Tax Time: Keeping Your Full Refund

United Way fights for the education, health and financial stability of every person in Lucas, Wood and Ottawa counties.

Even if you don’t own a calendar, you know when it’s tax season. From the do-it-yourself tax filing software commercials on television, to the sign-flipping mascots on street corners promoting seasonal pop-up shops. The “it’s tax time!” catchphrase echoes across the country like a song you don’t want to hear, but can’t get out of your head.

Last year, I showed up at one of those tax pop-up shops a few blocks from my home. It was a bitter-cold winter morning. I had my financial records in hand, ready to get it over and done with…until next season.

I’ve always been an organized person. My lifetime of service in the military impressed that upon me, and I’ve applied that discipline to everything I do — including when it comes time to file my tax returns. The way I figured it, if I made it easier for them to prepare my returns, it would take less time to process, cost me less in fees, and provide me with a larger, much-needed refund in the end.

The tax preparer immediately complimented my organization and made quick work out of preparing my return. I was thrilled when he told me the total amount of my refund. Ever since I retired, and as I continue to age, my prescription costs have taken bigger chunks out of my fixed income.

“With my paychecks, every single dollar matters”

My elation about my refund was short-lived, though. The tax preparer made one last calculation on his computer and turned the monitor to face me. My stomach immediately dropped. After their tax preparation “fees”, I would receive a refund check about half the previous amount.

“I…I don’t know if I can pay that,” I said, as I stumbled over my words in disbelief.

He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Unfortunately, that’s the fine.”

I spent the rest of the year pinching every last penny, knowing any unexpected expense could financially ruin me.

A year has passed and it’s here again, that old worn-out song. “It’s tax time!” shouts the sign-wielding mascot in front of the strip mall. I spent a lot of time researching different solutions after my previous experience.

I was lucky enough to get through last year unscathed, but my doctor added a new, expensive blood pressure prescription to my daily regime. I’ll need every cent I can squeeze out of this year’s refund to make ends meet.

I looked into the do-it-yourself tax software, but I just don’t trust myself to possibly make a costly mistake. I have a neighbor who told me his uncle would prepare my returns for a hundred bucks, but I trust that even less. It was looking more and more like I was going to have to bite the bullet and head down to the strip mall pop-up shop once again.

“Then I saw an advertisement for ‘Free Tax Prep’, a program I’d never heard of before”

I’m skeptical of anything “free,” but I picked up the phone and dialed 2-1-1, like the ad said.

They were quick to calm my suspicions. They told me free truly meant free. The individual who will prepare my taxes would do so at no cost? I couldn’t believe it.

Today, I passed that same pop-up tax shop on the bus, with all my organized files in hand. I was heading to get my taxes prepared for at no cost, and that was such a weight lifted off my shoulders. After, I’d have to go pick up my medicine and felt reassurance that, this year, I’d be able to get my prescriptions filled until my next tax return.

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*This blog post is based on a true story / success narrative from Free Tax Preparation. All identities of submitted success stories are anonymous for privacy and story details have been added in order to provide a better understanding of the individual’s successes and struggles.

Change Maker Action: CHANGE MAKER ACTION: Because of your support, individuals in our community are able to access financial stability services that change, or have great impact on their lives. If you would like to schedule a Free Tax Preparation appointment, please call United Way 2-1-1.

Finding Tomorrow: The Long Road To Financial Freedom

United Way fights for the education, health and financial stability of every person in Lucas, Wood and Ottawa counties.

I’ve always dreamed of owning my own home. Yet, each month, around the time my bills are due, I get the same trapped feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been dealing with this anxiety since I was 18, when I first started living on my own. Even as a 68-year-old widow today, the anxious feeling continues to linger and my dream of financial freedom still feels so far away.

When Michael, my husband of 30 years, passed away, the struggle only grew. Michael and I had spent countless hours talking about “tomorrow” — the day we would buy our very first home together. Suddenly, that dream of “tomorrow” was shattered. We never found the courage to take that leap into home-buying. On a limited income, with very limited financial know-how, the process of home ownership felt too complicated and too scary.

I remember years ago when Michael and I met with a local realtor. All I could do was stare blankly at the documents on the glossy table, while the bright fluorescent lights above nearly blinded me. The realtor’s words were foreign and daunting: “thirty-years,” “fixed-mortgage,” “$10,000 down,” “principal”. Even though that meeting was decades ago, the memory of how overwhelming it all felt is ingrained in my mind.

“The realtors words only seemed to point in a
direction of even more financial struggle for us.”

We had saved and saved for years for our own home, and for what? Now, I found myself alone, living in just another apartment. This was my reality for decades, simply trying to figure out my next move once my lease expired. With Michael gone and still no home to call my own, my financial struggles and that pit of worry in my stomach became even more frequent.

Then, one day after recalling my financial fears to a friend, she told me about Financial Opportunity Centers. She thought maybe they could connect me with a financial coach to help reach my financial goals.

Financial coaching? I’d always thought only rich people could afford a service like that. I was hesitant, but also hopeful. Maybe this could be the support I needed. The next day, while on my lunch break, I called my local FOC to schedule an appointment.

The next week, while waiting for my first meeting with a coach, that sick feeling began to creep up again. The thought of someone looking over my finances made me anxious. I couldn’t help but recall that day many years ago with the realtor.

Yet, meeting my financial coach quickly put my anxiety at ease. She called me into her office, shook my hand, smiled and began to ask me questions while reviewing my financial history. We took a look at the money Michael and I had already saved and talked in detail about my current situation. Gradually, we developed a plan that would allow me to continue building on the savings Michael and I had started.

I visited my financial coach monthly to reassess my situation. I began attending classes offered by the FOC to learn more about how to handle my money. Slowly, my seemingly unreachable dream of one day buying a home didn’t seem so far off. I became committed to doing what my late husband and I could never do: buy a home of my own.

A little before my 70th birthday, I became a first-time home owner of a one-story, cottage-style house on a small piece of land. After just one year of planning, I had accumulated more in savings than I ever thought possible.

The plants, the rooms and the space were all mine. For the first time in my life, I truly felt at home. Because I had a financial plan, that anxiety around financially struggling diminished. With a photo of Michael in the hall, I smiled and felt like our tomorrow was finally here.

*This blog post is fictional and based on a success story from LISC Toledo, who operates the Financial Opportunity Center Network. All identities of submitted success stories are anonymous for privacy and story details have been added in order to provide a better understanding of the individual’s successes and struggles.

Change Maker Action: CHANGE MAKER ACTION: Because of your support and strong community partners, like PNC, we can continue rebuilding lives through financial stability programming, right here in Northwest Ohio. To help individuals and families find financial success, please donate below.