Return to Sender

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

There was a time in high school, early in senior year, when thick, overstuffed envelopes that came in the mail were good, especially if the return address bore the name of a coveted institution of higher learning.

Back then, the thin envelopes were almost never exciting — it takes barely any paper to tell a prospective student that the application for admission has been rejected. Or that the application was received, but more information is needed.

The acceptance letters, though, were resplendently bulky, stuffed full of information about next steps and campus life and financial aid. Even though the wealth of information could be a bit overwhelming, a bulging envelope was always preferred over the terseness of a rejection letter.

I didn’t get any thin envelopes when I was deciding on a college; this is not because of my vast genius, although that could hardly be denied. I was then and still am a hedger of bets. I applied to schools I knew I would get into. I made no effort to get early acceptance into Harvard, or any other academic landmark where ivy was more than a landscaping device. I applied to three colleges, all in my home state of Iowa, all sure things. The only question I had was how I’d pay for this endeavor — so I was more interested in financial aid offers than acceptance letters.

During those college days, before the direct-marketing folks identified me as a prime candidate for targeted mailings, corpulent envelopes were important, and so were razor-thin ones. I didn’t have much occasion to receive missives that weren’t worth the paper cuts incurred while ripping open the casings.

Now, about 90 percent of what comes through the mail slot in my front door is fodder for the recycle bin. Some days, we don’t even look through the pile before we scoop it up and set it near the paper recycling stack. Sometimes a freelance paycheck gets swept up in there, or something else important, and we come across it days or weeks later when we get around to thinning out the piles.

But thick or thin doesn’t so much matter now. Some of the biggest wastes of my time (often in the form of financial solicitations benefiting this or that charity whose cause is not on my list of concerns) are the biggest wastes of paper, too.

So in early July when the mail carrier visited and dropped a pile of goodies into my living room I thumbed through the day’s delivery and didn’t think much of the thick envelope in the pile.

Until I turned it over.

It didn’t bear the name of a university whose credentials I sought. It wasn’t Ed McMahon writing to tell me I’d finally won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, despite years of not entering. The three words identifying the sender caused a lump in my stomach and a weakness in my soul: INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE.

The first thought that came to my mind involves language that I dare not print in a family publication such as this one. I am a horrible recordkeeper; the thought of an audit induces waves of nausea and thoughts of hari-kari.

At that instant, I wanted nothing more than to rewind the TiVo of my existence and go back to the moments before I knew the IRS had an issue with me. I didn’t yet know what the issue was, but I couldn’t imagine all that paper in that envelope pointed to anything good. It certainly wasn’t a large check reflecting years of tax overpayment.

Finally, I tore open the envelope and pulled out the pages of doom within. It took some time for me to focus; my eyes just scanned over the pages looking for the gist. The gist was about $36,000 that the government believed I owed.

It involved tax year 2004, which of course is the year that I delinquently filed in August without requesting an extension because I knew I was due a refund. Because of this delinquency, several thousand dollars of the total was in the form of penalties for failing to file on time, but there was also plenty of interest racked up, too. About $23,000 was the tax they said I owed; the other $13k came from extras of this sort, leading me to wonder how this nation could possibly be operating in a budget deficit.

I kept frantically scanning the pages, looking for some indication of why they were making this outrageous claim, until I realized I needed to slow down and actually read what the charges were. Aha! A $750 1099 for a freelance job in 2004, coincidentally (or not?) paid by the Human Rights Campaign, had been somehow entered as a $75,000 job.

I wish.

Naturally, I did the responsible, adult thing: I put the letter in my briefcase, complained about it to a few people, and promptly put off responding to it, even though it was an open-and-shut case in my favor. I waited so long that the one-month deadline date loomed right in front of my face for a few days and then arrived with the force of — well, of a deadline long neglected. So on the last possible day to respond, I did the responsible, adult thing: I called for an extension.

The kindly gentleman who answered the phone granted me an extension, but then asked what the deal was. I gave him the two-second explanation: a renegade decimal point. He, hearing the innocence and law-abiding citizenry in my voice, instantly believed me and put me on hold for a minute. He came back and told me there was no need to respond further; he would recalculate my return and I would very likely get a notice in a few weeks saying it was all clear.

Lessons learned: 1) File by the deadline, whether or not a refund is due. 2) Responding immediately is a better course of action than spending a stressful month putting off such a task. 3) When thick letters come in the mail, set fire to them immediately, and relocate to Canada.

Kristina Campbell is a taxpaying citizen of these United States. She welcomes $75,000 freelance jobs, but only if the payer withholds taxes for her. She can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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