Thursday, April 17, 2008

The voice of authority

business taxesI finished our family's very complicated taxes a day before they were due. As I do every year, I debated the wisdom of handling them myself with vs. hiring an accountant.

As I do with every important question, I hash it out with Sam and scour the internet for the voice of the people. And, as with every important question, Sam agreed with me and the voice of the people was divided.

I can't see where hiring an accountant would make my job any more than a few hours easier. Inputting the numbers into the tax forms isn't the hard part -- it's all the collecting, sorting, and researching that goes on throughout the year. If I hired a full-time accountant, then maybe my life would indeed be easier -- I'd just have him/her tag along and hand over receipts as we gathered them. But since that's entirely out of my price range, I've decided to stick with managing tax time all by my lonesome.

I could change my tune, I suppose, if (or when -- I tend to be pessimistic when it comes to the IRS) an audit rolls around and I need an advocate. That was the gist of the online arguments for hiring an accountant every year -- it would take responsibility off the taxpayer and give it over to someone else, an expert in the subject.

Here's an example of an internet war on the topic: Battle of the human accountant versus Scroll down to the comments section after reading the article's take to see the reader opinions. They're not so divergent as you might expect. On one side are the "better safe than sorry" crowd who say that easy taxes (W2s and some interest) could be handled on one's own, but that hard taxes (home businesses, employment in multiple states, investment complications, rental income) should be given over to a pro. Then there's the side I fall on, which is that if you need an accountant, then you should probably use one -- but if you're intelligent, can read for comprehension, and aren't frightened by math, then nearly every tax situation can be handled, given the proper research, a working calculator, and the time to put in the effort. Some countered that time doing taxes was better spent elsewhere, but again I surmise that I would spend just as much time preparing my taxes for someone else as I do filing them myself. And, frankly, it's the filing part that's kinda fun.

One of the recurring mocking metaphorical arguments against doing taxes solo goes like this: "You don't do your own dentistry, do you?"

I don't think that's a fair analogy. It's very hard to do one's own dentistry, due to the angles and the vision difficulties. But I do brush and floss my own teeth. That to me suggests a better comparison -- just because there are experts that do some tasks professionally doesn't mean that amateurs who have studied and are talented at that task are worse off performing it alone. If I'm good at doing something, I might in fact be better at doing it for myself than someone else without such a personal knowledge of my situation or such a vested interest in my well-being.

I personally don't do any repairs on my own car, because I can't be bothered to learn how and don't feel that I have a natural aptitude for mechanics. Someone else would scoff that I could save money by doing minor maintenance on it myself, and they'd be right. That's why I agree with anyone who wants to use an accountant that they probably should -- if you can't be bothered to do your taxes right, then go ahead and pay someone else to do them for you. But you'll be missing out on learning things that might help you, and you can't always trust the expert to be infallible. Just as I'm never sure if I'm being ripped off when I take in my car, that's the price you pay for not being willing to get your own hands dirty (in some cases, metaphorically speaking).

I've become much less trusting of experts over the years as I've realized that they're just people like me. I remember what a shock it was to meet a friend as an adult who was a schoolteacher and to realize -- oh, gosh, teachers are just people. And not always necessarily the brainiest people. (No offense to teachers, I'm just saying.)

I wanted a really nice haircut once, so I went to a ritzy salon. The first time went really well, but when I went back for a touchup, the stylist was so rude to me that I felt ashamed (and I still tipped well!). The next time I wanted a cut, I had Sam cut my hair -- and it was the best haircut I've ever had.

I used to seek out doctors for anything I thought was medically wrong with me, and now I rarely darken their doors. I got tired of being told inaccurate and incomplete information just because they couldn't take the time to listen to what I was saying or learn my history. I figured out that a lot of what I had sought expert advice for I could learn on my own just as easily, as my experience with acne showed me.

Nowhere has this tendency to go it alone crystallized more than as I've entered into parenting.

Beginning with the pregnancy and birth, I started researching what I had always been told and assumed and came to vastly different conclusions about what was optimal for me and my baby.

Once we began parenting, I had to question what I had seen my parents and other parents do and disregard the advice of pediatricians and traditional books.

I think part of the freedom from expert or traditional advice stems from the prevalence of information available now. With books and online articles to dispense information, with message boards and email to garner feedback in a virtual community, there's no need to rely on only one or even a second opinion -- they're now almost unlimited. Could I have done my very complicated taxes myself twenty years ago, when I would have had to order paper copies of every IRS publication I needed, or call for advice on every question? Now I can go to and instantly access any form or instructions I need.

Even with my haircut from the Salon d'Sam, we first scoured photos of potential cuts online and deconstructed the relative lengths of each section, and I had checked out haircutting books from the library.

With any medical issues, I do what my son's current pediatrician does while we're there in the office (no joke) -- type the symptoms into Google. Granted, if I needed open heart surgery, I wouldn't self-operate, but I have performed a couple skin-tag-ectomies. It hurts, but it's fast and cheap!

I think the trust-the-experts advice would have been the only and best option in the past, but now to me it seems like a cop out. I'm willing to admit to it when it comes to car repairs, and I don't have a problem with other people choosing it for issues they don't feel competent at, such as taxes. But it makes me sad when I see parents abdicating their responsibility to research and make their own decisions in raising another human being.


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