Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Taxing Ordeal

It's Thursday, which can only mean one thing: tax night!  This winter, I signed up as a volunteer income tax preparer for low income families through a program called AccountAbility Minnesota. Every Thursday during tax season, I spend the evening preparing tax returns, which is every bit as exciting as it sounds.

I'm now six weeks in, and I'm proud to say that I've become brilliant tax strategist.  Not in the traditional, refund-maximizing definition of "tax strategist," but in a much more important and meaningful way.  This past month and a half, I've been honing my skills, figuring out how to assist the greatest number of people with the minimum amount of personal time investment.

Every night around 5PM (or even earlier--we're a popular bunch), clients start lining up at the tax site to have volunteers prepare their tax returns. The "screeners," as they're called, limit the number of clients based on how many volunteer tax preparers are working at the site that night, which is normally between five and ten. The bottleneck in the operation is the review step--we have two or three reviewers who perform the final check of all the returns before they are finalized and sent off to the IRS.

 The weekly excitement of AGI, taxable income, and non-refundable credits!

As preparers, when we finish working on a return, we hand it off to the reviewers and start preparing the next client's tax return, and this continues until all of the clients that got on the list have had their returns prepared. The stack of finished returns piles up pretty quickly on the returners' table, and the preparers have to stick around until all of the returns that they prepared have been reviewed in case there are questions.

The volunteer shifts start at 5:30PM and are technically scheduled until 9:30PM, but the past few weeks, I've been out the door by 8:30PM, which is a nice treat. Last week, unfortunately, I caught an unlucky break and found myself at the site past 9:30.  All of the clients had been helped, with the exception of one man, who had to go back home to get a few forms that he'd forgotten.  All of the preparers were finished and sitting around waiting for the reviewers to finish their work.

When the guy got back with his forms, the screener sent him to the nearest That set off an unfortunate chain of "lasts": I was the last one preparing a return, which meant I was the last one to set my return on the backlogged reviewer pile, which meant my return was the last one reviewed that evening.  As I feared, last + last + last = one late, late night.  I learned an important lesson last week: I have to avoid being the last volunteer preparing a return at all costs.

This is where the brilliant tax strategy comes in. For this Thursday's session, I implemented a new tactic. While the other preparers focused solely on the tax return they were preparing, I focused not only on my tax return, but also on the line of clients waiting for help. I discovered that if can time my tax preparing efforts just right, I'll end up setting my completed return on the review pile seconds after the final client of the evening is assigned to one of the other preparers. Sometimes, this means speeding through a tax return; other times, this means taking my sweet, sweet time.

I must say, today was a good tax day all around. For some reason, the volunteers were served sandwiches and fruit, which was a nice change of pace from going hungry for four hours. And not only did I get a head start on this blog post as the reviewers looked through my final tax return of the evening, but as I walked out, a few of the other volunteers half-jokingly complained that I'm always the first one to leave. I could tell they were frustrated, and I had to fight back a smile. It wasn't even 8PM as I headed for the parking lot, a new personal record. Volunteering never felt so good...

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