Students need a friend at tax time

Turned out it wasn’t necessary to show H&R Block that scar beneath my right nipple.

by John Hoff

There are a dozen hard, gritty reasons why a college student should file a tax return, even if you can get away with not filing.

My friend David Dermer of H&R Block will tell you some of those reasons with the bright, shining idealism of a public defender, the humanity of a surgeon, the creativity of an artist. I’d probably just tell you that an Earned Income Credit could mean hundreds of dollars in beer money.

I like tax time because of the brief, intense friendships formed with people like Dermer, whose outgoing, infectious personality is safely contained in a Dilbert-like cubicle at the H&R Block on 2617 University Ave. S.E.

This must be what going to confession feels like, I thought, offering up documents and explaining dirty deeds done dirt cheap to earn this income. I was not seeking forgiveness so much as a fat check from the government. Dancing delicately within the rules, it’s Dermer’s job to get me the maximum possible return or at least minimize the amount I’d have to fork over.

Sometimes Dermer goes to fraternities and does presentations about taxes. I can picture the scene as somebody offers him a shot of Jägermeister and jokes, “Hey, can I deduct this?”

Seizing his moment, Dermer would surely launch into an explanation about entertainment expenses. With the zeal of a missionary, Dermer plots new ways to reach University students.

His convenient location serves mostly faculty, while surrounded by a younger demographic that often shrugs off tax time. Dermer gets frustrated sometimes, but he won’t give up. He said even if a student is a dependent of their parents, filing their own yearly taxes can help the transition to living on their own and “financial aid will become more available as they become independent of their parents.”

Excitement almost (but not quite) crackled through the air as Dermer said, “With the cost of tuition and fees, a full-time student at the U of M has the potential of nearly $25,000 in tax-free income when they claim the correct credits as an independent student.”

How well I remember those undergrad days of ridiculous, outrageous “expected family contribution” after filling out my FAFSA with tax data from the parental units.

Last year, a friend of mine – a graduate student with Chinese citizenship – was having a terrible time figuring out how to file her taxes. Somebody told my friend she should call the IRS help line. I can only assume the person who gave such lame advice was simply naïve, and not trying to commit a hate crime.

Pushing the deadline for filing taxes, alarmed by things the IRS told her on their so-called “help line,” my friend began asking me in a worried tone what would happen if she didn’t file taxes in time.

Here, I told her, handing over a referral coupon. Just go to H&R Block. Yes, it will cost money, but they can save you a lot of frustration. If somebody questions your taxes at least you won’t be all alone. At least you will have a friend.

Dermer told me his office is set up to handle taxes for noncitizens. The sweet tax deals between the United States and China made his eyes widen, dramatically. No other nation is treated like China, he said, before discussion of international tax agreements turned to talk of our favorite Asian restaurants.

I told Dermer if more people knew about Jasmine Orchid on Oak Street, this Thai and Vietnamese place could be as popular as Village Wok.

This light talk was a little mental break before the H&R Block tax adviser and I dived into the disgusting mathematical guts of my nearly- complete tax return. Dermer explained what additional data about deductions he would need to assure the maximum possible return.

Seeing the final financial result changing before my eyes made me breathless, like watching the movie “Hannibal Rising.” Would the government take a bite out of me, or would it be the other way around?

Dermer’s crafty expertise is why I’m willing to pay for tax preparation even when free help is available through MSA. And I’m a notorious cheapskate.

Will a free volunteer agonize like a gourmet over just the right combination of ingredients and make the data on my tax form sizzle deliciously? I doubt it.

My summer employment as an independent commercial driver became highly significant as a source of deductions. Like pouring out my heart to a therapist, I told Dermer how I would slumber fitfully in a van full of dead, frozen fetal pigs destined to become biological specimens for medical students. This allowed me to keep the $50 per diem for nightly lodging to buy video games for my child.

The job was hard on clothing, hard on my personal vehicle, hard on my body. Once, at a slaughterhouse in Des Moines, Iowa, a clasp popped loose on a barrel full of sheep skulls with brains and eyeballs included. It tore through my shirt and sliced my chest.

“I could totally show you the scar beneath my right nipple,” I offered, but it wasn’t necessary. Dermer believed me.

Though I didn’t have enough deductions for the full EIC, I got most of it, ka-ching. Used video game store, here I come.

Plenty of students can do their own taxes, or use free services to prepare their returns. But some of us need a friend at tax time with the skill of an accountant and the calm confidence of a guidance counselor.

Clip this column like a coupon, and my new buddy at H&R Block will give you a $15 discount if you’re a new client. Every referral from this column will mean a $25 donation to the Ghanian Association of Minnesota.

If a new client’s income is below $5,150, (filing threshold of standard deduction) then you pay $35, which is really $20 after rebate.

Don’t you just love tax time?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]