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Monday, January 2, 2017

Grad School and Academic Taxes Tips

Yesterday I had a day off and it was the new year, so I sat down to pull my tax stuff together. I tweeted about some of it, but thought too I'd pull some of the tips together here for grad students and others.

I first learned to be saavy about taxes as a theatre tech where you could deduct just about everything. While I apply many of these ideas to my taxes now, I also don't know enough about taxes, so always take my stuff to H & R Block and have them do it, and I just ask questions. This saved me last year when it turned out person who filed for me first year out here had made some errors. H & R Block not only fixed it, but they paid for it. To me this peace of mind is worth it.

Okay, so this is what I do.
  • Before I leave for a conference, I add a largish envelope to my binder. As I gather receipts during the conference I just put them straight into the envelope.
  • As soon as I get home I add them all up
  • My tax lady last year made sure I knew that travel and food had to be separate and that you only got credit for 50% of food costs.
  • Once I've tallied the receipts on the envelope, I put the envelope in my deductions folder in my big box.

I keep this box right next to my inbox to sort (left of this) and next to my desk (right of this).  This makes it really easy to stay on top of things.
  • As bills, papers that need filing come in during the week I throw them in the inbox.
  • On Saturday, the first thing I do when I sit down at my desk with coffee is balance my checkbook for the week. The next thing I do is file anything in the inbox into the big box.
    • For taxes I have folders like deductions, medical, misc. tax stuff
    • But I also have one for bank stuff, house stuff, will, credit scores, etc.
      • This ensures everything for a year is in one place
  • Yesterday, as I sat down to organize and add up tax stuff I just pulled the relevant folders.
    • I pull the folders, and rubber band them together to represent the year, 2016. Once I file the taxes this banded folder and the H & R Block folder will get rubber banded together and put in a separate big box that holds tax stuff. Every year I shred the latest 7th year, so this year I'll shred 2008's stuff.
I made a version of this worksheet a few years ago to keep track of things, and every year it gets revised a little more based on tips or things my tax lady tells me (I say lady, but it's never the same lady each year which is kind of nice as each as a slightly different approach and therefore tips!)
  • As grad students and academics, conferences are probably the main thing we expense/track, so that's first. 
    • Travel, food, and dues/registration all get itemized differently, so they're separated here.
  • As a student, and a high school teacher, it's important for me to track all the things I buy.
    • I think the deduction is like a paltry $200 per year. I spend hundreds more than this.
    • Depending on where you are and what your actual career is, what you can deduct is different. 
      • In general the vague description is anything necessary for job and/or school. Which in many cases means books but can mean media as well.
  •  Medical comes next. Mine has been pretty hefty the last couple of years because of gum surgeries.
  • Donations are next. With all the paring down and trips to Goodwill I had a lot of these. 
    • Be sure to keep receipts of these all year long.
  • You deduct your car registration/taxes. I still don't understand this but every year I forget so I added it here.
  • The last block is a list of the forms I need before I can file. I tend to file the first week in February but one year filed, forgot I was missing a W2 and had to refile. So I list the forms I'm waiting on, check them off as they come in, they make the H & R Block appointment online once they're all in.
    • This worksheet gets printed, and I staple it to the front if my tax folder for this year.
    • This folder only has the deductible receipts and such in it, this is not the bigger rubber-banded folder that represents all of 2016 stuff.
It took me less than an hour yesterday to pull out the 2016 folders, add up the math, put it on my worksheet, and be done.
Printing out my 2016 Amazon order history to track and add up dissertation and high school materials was the lengthiest part. Hey Amazon- how about you make this easier? Add a way to look at orders for year, divide into categories (books, media, household goods, etc.) and tabulate the costs. LOTS of people would thank you.
Now, this folder just sits and as tax forms come in mail, or come available online for me to print out, I just add to the folder and check off.

I think this all works so well because it it's small, manageable moves all year so it doesn't seem overwhelming.

So those are my tips. Anyone else have any great ones? Any deduction tips experienced academics want to share?

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