A life's accounting

The Baltimore Sun

It's judgment day again.

Every year, generally shortly after noon on the second Sunday of April, I carry a messy stack of documents into the guest bedroom, close the door and settle in the worn swivel chair before the computer. I've delayed as long as I can, and now I must once again assess my life in the way we all keep score in America - by counting dollars and cents.

It's income tax time, and the question that looms in the moment, of course, is whether money must be paid to Uncle Sam and a check written to cover a shortfall from last year. Alternatively, there is the possibility that the tax lottery has been won - with a nice green government check a reward for prudent withholding.

Professional tax preparers say most of us have a pretty good idea of where we stand, even before we start. Those due a check file early. Those who owe wait until the last minute. This family files near the end.

At the center of this tax preparation business is the family's adjusted gross income, often just about enough to cover expenses. But, this year, several presidential candidates have proposed allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for wealthy Americans, and there has been some friendly debate over just who is in the middle class. For Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the middle class extends right up to $250,000, while former Sen. John Edwards says it is $200,000 or less. The whole debate is way over my head, and who wouldn't feel a little poorer for it?

Still, most Americans consider themselves solidly in the middle class, which can lead to self-doubt. Why did we give less in charitable contributions than we spent on our big-screen TV? Why is the retirement savings deduction so small - how will we eat?

Some calculations don't ever lower the tax bill, but they do generate a sense of appreciation for a family's good fortune. Never in recent years have health care costs justified a deduction. One can imagine the burden that kind of spending on health must place on millions of other families and say a little prayer of thanks.

Then there is the bittersweet fact that there are just two deductions these days. But the kids are safely launched and that's a small price to pay. And, of course, there is the home interest deduction. In years past, it seemed an incredible gift. Now the house is worth a little less, but those who still can make the mortgage payment feel fortunate.

When done, that first 1040 is recalled, filled out by hand, laborious arithmetic scratched out on a pad. In those days, earning our age in thousands of dollars seemed a worthy goal. Through the years, the financial horizon has risen, but wealthy was never a serious expectation. Now, with the check to the government written and the return mailed, the dollars and cents remind us that we aren't. But the final tally: Our lives are rich.

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