Don’t cheat the IRS

Philadelphia Inquirer

A taxing question: Just what is fair? Dirty, rotten, very common cheaters!

Six women eat pizza for dinner. The check comes to $13 per woman, including tip, and each pays cash. As the waitress collects the ones and fives, one woman – then another and another and another – requests a receipt for the full amount. The waitress obliges, and four self-employed women with tax deductions sweeter than chocolate and ethics lower than the subway walk out with receipts for $78.

I’m self-employed, too, but I’m still stunned. “Oh, but it’s deductible,” one warbles. I know. “Oh, but you can only deduct half,” chirps another. True, I can fleece only half of what I spent for mushroom and broccoli topping. “Just write down my name, and say you’ve taken me out to dinner.” For 78 bucks? You? You irresponsible, immoral cheater.

It’s tax time, and as I organize my receipts, I wonder whether cheating is a good idea. For years I’ve been candidly clean, but I’ve started to wonder: If so many people in my supper survey cheat, why shouldn’t I?

Neither rich people nor poor like to pay income taxes, but most pay anyway. We read that the excessively wealthy are wrapped in loopholes the size of their cars, and that the tax system, created by our clever elected officials, helps the haves keep what they have. We know that poor people squeak by, paying taxes, sometimes, even on Social Security and food stamps.

But what about us poor suckers in business? We can deduct every pencil we purchase, every Post-It, every ream of paper. Computers are necessities, and some folks, it seems, must have a new laptop and hand-held digital reminder-machine as often as Strawbridge’s holds Clover Day. Deduct the PCs. Ditto the cell phones.

To a large extent the deductions are legit, but sometimes one wonders. Years ago when I consulted for a successful family business, the founder/president ran the company from lavish quarters at a prestigious address. The centerpiece of the office was a thrilling copper Russian samovar, outfitted to brew coffee instead of just boiling water. The device was four feet tall; on its pedestal, it towered over me. As I drank its coffee, I deduced that this was the biggest tax diversion I’d ever seen in an office.

(But then I don’t get around much.) The guy liked it, had the money to buy it, had it outfitted to suit his specs – and then deducted it? I’ll never know.

Call it loophole or call it swindle, the purchase of the samovar probably did not contribute to important governmental investments such as Medicaid, child welfare and widening the highway to Disney World.

So what’s on my deductible list this year? About $230 on postage, less than during the pre-e-mail era, even though stamps were cheaper. Dues, meetings and publications are deductible. Apart from memberships in two national associations of writers, which meet too far away to be tempting, I attend occasional lunch meetings of other organizations, at the absurd nonmember rate of $45 for salmon in dill sauce, but I go only if I expect business-related outcomes.

Tax deductions are slippery and slithery. They slide from slightly-off-the-mark to aching-not-to-be-audited. Apparently the IRS audits fewer people than before, but I’m still chicken to cheat.

I’ll pay for my mushroom pizza; you pay for yours, OK? That way I can send the IRS my due and still respect my dinner partners in the morning.

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