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Overextended

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I was weaned on taxes, like infants are introduced to solid food. I spelled IRA in alphabet soup, and when April 16 rolled around every year, my father was at the kitchen table planning the next year's return.

But two weeks ago, I looked at my pinkish-orange 1040A form, and felt the stirrings of panic; I had to finish my master's thesis and fulfill my civic duty. Adding taxes to my to-do list seemed a cruel and unusual punishment devised by the government to send overextended people over the edge.

So I did something that, in my family, is tantamount to high treason. I called H&R Block. You see, in the Greenlee household, there's an unwritten but almost holy code regarding taxes. First: Thou shalt never pay someone to do your taxes. Paying an accountant for the task is an admission of weakness.

"Why," said the perky woman on the phone, "we could take you this afternoon if that's not too early." It was too soon for me to consider breaking one of the commandments, which also include "thou shalt not wait until April 14 or 15 to send the return" and "thou shalt save any refund."

The next morning, I gathered my records and fairly slinked into the office. My panic had almost dissipated when my "certified tax preparer" said, "Here's how much you owe."

"Owe?" I asked coldly. I had walked into the office anticipating a refund. As a graduate student subsisting on a poverty-line stipend, shouldn't the government be paying me? Something is wrong with the laws of the universe when I owe them money.

"Oh, that's the thing about scholarships, they're taxable income," said the preparer a bit too cheerily.

Tell me something I don't know, lady, I thought and snorted. I get good grades and foundations are footing the bill, but I've got to pay. And, I reasoned irrationally with myself, "If I'm paying these people to do my taxes, aren't they obligated to make sure I get money back?" A friend later pointed out such a move would be fraud and that nothing in this country is ever free.

I coughed up the cash and drove home. In the mailbox was a reminder to complete my census form, which declared that all federal funds coming to my community were dependent upon my participation. Well, I groaned, no one else could fill this one out for me, and maybe it will all even out. I still want a refund.

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