I began my career in accounting with a two-year stint at an H&R Block in rural New Mexico, an experience I refer to as 1040 Bootcamp.
After a 13-week training course in individual taxation, orientation on the interview-style software and instruction on basic office procedures, we were turned loose. As soon as people in the community got their W-2s, they stampeded to our office to get their taxes done, eager for the quick cash from their tax refund. By the time the office opened at 9 am, there were enough people in line to keep us busy until noon.
The majority of our clients were eligible for the earned income tax credit. Those tax returns were largely identical: a W-2 (or two or ten, depending on their work situation), some dependents and maybe some mortgage interest.
We cranked those returns out in about 20 minutes, including getting all the signatures and discussing options for refunds. Even with the repetitive nature of the work, I learned several lessons that have stayed with me to this day.
Here are five of them:
1. Accountants and tax professionals are also counselors
We are among the most trusted professionals, and we are privy to the personal secrets and tragedies of our clients. Many of them told me stories they likely would not have told others. I heard about abusive spouses (male and female) and tragic deaths of loved ones, as well as hopes, dreams and tales of redemption. Here are two of the most memorable.
The 14-year-old son of John and Mary Sanchez died in a car accident that year. This young man was a classmate of my son’s, and I knew the family by sight. With tears in their eyes, raw from the recent loss, they asked what that meant for their taxes. I told them their late son would stay on their return for this year, then crisply asked for their W-2s as a way to help them move on.
One morning, there was a brief lull in the usual clamor of multiple tax conversations, and a young woman’s voice suddenly rang out in the quiet: “And then, I woke up with a gun to my head, and he said if I ever left him, he’d kill me.” All eyes in the room swiveled to the young woman working with my co-worker Paula and then, just as quickly, swiveled away in embarrassment and shock. Paula told me later how she had listened patiently to this woman’s tale, held her hand and gave her the phone number for the local women’s shelter.
2. Financial illiteracy is rampant
It’s easy to forget that many of our neighbors may not know even the basics of income and taxation. When I started at Block, I wanted to share my knowledge of tax with my clients, and so I explained in detail what each line on the tax return meant.
My boss overheard and took me aside. “You’re giving them too much information. All they want to know is how much money they made and how much are they getting back.” When I switched to the simplified approach, my clients no longer gaped at me with glassy eyes but seemed to think I was much smarter.
Alan was a mechanic for a car-rental company, and he was livid when I told him that his refund this year would be $1,000 less than last year's. I pointed out that this was because he had earned $10,000 more from his job this year, and so he was earning his way out of the maximum earned income tax credit. Even though I could show him he was $9,000 ahead this year, he was outraged. “What am I supposed to do? Work less?”
3. There are as many definitions of "family" as there are families
Sometimes, the most challenging part of working at that office was figuring out which adults in a household were eligible to claim which children or other household members. By the end of my first two weeks on the job, I could recite all of the rules for claiming someone as a dependent and how those differed from the definitions of “qualified child” for various tax credits.
My favorite was Joanna, a spry 55-year-old who made a decent living cleaning hotel rooms. We figured out that she could claim her alcoholic ex-husband as a dependent. He lived in a camper in her back yard. She bought him groceries, and, other than a tiny stipend from the VA, she was his sole source of support. She couldn’t be married to him, but out of the goodness of her heart, she helped him survive.
4. You may be called on to use skills far beyond accounting and taxes
While knowledge of these gives us superpowers, sometimes, it’s something else in our background that gives us an edge.
Armando wheeled himself into our office and began speaking Spanish. From the recesses of my brain, I pulled out my decade-old college Spanish, as no one else in the office spoke anything but English. Between my rusty Spanish and the few words of English he spoke, I came to understand his situation. He had been seriously injured on the job and was confined to a wheelchair. He had received a large cash settlement, which he put in the bank. His only taxable income was the interest on that bank account, which was well below the threshold for filing a tax return. I explained that he didn’t need to file, which cheered him greatly, and he wheeled himself back out.
5. Many people are doing extraordinary things for their families
I was continually amazed at people who were making the most of unfortunate circumstances. Here are two of my favorite stories.
Ernest had bagged my groceries at the local supermarket, and from my casual conversations with him, I gathered that he probably wasn’t capable of anything much more demanding than that. In another era, he might have spent his life in an institution. He came into the office one day, accompanied by his father. His father used a cane and looked to be in terrible health. Ernest was the sole breadwinner for that household because his dad was too sick to work. Ernest wasn’t intellectually capable of much, yet here he was, supporting his father.
I also met Marian, who had poor judgment when it came to men. She had three kids with three different deadbeat fathers, and she had dropped out of high school. Yet her dad, who lived across the street from me, told me that she was an ace at driving school buses. But that wasn’t enough for Marian. She wanted a better life for her kids. So she was taking advantage of every program she could, from help in getting her GED to financial aid for classes at the local community college and subsidized day care so she could work and study. She also bought a house through Habitat for Humanity. Unlike my car mechanic client Alan, she understood that earning her way out of the earned income tax credit was a measure of success.
Compared to the work I later did at CPA firms, my tax work was pretty elementary at that rural H&R Block. But I had a great boss, an interesting group of co-workers and mostly worked with really nice clients. And I learned some great lessons about accounting that still serve me to this day.
About Liz Farr
Liz Farr, CPA, spent 15 years in tax and accounting at small firms in Albuquerque, NM. Besides tax returns of all flavors, she worked on audits of governmental entities and not-for-profits, business valuations, and litigation support. Now she's a full-time freelance writer specializing in content marketing for accountants and bookkeepers around the world.