Thursday, January 27, 2011

800 on math SAT and master's degree but baffled about taxes?

From a comment by "Mike" in the New York Times last year:

I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class. I have a master’s degree. I scored an 800 on my math SATs.

It absolutely BAFFLES me how people manage to buy homes and do their taxes.

I have a 401k account, a Roth IRA account, stock options and grants from my employer, stock holdings worth a few grand via at least one trading website, school loans, a car payment each month, a bank account with my debit & credit cards, and an online savings account.

There is no way I can keep track of all of that at once. Smith Barney could steal $5,000 from me tomorrow – just pull it out of the balance of my 401k or Roth IRA or something – and I’d never know it was gone. I don’t even know who I owe my student loan repayment to… all I know is I pay them $170 per month, and they pull it right out of my checking account. I *think* the balance is $10k or so, but if I somehow managed to log into their website (assuming someone told me what it is) and I saw I owed $13k, I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t complain.

Stop and Shop could randomly charge my credit card $52.64, or $111.09, on a day I never even went there, and there’s probably an 80% chance I would never notice.

And this is before we even get into the fact that I have NO idea what a mutual fund is, what a bond is, or what the hell Smith Barney is doing with my money. The financial system is so utterly complicated and ridiculous, I think it only serves to keep the number of people who “understand” it very low, so they can continue to take advantage of those who don’t.

— Mike

The comment from "Mike" was posted in a Freakonomics column last year--see comment #13 here.

Despite all his education and credentials, Mike seems clueless about his finances. He is far from alone. I have heard many highly educated people make similar comments.

The challenges faced by many taxpayers at our VITA site are even greater. We serve immigrant taxpayers whose first language may not be English, disabled taxpayers including some who have visual or cognitive disabilities which makes understanding IRS forms and instructions very difficult.

Government officials have made errors in their own taxes. There is no excuse for our government to maintain such a dysfunctional and unnecessarily complex tax code.

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