Sunday, 11 December 2011

The year we were H&R Block

Originally posted to Multiply on May 1 2010

I wasted the usual sunny hours on the last-minute income tax chore yesterday. In Canada the date is April 30, not 15. It brings things back.

The year was 1973. We were living in Fife just above Christina Lake, B.C.
Chris' geology job had come to a natural end the year before. There just wasn't enough copper left to make Phoenix mine operable, and that was that. Unemployment insurance was about to run out. I was still working as a short order cook but was due to give birth to our first child on May 20.

Chris had noticed that the people who worked in actual mines had more job security and steadiness in their lives than the geologists who were looking for new ones. He decided to get some training as a mine operator. A course would be offered in Rossland in the fall, and funded by some kind of government scheme. We just had to make it through summer.

Christina Lake is not much of a town. Everything happens in Grand Forks, a 20-30 minute drive to the West.  One winter day Chris ended up hitchhiking into Grand Forks.
This was a rare occasion since the man is a master at keeping cars on the road and cannot stand being stuck. Even in tough times we have usually been a two-wreck family. But this time we only had one car insured, a little  Zephyr that  turned out to be a bit of a lemon.

The driver who gave him a ride was working for H & R Block. He was looking for someone to operate a franchise in Grand Forks. Here was a well-educated guy with nothing else to do for a few months, how about it?

To make a long story short, we were H&R Block in Grand Forks that year. We rented an office across from the old Post Office and set ourselves up. Apart from the manual, which included such gems as "Avoid over-staffing an office with women", we received no training whatsoever. Fortunately the start was slow, allowing us to learn on the job.

I kind of enjoyed the process of becoming familiar with the abstruse language in the official tax manual that was our Bible. It was just a matter of focusing properly. After a while the language became familiar and transparent, we were totally at home in the forms, and we knew where to find any information that might be missing.

We became quite good at pulling it all together, including taxes for people who dumped a box on our desk containing all manner of mixed-up receipts. Most, but not all of the business was simple.
"Couldn't you find me some loopholes?" asked one  memorable client with the simplest package possible, one T4 slip and nothing else. Sorry sir, not in your case. But we did save some people some money.

I remember two of them: one was a single mother who did not know that she could claim an "equivalent to married" exemption for her child, resulting in a generous refund. The other one was a father and son team who operated a little fence post business on the side.

By the time we deducted everything possible the business had actually resulted in an official loss that they could deduct from their main income. Fun stuff!

Then, just when we were really enjoying the work and were gearing up for the bonanza of April, we started seeing disturbed clients with rejected returns. Was something wrong with our work? Not at all! But the dye job had gone wrong.

DYE job? Yup.  We did the work on white forms, provided by H &R, which then had to be copied through some machine, also provided by H&R, that supposedly created the same shade of blue as the government forms. If the colour wasn't just right the government refused to accept them. We had to adjust the shade of ink (I can't remember what or how) and send it in again.

We tried to explain this to people, but some of them could see just one thing: they had paid to get their taxes done and the government refused the results. I can't blame them.
As a result our April  was no busier than March. When the dust cleared and we figured it all out we had made almost exactly what Chris would have  collected as the last months of  UI.

But we sure learned how to do our own income taxes. Even in complicated years when I had two home-based businesses and it took forever to collect the messy records, April 30 finds me pulling the last bits together.

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