Friday, January 31, 2014

putting financial stress into perspective: stress vs. STRESS

Last week, a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal discussing the stress I felt last year when faced with the decision of when to sell some shares of Tesla bought by my late husband.   As author Jason Zweig reports, I felt a good deal of relief after I had sold off all the shares, realizing that I had never been cut out to be a stock speculator in the first place, since I had neither the time nor the inclination to spend much energy following the vicissitudes of any one particular company's fortunes.  Reallocating the proceeds of that Tesla investment into well diversified mutual funds with low costs--and giving thoughtful consideration to future charitable donations based on that unexpected windfall--have allowed me to sleep much better since then.

The reopening of our Union College Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site this week reminds me once again how much any stress I might feel about anything financial pales in comparison to circumstances facing the low-income working families and senior citizens we serve.  If I felt "stress", they feel "STRESS."

Confidentiality rules prevent me from sharing details about our taxpayers but a recent article* published by Sara Sternberg Greene in the NYU Law Review,  "The Broken Safety Net: A Study of Earned Income Tax Credit Recipients and a Proposal for Repair" paints a vivid picture.  What keeps the vulnerable population served by VITA sites like ours awake at night are far more pressing concerns than my own:  worrying about how they are going to keep the heat on, keep their cars running so they can get to work, pay for their prescription medicine copays and deductibles, or pay their astronomical property tax bills (Schenectady County has among the highest property tax bills in the country).

I am grateful that my students and I are able to relieve a little bit of their immediate financial stress by helping them to file accurate tax returns.  I am hopeful that improvements in educational opportunities (including initiatives in mathematics and problem solving dear to my heart) and better designed tax policies will produce even greater long term stress relief in the future.

[*Hat tip to Professors Francine Lipman and David Gamage on the TaxProf list for calling my attention to the Broken Safety Net article.]


  1. As stressful as taxes are, they are nothing compared to the anxiety level you have when you get that letter from the IRS they want to audit you. The few weeks they give you to prepare can be more stressful than all your other experiences combined. Regardless how severe the inquiry, stress and meeting with an agent are one in the same.

    Wanda Hanson @ Tax-Tiger