Typically, in past years, I have paid my taxes by telephone. Telephone taxes are quite a simple process: You call up the government phone number, punch in some numbers on the buttons of your phone, and you're done. It takes about five minutes for the phone call, and perhaps up to 45 minutes to do the math before the phone call so you'll know which buttons to press. It's not bad at all.
Unfortunately, they abolished the telephone tax-filing system (TeleFile) this year. This was quite unwelcome. Nevertheless, if they had simply reverted to providing me with at least the minimal convenience that they once provided people with in pre-Internet, pre-TeleFile days, by mailing me on paper the tax form that I'm most likely to use, and an envelope to mail it in, and so on, my annoyance would not have risen high enough to provoke me to actually write a lengthy LiveJournal entry complaining about it.
But they didn't mail me any paper tax forms at all. The only thing they mailed me was an ad informing me that over half of Americans filed their taxes online last year and they think I should, too. Well, there was a very good reason that I didn't file my taxes online last year, and that is that whereas TeleFile was a free service available from the government itself, online filing is a service available from various private companies and all these private companies seemed to charge money.
But "over half of Americans" file their taxes online, the ad insisted. And for some reason (it being first thing in the morning, and my brain obviously not very awake yet), I imagined that surely "over half of Americans" wouldn't be voluntarily paying extra money that there's absolutely no need for them to pay. Well, I should have known better than to overestimate the intelligence of my fellow Americans like that. I mean, roughly half of the Americans who voted last year voted for Bush.
But no, it was first thing in the morning and my brain was clearly not functioning well enough to figure that out. Instead, it got all optimistic about the idea that online tax filing must actually make some sort of sense for so many people to be using them. So I opened the IRS website and looked for instructions about how to try out this online tax filing thing.
The IRS website has a handy little tool that says it will recommend a company for your particular situation, which I used. I entered my age, state, and income, and it recommended no less than 18 different companies, listed in what seems to be random order (the order changed when I went back to the tool again later). Foolishly imagining that the words "Free federal online tax prep & e-file" actually meant that, I started with the company that was listed first the first time I used the tool: OnLine Taxes.
Although I felt that it divided the process into an entirely excessive number of pages and confirmation steps, the OnLine Taxes website and I got along reasonably well until a quarter of the way through the filing process, at which point the bottom section of a page (which was where the "Save and Continue" button to get to the next page would have been located) failed to load. I reloaded the page several times, logged out, switched to a different browser and started over from the beginning - no luck. At exactly the same page, the "Save and Continue" button failed to show up. This website wasted two hours of my time and collected a lot of personal information from me without providing me with anything at all in return.
So I went back to the IRS website and tried the tool again. This time, the TurboTax Free File website came up first in the recommendations list. I tried that. This website not only divided the process into an entirely excessive number of pages and confirmation steps, but also kept inserting entire pages between each step that were devoted exclusively to asking me, again and again and again, whether I'm really sure I don't want to use their tax-filing system that isn't free, so I could experience the myriad joys that supposedly come from giving them money. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had to click "No, I do not want to pay you money" at least ten separate times. Still, I decided to forgive them for this, on the grounds that at least I was able to find the correct buttons on each page to submit my information to them and move on to the next page. I clicked all the way through the entire process of filling out the forms, which used up another hour and a half of my day.
Then suddenly they informed me that even though preparing and e-filing my federal tax return is "free" and e-filing my California tax form return is "free," preparing my California tax return costs $24.95 ("plus applicable tax" - haha, I get to pay taxes on my paying of taxes!) and unless I pay them that money, they refuse to perform any of the "free" services for me either. So none of it is really free at all. Or maybe the federal tax returns would have been free if I had declined to have them start the process of my state tax return at all, but since I had already done that, it was too late. ARRRGHH I HATE THESE PEOPLE SO MUCH. How do they even figure they should get any credit for "preparing" my tax return at all, when I'm the one who sat through an hour and a half of typing in all my information for them, and all their stupid website did was flash continual ads in my face?
But then, also, their website insisted that I had made an error in typing in my W-2 form. For Box 20, "Locality Name," my W-2 form says "CA VPDI." I typed this in, but the website told me that this could not possibly be the contents of this box. But it is too the contents of the box! It says that right in the box, in very clear letters, in the kind of font where no letter can possibly be mistaken for any other letter, absolutely incontrovertibly. Their website will not let me submit the forms unless this "error" is corrected; in other words, I am only allowed to submit the forms if I lie to the government by claiming that my W-2 form says something different than it actually says. How convenient! Maybe the TurboTax people will agree to go to jail for me for perjury afterwards, too!
But I had no intention of paying the $24.95 anyway, so it really didn't matter how many other crazy things the website did with my tax forms. So far, I had wasted a total of three and a half hours and provided extensive personal information about myself to two different websites without receiving a single thing in return.
I went back to the IRS website's list of recommended companies yet again. But this time, experience had made me smarter. I chose 123 Easy Tax Filing, but immediately checked their FAQ for information about hidden costs of their "free" filing. At this website, filing state taxes was only going to cost me $6.95, but they wouldn't e-file my state taxes; they'd only give me a PDF to print out and mail in. Since my dialup doesn't handle PDF files very well and my printer has been printing gibberish more often than correct printouts lately, this did not appeal. (Besides, if my dialup and printer did turn out to be willing to cooperate today, I might as well just print out the PDFs directly from the IRS website and mail them in without having to pay any company.) I tried again, selecting TaxEngine.com. California state tax returns cost $10 here, although at least this company is a lot more honest about stating the price up front than the other companies have been. (They do a lot of other states free, which perhaps helps account for why over half of Americans are filing their taxes online. But I'm not lucky enough to live in one of those states.) Next I tried Complete Tax, which I'm only just barely poor enough to qualify to use, so I thought maybe since they cater exclusively to poorer people, they wouldn't be trying to extort money. Nope. The price there was $9.95. So I tried TaxSimple, which was another one that I'm just barely poor enough to qualify to use. That one would have filed my state return free, except that again they don't handle California, so that didn't do me any good. I clicked the entire list of 18 different tax companies, and not one would e-file my state tax returns for anything less than $7.95. So why couldn't the California government have mailed me some tax forms on paper? Not everyone can just blithely go download and print out tax forms from the Internet, you know! It's bad enough trying to guess whether my dialup and printer are going to be cooperative today or not - what about the people who don't even own a printer at all, not even a moody unreliable printer like mine, or who don't even have Internet access in the first place? Sure the can go to the library, but although my local library has computers available with Internet access, it does not have any printers that appear to be hooked up to them, and the time limits on how long you can use the computers are so short that I'm not sure most people would be able to figure out which forms they needed and print them out in time even if there were a printer hooked up to the library computers. Exactly how far away are poor people expected to travel to be able to pay their taxes?
But okay, I personally do have Internet access, and a printer that may just possibly work right. I once paid my taxes by mail before, when I suddenly didn't qualify to pay them by phone, and I was sent the wrong tax forms in the mail and had to download them from the IRS website - my dialup and printer cooperated well enough that year to print out the tax forms. The fact that I managed this once is a good sign that I might be able to do it again. I think the government's failure to send me any tax forms at all this year is the government's way of trying to make me feel I have no options but to give money to the stupid tax companies; but it may be that the better, cheaper options are merely a lot less well advertised.
So I go to the IRS website and locate the appropriate forms, only available in PDF format, and try my luck downloading the first one. Predictably, this promptly causes my browser to freeze up. But I am patient! I sit in front of my useless nonfunctional computer for fully ten minutes, waiting for the possibility that it may magically unfreeze itself eventually. And it did! Excellent. The suspense is thick in the air as I click the "Print" button. Will my printer pull through for me too?
Yes! My printer is in an exceptionally good mood today, and performs better than it has in months. Tremulously, I proceed to the state tax forms. My browser immediately freezes up again. Luck is on my side, however, because this time it only remains frozen for three minutes, and then prints out beautifully. Even the humongous PDF instruction booklets (which it's absolutely necessary to download, since they contain the tax tables that you have to consult to find out how much you're supposed to pay) eventually download. Everything works beautifully. End result: I owe the U.S. government $156, but the California government owes me $341. Okay. But really I think the U.S. government owes me a salary for the hours and hours of my time that it wasted today by trying to talk me into filing my taxes online. And the California government needs to either hurry up and make a deal with one of those companies to make online filing of state tax returns available free, or else actually bother to send me some paper tax forms next year. Even 50 years or probably 100 years ago, the government was able to deliver perfectly functional paper tax forms to its people! There is no good reason whatsoever why in 2005, I should be forced to do battle with the forces of hostile, money-grubbing, dysfunctional, or uncooperative technology, all for the sake of obtaining a few simple tax forms that once would have been mailed to me free.