort one of his kids did exactly what he’d been asked not to do, and opened the sliding door to the lounge room. Until then, neither of us had really thought it had been a very windy day at all.

I’ll help anybody – once. For Rob, the goal was to get everything organised before he saw an accountant because, let’s face it, an accountant was going to charge by the hour. For me, the goal was to get him organised so it would never get in a mess like that again.
This was in the days BC [before computers] so I bought him a pad of giant 4 million column cash sheets, added some labels and showed him how to store his bits of paper. Full credit to him, he would spend the two minutes it took to write stuff down and staple bits of paper together every day, and never got into a mess again.

When I first met The Other I was intrigued by the number of days she would spend sifting through several drawers of a filing cabinet, and lots of folders full of bits of paper at tax time. Her life was a little more complex than my mum’s, so her A to Z filing system was a total disaster.
Until a few years ago she was a bit of a mover and shaker and a high flyer and her deductions – although quite valid – were high for someone in her profession. Every year without fail a tax department computer would spit out her name on an exception report and the tax department would audit her return.
Quite rightly, she believed she should be able to complete her own tax returns without being hassled, but we live in the land of IS not SHOULD. It took me a few years to convince her that instead of throwing away two weeks of her life preparing and then justifying her return, she should simply go to a chartered accountant, cough up one or two hundred dollars and let him deal with the audits. In the end I won the argument.

We have, as couples do, fallen quite naturally into a division of labour that reflects interests and abilities and it was a great relief to me when I finally took control of paying bills. My biggest weapon in the important battles is ultimatums. I simply refused to follow up any queries or problems with any companies until I had total control. [I’m in many ways an all or nothing kinda gal.]

As The Other cruises towards retirement and her life has become simpler, tax time is a lot more straightforward. Yet still it takes her a whole day to get stuff ready for the accountant. No bragging intended, but it takes me all of ten minutes.

It takes me two minutes on line to get a summary from Medicare of what I have claimed and the gaps I have paid. It takes my chemist two minutes to print out what I have coughed up for prescription drugs during the last financial year. For the rest, it takes me 5 minutes to flip through just 12 pieces of paper to see what we have paid out for web hosting, business name registrations and so on.
To be perfectly honest, I really don’t care about gay marriage except as a matter of principle. If two people decide to share their lives and children are involved, then I think some kind of commitment ceremony might be reassuring for the kids.
As for heterosexual marriages, I’m not sure that even then people should have to pay the government for a licence to bonk. Other forms of commitment or even no commitment at all are, for all practical purposes, just as binding legally.
I certainly don’t think any minister of any religion should be obliged to marry two gay people if it’s against their principles. On the other hand, if heterosexuals can have their marriage registered with the government, then other couples should be able to find a civil celebrant and register their marriage as well.

What I do appreciate is that Rudd honoured his commitment, before he was deposed, to make sure homosexuals are treated equally by the law. If I can’t claim unemployment benefits because The Other is earning too much that’s fine by me, because at least now she can claim me as a dependent on her tax return.
Until those changes were made, homosexual relationships were only recognised in the taking money parts of laws, but never in the giving parts.

Filing should always follow the KISS principle.
  • I might get hit by a bus and someone else will need to find things
  • Sometimes a company fails to acknowledge a payment or does something else stupid, and we need to locate a bill or payment details quickly
  • There are few things I hate more than doing anything twice when once will do
  • Our home is surrounded by ‘natural reserves’ and if there is any hint of a fire I can just pick up one box and walk out the door with everything important – no rummaging required.

I keep everything in a plastic storage box with a lid. It’s a little on the large side, but that’s because it also includes all the guff to do with my mother’s affairs, some other stuff; insurance policies; passports; and photocopies of atm, credit, medicare and other cards.
There is only one safe place for house titles, or originals of wills and powers of attorney, and that is with a solicitor. [Torrens system house titles look deceptively like a computer printout that can be replaced with a push of a print button, but nothing could be farther from the truth.]

Fruitcake’s non-patented 12 pile system of household filing:

Take a blank sheet of A4 paper, and write the name of the month and the year at the top – for example, July 2010. This becomes your cover sheet for the month.

When you pay a bill, write ON the bill the date and amount paid.
If you pay it online, write your bank’s transaction reference number on it.
If you pay it by cheque write the cheque number on it [and write the bloody details on your cheque butt…Please!]
If you paid it by cash and you have a receipt printed on thermal paper, get a piece of normal paper and copy every single number letter and symbol from the receipt onto the normal paper. Thermal paper fades.
Finally, write the date, the payee and the amount on the cover sheet then staple the bill behind the cover sheet.

Follow this process every time you pay a bill, until you actually make a payment in a different month. Write a new cover sheet for the new month.

No matter what the problem, you will only ever have 12 places to look for something, like an old bill, a bank statement, a subscription or so on.
Back when interest rates were more than 17% and I was struggling to make house payments [on a factory wage] I went a step further. Whenever I took money from the bank I kept the withdrawal slip, and attached it to the pile for that month. If I took out $20 and I only had $8 left in my pocket, I tried to record – on the same day – what I had done with the $12. Supermarket and other cash register receipts were helpful.
This helped me become a little more aware of where my money was going and what I might do to stop frittering my cash away.

There is a difference between being mean and greedy, and having a healthy respect for what you earn. For many years, a distant relative of mine used to criticise other relatives for being tight with money, but they were the ones he always turned to for help when he dug himself into a hole, and they never turned their back on him.
Some years ago, a cousin of mine I’ll call Fred, went to work one cold winter’s morning and remarked to his boss that he’d had to have a cold shower that morning.
“Your hot water service broken?”
“No, I just forgot to turn it on last night.”
“Why would you turn it off?”
“I always turn it on for one night, and then leave it off for two.”
“Well the first morning the water is so hot I have to add cold to it, the next morning it’s just right, then the third morning it’s not too bad, and then I turn it on again.”
“Fred, you are the tightest bastard I have ever met in my life!”
“Well George,” Fred said, “I get $16 an hour as a fork lift driver and I own five houses… You get $120,000 a year and you pay rent. I’d rather be tight than be you.”


  1. I feel too organised. Our tax man retires this year, so we may well tackle our own next year. Ours has become simple. I write the time, date and bank numbers on bills once paid, but I have never had a problem that has needed the information.

  2. Hi Andrew
    You can NEVER be too organised!

  3. Haha! The ATO is the only organisation I know for whom 'simplification' means an extra 17 layers of bureaucracy, complex new legislation (inconsistent with old) and a new computer system that doesn't work!!

    And it's the only organisation I've come across that thinks cultural awareness training is best delivered on-line ...

  4. Hi Red,
    Your reaction reminds me of something really really stupid that happened over and over when I worked as a public servant.. hahahaha... can't tell you what though 'cos public servants are not supposed to tell, ha ha ha ha ha. [Besides which the comfortable way you use the acronym ATO makes me nervous... he he hrumphh swallow.]

    As for online cultural awareness training... does that mean obsolete old fart technophobes like me are already culturally advanced?