Tax planning

I’m hoping to get some comments and opinions on this post. I’m trying to decide if I should file my taxes next year using a product like Turbo Tax or continue to use a tax professional. What works for you? Why do you choose to prepare your own taxes? Or, why do you choose to use a professional?

I used to handle my own tax returns until I got married. I can’t recall exactly why my ex-husband and I started to go to a CPA/tax professional during our first year of marriage, but I do recall that my mother-in-law recommended the person to us. Throughout my marriage and even after I was divorced I continued to use his services.

I always thought a tax professional was there to advise and help you figure out the intricacies of the tax code, and since I also liked the guy I didn’t see a reason to stop. Shortly after my divorce I consulted with him about my plan to rent rooms in my house because I wanted to understand the pros and cons from a tax perspective. His advice was encouraging and I was glad I had talked to him first as it guided my approach to tracking expenses related to renting rooms.

My last year in Chicago was the last year he prepared my taxes. Sadly, he died unexpectedly on April 15th of that year. It seemed oddly poignant that his last days were spent working long hours for his clients.

By that time, though, he had started working closely with some other professionals who were able to step in quickly and take over his clients. I met with one of them before I left Chicago so I could explore whether he could continue to help me after my move, and to make sure I was adequately prepared from a tax perspective for the big financial change that would happen when I sold my house and moved over 2,000 miles away. Based on that meeting, I decided to keep working with him.

When I received the tax package from him early this year, I briefly considered doing my own taxes. I had an investment loss in 2015, however, and I wasn’t confident about how to handle it, so I decided it would be best to continue working with him. For the 2016 tax year I’ll be back on familiar ground with mortgage and property tax deductions, as well as following the same steps as in 2015 for the investment loss.

From a preparation perspective, I doubt there would be much difference between working with a CPA/tax professional and preparing the tax forms myself. I’m responsible for providing the data and for keeping receipts and documentation. Filling out the worksheets I’m provided every year and pulling all the data together takes me several hours. Inputting it shouldn’t take much longer, so I think with a good tax program I should be able to complete the tax returns myself and not miss any credits or deductions. I’m just not 100% sure.

Last month I decided to take steps to find a local tax professional by setting up an appointment with a person highly recommended on Nextdoor.com. While I liked her and we had a good conversations, she informed me that her minimum fees were twice what I was paying the CPA back in Illinois. She gave me the names of two other local firms I could look into that would likely have lower fees, but when I looked them up online and saw their range of services I started questioning my need for working with a professional at all.

So, should I go it alone for the 2016 tax year? Or should I continue working with a professional? What do you do and why?

 

Getting back in shape

Two years ago when I first arrived in Napa I was in pretty good shape. I had been following an eating and exercise plan and was within 10 lbs of a reasonable goal weight. (Which is about 10 lbs heavier than my absolute lowest weight; I’m nearly 50 and realize it’s unlikely I will be as thin as I was in my 20s.) I had been keeping my activity levels up by going on strenuous hikes about twice a week and using DVD or streaming video exercise courses at home.

Then my health challenges really kicked in. Five months after my arrival, I had my first diverticulitis attack in over a year. Three months later I had another. About three months after that my eye disease emerged. Then just a couple of months later I was hospitalized with my third diverticulitis diagnosis, and they discovered that I needed surgery to remove an ovarian cyst that had gone rogue.

My ability to stick to an eating plan that helped me keep weight off — lots of vegetables and protein, smaller amounts of fruit, and very small amounts of starchy carbs — was unsustainable while I was dealing with diverticulitis. The diet I had to follow during and for at least a couple of weeks after each attack required me to eat mostly starchy, bland food like white rice, white breads, and regular pasta. As much as I love all those foods they are terrible for my weight control.

Regular, vigorous exercise had become a nearly insurmountable challenge, too. Every time I had diverticulitis I was laid low due to the pain and side effects from the strong antibiotics and painkillers I was taking. Still, I had been able to keep in decent shape up until my hospitalization in December 2015, but it was all downhill from there. Abdominal surgery at the end of the year severely curtailed my activity for months, and once I suffered yet another case of diverticulitis a few months after surgery (my fourth case in a year!) I was done for.

Those are all the reasons I packed on the pounds again: activity and dietary restrictions and challenges over the course of an entire year. I’m up to the heaviest I can ever recall being and I’ve had enough of that. My wardrobe is down to the very few items (mostly stretchy clothes and a couple bras) I kept from the last time I was nearly this heavy. I refuse to buy more clothes since I have an entire closet and two medium storage bins full of clothing that would work for me if I just lost some of this weight.

The surgeon who did my most recent surgery has cleared me for all activities and exercises, so I’m getting back into regular workouts again. I’m being careful about it, though. I’m not only trying to claw my way back to decent fitness and cardio health, I’m also trying to avoid further injury (I’m still recovering from a bad ankle sprain).

Aquatic exercise is often recommended for people who need to be gentle on their joints, and I’ve enjoyed the few classes I’ve taken over the years so I decided to find a place offering aqua fitness classes. The week before I started back to work I visited three different gyms in town that have pools and offer classes. One of those gyms had a very high ($200!) fee just to join, and another was run down and grungy.

Luckily there is a new fitness club that is well-maintained, has two pools, and is only about a 5 minute drive away. The price is on par with the other two clubs with pools, and my employer’s fitness subsidy will cover almost half of the annual cost to maintain my membership. I secured a free weekly pass and tried a class before I decided to join.

 

My routine has been to go to the aquatic exercise classes three times a week. I’ve also taken some yoga classes, and will be giving the treadmills a try now that I’ve just received a new pair of shoes.

I know it will seem to take much longer to get the weight off than it did to put it on, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to fit into the next size down by the end of January at the latest. I just need to be able to manage my energy better. There are days I come home from an exercise class and feel so tired that I just have to lay down for a few hours. That’s not very conducive to working and won’t be sustainable once the slow days around the holiday are over.

Dystopian imaginings

I can’t avoid the news forever, so I’m occasionally reading some of the summaries and articles about the president-elect and the cabinet appointments he’s making. These are truly dark times (and I’m not just talking about the return to Standard Time and shortening day length).

As bad as it may seem to have Trump as president-elect, I’m actually more worried that the only option would be to replace him with Pence. Unless these seemingly cockamamie claims that the Russians hacked the election are true and audited results change the election outcome, if Trump is found unfit to serve as president we’ll get Pence as our POTUS. Trump may be a buffoon and a profiteer, but Pence is a scary, scary guy.

The litany of strong social conservative positions he’s championed or made law in Indiana is long. He believes in conversion therapy for LGBTQ people, and is vehemently anti-choice. This is the guy who inspired the Periods for Pence (now Periods for Pols) social media group and inspired Indiana women to call his office and report on their menstrual periods.

I have high school friends in Indiana who have first hand experience with living in a state run by this guy. One friend is the mother of a transgender young adult. She’s angry and scared that her child will suffer under a Trump/Pence administration.

Trump is already showing signs of being unlikely to rise to the demands of being POTUS. The crazy conspiracy theory part of my brain is thinking that maybe this was always the plan of the Republicans: use Trump to win the election since he’s able to appeal to the masses, then replace him with Pence as the real president. We truly have a situation of bad to worse here even if there are no grand schemes in play.

Coping by baking and a banana oat muffin recipe

I made it through a full work week and only had to fit in emergency naps for the first two days. 🙂 Considering that every day began with a meeting that started at 5:00 or 5:30 AM PT, I think that’s an accomplishment to be proud of.

We’re expecting the entire weekend to be rainy here in North Bay. It is indeed a grey day outside, and therefore perfect for comforting indoor activities like baking. This is a bona fide stress-relieving activity, and the end result is something delicious. Win/win!

While I’ve had the urge to bake some scones all week, I’m also trying to get myself back into healthier habits, too. (And trying to forget that pint of ice cream I polished off a few nights ago.) Based on past experience, if I cut down on the starchy carbs severely and add back in some exercise I should start shedding the pounds steadily. I love my starchy carbs, though, and they are my go-to comfort food.

As a compromise, I am baking these banana oat muffins this morning. I found this recipe online at Allrecipes.com way back in 1999. I know this because there is a time stamp at the bottom corner of the paper on which I printed it. That paper is getting pretty tattered from heavy use, so adding the recipe to the blog with my notes is one way for me to preserve it in a (hopefully) enduring format.

This is an adaptable recipe, and I’ve tried the following substitutions and additions:

  • Substituted up to 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • Substituted brown sugar for white sugar
  • Decreased the sugar from 1/2 cup to 1/3 cup
  • Substituted almond milk for regular milk
  • Substituted 1/4 vegetable oil + 1/2 cup ground flax seeds for the 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • Added chocolate chips (up to 1 cup)
  • Added chopped walnuts (usually around 1/2 cup, and preferably toasted first)

While most  variations have turned out pretty well, I do not recommend decreasing the sugar. These aren’t terribly sweet muffins anyway, and reducing the sugar to less than 1/2 cup made them a bit too salty/savory in my opinion.

The original recipe also indicates that it makes 12 muffins. I usually bake them in a large 6 muffin baking pan, which means that the baking time needs to be adjusted and more carefully monitored. Considering the variation among ovens, this is usually wise advice for all baking, though.

Banana Oat Muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup mashed bananas [usually about 2]

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. If adding nuts or chocolate chips, stir into the dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, beat the egg lightly. Add the bananas [mash now with a fork if not already mashed]. Stir in the milk, oil, and vanilla.  Gently stir/fold in the dry ingredients until just combined. Line the muffin tin with paper bake cups or coat with non-stick spray.

[Here I usually let the muffin batter rest for at least 5 minutes so the oats can soften. If using regular rolled oats instead of quick oats this improves the texture of the final product. It also mitigates any texture issues that could be caused by over-stirring, a common muffin-baking issue.]

Divide the batter evenly in the baking pan. If baking with a 12-cup muffin pan, bake for 18 to 20 minutes. If using a 6-cup muffin pan, bake 20 to 25 minutes. Set your timer and test for doneness at the most minimal time.

Remove from oven and turn muffins out onto a baking rack to cool. [Don’t cool them in the pan or they may get soggy on the bottom.]

These muffins freeze well and can be defrosted in the microwave or on the countertop. Enjoy!

Time’s up

Today is my last day of medical leave. I’ve been off for six weeks and three days and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to get back to my job.

What a disappointing week, to say the least. I should have been back to work last Wednesday, November 9, but I asked for a couple extra days when I last saw the surgeon. I knew I’d be up late watching the election returns and I wanted to be able to sleep in. Turns out it was a smart move in more ways than one.

Being in the Pacific Time zone, I didn’t have to stay up in the wee hours to see the general direction things were going. Election Night was also a knitting group night, and since we all wanted to watch the returns I invited people to my house. We started out happily enough at about 6:30 PM. As we watched the sea of red grow on the election map on PBS we got more subdued. When the results for Pennsylvania were posted we knew it was over.

I went to bed that night with 90% certainty that HRC lost the election, but I still had some hope. The next morning all doubts were resolved.

Since then I’ve been laying low. Partly because I’m depressed and distressed by the results, and partly because I’m relishing my copious free time while it is still available.

My recuperation from surgery has been pretty smooth, but despite spending so much downtime around the house I’ve managed to injure myself. Within a single week I whacked the baby toe on my left foot hard enough that I’m sure I broke it, and then misstepped in my driveway and sprained my left ankle badly.

(My left foot and ankle have sustained more injuries than any other part of my body. I first sprained that ankle when I was 10 and have lost count of how many times I’ve done so. The last time I injured that ankle was a fibula fracture two years ago. I got a ride to the local hospital for an x-ray just to make sure I didn’t fracture it again, and was happy to find out it was just another sprain.)

Since my mobility was restricted, I’ve been rather sedentary during the past six weeks. I watched a lot of streaming media. Read a few books. Completed the knitting, blocking, and sewing up of two sweaters. Made good progress on a third sweater, and restarted knitting on a little shawl that keeps confounding me when I check the stitch count.

I’m not sure if I’m mentally ready to resume work now or not, but that doesn’t matter at this point. I think I’ll go set the alarm now so I don’t forget.

Entertain me! (What I’m watching)

I’ve been off work for the past five weeks recovering from my surgery. That means I’ve had plenty of time to read and watch media. I’ve done some reading, but I’ve been doing quite a bit of multitasking (knitting) that is difficult to manage while reading, so there has been a significant amount of viewing happening. (Yes, I do find it possible to knit while reading, but only very simple knitting; working on a cabled sweater isn’t simple for me.)

While I do have “pay channels” they aren’t the premium ones, so most of the media I watch is streamed through my Roku on either Netflix or Amazon Prime. I also recently purchased a Blu-Ray player since I was finding it a PITA to keep connecting up my laptop to the TV when I wanted to watch a DVD. (Also, my laptop is old enough that I don’t think it would even play a Blu-Ray disc if I wanted to rent or borrow one.)

Here’s what I’ve been watching and enjoying:

Poldark: This BBC-produced PBS Masterpiece series is currently broadcasting Season Two now, but I hadn’t gotten around to watching Season One before my convalescing period, so I had to catch up first by watching Season One on Amazon Prime. Then I was able to piece together Season Two from my DVR recordings and the PBS app on my Roku. What’s not to love here: beautiful scenery, a very attractive leading man who is also a likeable character, great costumes, a decent storyline, and a historical setting. (Amazon Prime, PBS app, local PBS station)

Fleabag: Another BBC drama, but this one is contemporary. Each of the six episodes is only 30 minutes long, so it doesn’t take long to binge watch. I watched them all in a single afternoon while I was still in the hospital. (Hooray for great hospital wi-fi!) Yeah, the main character has done some questionable things in her life, but seeing how her family treats her you start to understand why she is an emotional wreck. It’s not a light-hearted series, but I’ve been recommending it to my friends because it is so real and raw. (Amazon Prime)

The Kettering Incident: I actually watched the first two episodes of this thriller back in early September when I had some plane travel. I was intrigued, but found I wasn’t deeply pulled in until about the third or fourth episode. By the end of the series, I was hooked and I’m hoping the show will continue. (Amazon Prime)

Love & Friendship: I love costume dramas, but don’t automatically consider myself a Jane Austen fan. I have a hard time struggling through the writing and dialog from that period, and I know I lose many subtleties. So I guess it’s no surprise that I’d rate this movie sort of “meh.” It seems witty and clever, and there were parts that just went right over my head.  It did get very good reviews, though. (Amazon Prime)

Longmire: Crime dramas are like popcorn; it’s easy to work through quite a bit without paying close attention. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement of this series, but it engages me at just the right level. Plus I love the scenery of Wyoming and have learned how surprisingly diverse it is. (It’s not all cowboys and Indians.) I’ve also become invested in the characters, too. I’m nearly through three seasons and still have two more left, but I was still bummed to see that the series is nearing its end. (Netflix)

Anzac Girls: I ran across this series last year and set my DVR to record it. But when I went to watch the first episode I recorded, I realized that it wasn’t the first of the series so I deleted the few I had captured. Then I ran across the DVDs at my local library and decided to check them out. (Actually, finding this series on DVD was a pivotal reason I ordered my Blu-Ray player.) The subject matter is serious — nursing in WWI — but the series is based on historical figures and features strong female leads. This is the type of medical drama I enjoy much more than the contemporary ones. (DVD)

The Durrells in Corfu: Set in the 1930s, this memoir of growing up in a quirky British family that moved to Corfu is delightful. So far only three out of six episodes have aired on PBS, so there are a few more to look forward to in the coming weeks. (PBS app on Roku)

This isn’t a comprehensive listing of my viewing habits. I’ve also consumed some local news and spent one day largely zoning out to HGTV as I napped off and on. As I’ve recovered and increased my stamina I’ve been watching less TV and spending more time getting out and about. I still made time to watch a few games in the World Series and was ecstatic that the Cubs won this year! Woo hoo!

Writing and connecting

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to write here over the past few weeks, yet I keep putting it off. Why?

I don’t really have a goal for this blog. It’s just a place where I write about stuff that I experience in my life or that I have thoughts about. I started writing a blog many years ago when it was a popular thing to do in the knitting/crafting world. I wrote only about my knitting and my gardening in the beginning. It didn’t take long for that “format” to become more loose and just reflect my life in general, though.

There are many excellent blogs I read because of their compelling content. Every time I read these blogs I learn something about a topic or gather information about an experience that interests me. In my blog reader I’ve categorized the long list of blogs I follow under categories like Crafts, Food, Personal Finance, Lifestyle, and Friends.

Over time, a couple of those blogs have moved from their original category to the Friends list, even if the content hasn’t changed. I’ve happily built some friendships through these online interactions, and have even been blessed to meet some of these bloggers in person.

My online friendships are also advanced through Twitter. Some of these same people who I met through their blogs are followed daily through their tweets, and they have helped me connect to others on Twitter who have enriched my life. (Although, I am really frustrated by the changes in the Twitter algorithm that now result in a jumbled timeline of tweets. I hate seeing a tweet hours after it’s been posted. Argh!)

Are there still doubters who don’t believe online relationships are just as important as IRL ones? I have learned so much from the perspectives and life tales of my online friends. Most of them are younger than me, and seem so much more enlightened and “together” about social issues. I am constantly learning from their perspectives and comments.

I understand life (and blogging) isn’t a contest, but I feel like my contributions — my observations, experiences, and writing skills — pale in comparison to these folks, and that sometimes inhibits me to write here. Also, I am lazy. I often prefer to consume others’ writing and leave comments rather than write a full post.

Maybe I just need to write shorter posts. Maybe I just need to get over myself and keep repeating the observation above: this is not a contest. (Also, the best way to get better at writing is to write more, so just do it, Linda!)

Anyway, here are some of the online connections I make regularly and that have become important to me.

A Gai Shan Life: Revanche is a Bay Area blogger who writes about money, family, and fun stuff like travel. Her unique perspective comes from years of supporting her parents and sibling, and living with a disability that can cause chronic fatigue and pain. Despite her challenges she is compassionate and positive. She also tweets @RevAGSL. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Revanche in person, and she is just a wonderful as she is online. 🙂

Funny about Money: Sometimes she comes across as crotchety and she is always opinionated, but I like reading FaM’s observations about her life in Phoenix and her challenges to maintain her lifestyle in retirement. I admire her writing style and skills, as well as how she explores new income streams and shares her experiences. FaM has a few other blogs specific to her publishing business, and they’re easily accessed from her main blog. She used to teach, as well, and had a blog about topics relevant to life as an adjunct, but I’m not sure if that blog is active anymore.

GeekyLyndsay: Except for the occasional professional (and insightful) article that she tweets, GeekyLyndsay is a Twitter-only presence. She is spunky, likes dogs, and is invariably positive. I look forward to her daily selfies, as well as photos of her dog Luigi and delicious food. She has tweeted some awesome self-care resources and has also inspired me to read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which is the first comic I’ve read in roughly 30 years. (And she’s right, it is a great comic!) Thanks to Revanche for pointing me in her direction!

Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured): I’ve been reading this blog since nicoleandmaggie were untenured (hence the parenthetical note in the blog title.) Nicoleandmaggie (not their real names) and the “Grumpy Nation” of commentators have widened my understanding and perspective on a number of topics, but it’s their unapologetic feminism and advocacy of each person’s awesomeness that I love the most. Yay for the Grumpies and yay for me!

I Pick up Pennies: Abby blogs and has a Twitter account @ipickuppennies. Her observations about budgeting and frugality while also living with chronic fatigue and depression are witty and grounded. I appreciate her insights and lessons, as well as her combination of kindness and tenacity, and her learner’s mindset to every obstacle she comes across. Abby is always “keeping it real,” and I appreciate that perspective.

NZ Muse: From the other side of the world, NZ Muse inspires me with her observations about being the primary breadwinner in high cost of living area (Auckland, New Zealand). She’s shared her doubts and challenges in her relationship, and is driven in her pursuit of better compensation so she can attain her goals. NZ Muse also tweets @eemusings, and I’ve happily met her in person as she traveled through the US as a newlywed. Sadly, we were only able to spend a few hours together one evening, but I hope I helped her appreciate the perfection of a Chicago-style hotdog at the iconic Superdawg.

Conspicuously absent from my list of online connections are Facebook “friends.” While I do have a large number of them, I am careful to curate my Facebook posts now that so many of my work colleagues are connected to me. While I’m never less than genuine on Facebook, I just feel less constrained here on my personal blog and Twitter. I used to have my Twitter account “feed” my Facebook account but recently disconnected them since I wanted to be able to tweet about stuff that may not be appropriate for work colleagues to read.

There are many other people I follow on Twitter or via a blog, but these folks are my “core.” They’re the ones I look forward to reading every time they tweet or post a blog entry, and to whom I’m likely to respond in kind. I have grown as a person because of the observations, perspectives, resources, and links shared they’ve shared, and for that I thank them!