Tax Season Anxiety

time to hide
For as long as I’ve been required to file, I’ve been lying about my taxes.

Before anyone sics the IRS on me, let me clarify that I have not been lying on my tax returns: I am a law-abiding citizen with a deep-seated fear of the audit. But I have been lying to friends and colleagues—minor, reflexive lies summoned forth to hide the fact that I am a secretly wealthy 20-something.

During my childhood, an envelope of stock certificates with my name on it would appear under the tree every Christmas among the toys. My incredibly generous grandmother was slowly disbursing the stock that she had inherited from her mother to her 10 grandchildren while she was still alive—presumably for estate planning purposes. This pattern continued until she ran out in my late teens, at which point I had amassed a solid chunk. The resulting dividend income, which I dutifully deposited into my savings account four times per year, meant that I started filing a tax return before I could legally drive.

And then came my first tax-related lie: One day when I was a freshman in high school, my father made a passing comment about taxes in front of a friend of mine, who promptly asked me what on earth I was paying taxes on. I stammered an awkward reply about having done some part-time work for a relative last summer, and we moved on.

It was this conversation that first made me feel like I had something to hide. None of my friends knew about this secret wealth I was sitting on, and I made a concerted effort to keep it that way. I had grown up with a very New England sense of “money should be neither seen and nor heard,” and the idea of discussing financial situations with anyone outside my immediate family was (and still is) mortifying to me.

Fast-forward to after college: I’m working in a nonprofit job in New York City. Every year around March, all that anyone can seem to talk about—either in person or on social media—is taxes. Everything from the size of their refunds to the tax software they favor is fair game for casual happy hour chats and off-the-cuff tweets. I’m able to avoid most of this by keeping my mouth shut (or taking it as my cue to get up for a beer refill). Sometimes, I just do my best to hide my situation, like the time an older colleague told me a long story about how great her CPA is, and how it would be worth it some day for me to hire one. My colleague didn’t know that I’ve already paid thousands in estimated tax payments this year with the help of a CPA I found through my parents. I smiled and nodded along. As far as she knew, I was in the same 20-something financial boat as everyone else.

Lying is just one symptom of the deep anxiety that tax season stirs within me. In addition to not showing my hand around my peers, I also feel irrationally anxious about not sounding like a dumb kid during conversations with my CPA and my brokerage firm. Although I think I’m decently well-versed in the ins and outs of taxes, I’m always afraid that they will think I’m a clueless idiot with a load of money she doesn’t deserve. I find myself lowering the pitch of my voice when on the phone with them, worrying about whether the vocal fry my dad always warned me against was creeping into my speech.

Perhaps if I had actually earned all this money myself, I would feel less anxious about having to deal with it when tax time rolls around each April. For the rest of the year, it just quietly sits in an investment account, biding its time until I’m ready to buy a home or decide to go to graduate school. But I harbor a significant amount of guilt and embarrassment about being a young adult whose investment income occasionally eclipses her W-2 income, and tax time is when those feelings are laid bare. So I just take a deep breath, call the accountant, and remind myself of how incredibly, ridiculously lucky I am.

 

This story is part of our Tax Month series.

The writer lives in New York.

Photo: Tom Thai

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