April 15 has come and gone and besides your finances, what else has been compromised? For many of us, it’s our relationships. We’ve all heard Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While he was clearly right on those two, around tax time I’d say he missed one other inevitability: the fighting between couples as they prepare their taxes.
Take my friend Doris. She has been happily married for 10 years, except during tax time. “The tension starts in January,” she told me recently. “And then it slowly builds until the morning of April 15 when my husband finally sends in our joint tax return.”
Previous to being married, Doris preferred to submit her paperwork early and look forward to her refund. When she married, she discovered her husband preferred to wait until the last possible moment. Since he never got a refund, Doris’s husband reasoned that giving Uncle Sam his money meant he lost out on earned interest and potential investment income. “Who’d have thought something as silly as taxes could be so fraught?” she complained.
It’s no surprise really. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by Ameritrade revealed that, on average, couples fight five times a year, and one of the things they are most likely to fight about are how and when to pay taxes.
“It’s about control,” an accountant friend of mine once told me. “Taxes requires us to face up to the fact that as much as we want control over our money, someone else still has control. How we deal with it reflects our relationship to money and authority.”
This theory makes sense to me. When I first married my husband, we too had different strategies for paying our taxes. He, like Doris, preferred to pay early. I paid at the last possible moment (yes, sometimes even at midnight). Once we started filing jointly, he would try to get me to spend a weekend in January pulling together all of the various pieces of paperwork and information that needed to go in to preparing our taxes. I would just as soon have spent the weekend getting a root canal. Eventually, he’d corral me sometime around late March and we’d get it done, but neither of us was happy about the experience. And it didn’t do much to enhance our marriage either.
The reason I was so resistant? Like Doris’s husband, I didn’t want to give up my money to Uncle Sam before I had to. In short, I wanted control over where it was being spent. Apparently, I am not alone.
A recent article in the New York Times confirmed this when it reported on an international study about taxes and happiness. The researchers wondered if and when citizens are actually happy to pay their taxes. The answer was related to when they felt they had control over how their tax dollars were being spent. The more satisfied with how the money is spent, the more willing the citizens were to pay their taxes.
This makes me wonder why Americans feel we aren’t benefiting. Any American who has spent time abroad can confirm we benefit greatly in certain ways our tax dollars are spent, from clean water to well-paved roads to the fire fighters and police officers who protect us. As for those much-maligned social programs politicians keeps railing against, turns out most of us have benefited from these as well. The vast majority of Americans have participated in some social program, be it from student loans to Medicare to social security to the tax credit on mortgage interest. So we are benefiting … we just don’t feel in control.
Which brings me back to couples and our relationship to paying taxes. My husband, who believes those very social programs mentioned above helped him be the first in his family to graduate from college, is not resistant to paying into the system that helped him. He knows how important those tax dollars are to the less fortunate. It’s taken awhile, but I’ve come around to his way of thinking.
These days we don’t squabble over getting our taxes done. While we don’t submit them early (I’ve convinced him that since we never get a refund why let Uncle Sam make money off of our dollars?), we do have a different attitude towards paying them. We’ve both come to believe it’s our duty as citizens. This shared belief has given us a sense of mutual control and made the tax preparation process much less conflicted.
Does paying taxes send you and your spouse into separate corners of the boxing ring? If so, why, and how do you resolve it?