Questions for STEM Profs to Ask Before Filing Taxes
With the tax filing deadline a mere two months away, now is a fantastic time to drink nonstop for 7 weeks, leaving just enough time to run to H & R Block at the last minute with a bag of receipts and end up paying a huge amount in taxes. The benefits of this strategy are a) drinking and b) a funny feeling that you are likely to get audited that will keep you company for years to come.
If, however, you are inclined to put on your big kid clothes and be more organized in your finances, might I suggest now is an excellent time to start dating a tax attorney or looking into hiring an accountant?
As a lowly assistant professor, I was terrified I didn’t have enough money to pay for an accountant much less have one file my taxes. The good news is that many accountants are not only affordable, but may* be able to wrangle you a larger refund than you would get if you were to try it on your own (Protip: Attorneys are expensive. Accountants, not so much).
My first year of using an accountant I was a bit of a clusternut. I had receipts for everything but no idea which ones were important. Even after having to consult my CPA multiple times, meet with her in person for two one-hour sessions and have her file my taxes, my bill from her office was surprisingly less than I thought it would be – around $500.
That may or may not sound like a lot, but for me it paid off because I learned some things were deductible, and I frankly had no idea.
- My prescription lab glasses? Deductible.
- Super dress up clothes for meetings? Deductible.
- Unreimbursed books, office supplies, society dues, meeting travel, meals and mileage? Deductible.
- Lawyer you had to hire to check your contract? Deductible.
- Awesome Melissa boots from Frye I sometimes wear to work? Not at all deductible.
- Bail money to get grad students out of jail? Also not deductible.
- Time that I had volunteered to review papers and grants? This is a tricky one and something you should talk to an actual tax attorney about as there are benefits to making your side hustle a side business.
Other happy tax surprises included realizing part of my student loan interest was also deductible. My accountant had me scurry and do some roundups that weren’t unique to my job at a university. I went to the pharmacy we use to get a print out of our year’s prescription purchases, hit up charities we contribute to that may not have sent me a year-end summary and wrangle receipts for child care, camps and other expenses for the small squirrels, which were also deductions.
I’ll assume that if you are still reading a column written by someone named Fighty Squirrel seeking tax advice, you may also benefit from a tax professional. The parameters for what is deductible are pretty narrow, but the good news is that accountants are surprisingly nice people. Particularly if you contact them in February about helping with your taxes. Contacting them in March could get a bit dicey.
One of my favorite resources for finding an accountant is my BFF Sherry who knows everyone and totally hooked me up. My second favorite resource is NerdWallet which I used to screen my CPA and offered a cool quick screen tool to see if I really needed an accountant or if I should file on my own.
Be sure to ask the CPAs or other professionals you talk to if they have references, have dealt with audits (worst case scenario) and make sure they are doing the taxes themselves instead of outsourcing the filing. A final word to the wise, check out anyone you are serious about hiring on your state’s accounting board to make sure they haven’t done anything naughty. Happy filing!