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On The Eve Of A Recession, Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

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The errors on my tax return started small. A number was transposed in my zip code, which stopped it from being properly e-filed back in early March. Then there were spelling mistakes in the names of the places where I worked. Oddly, I was given the standard deduction. Then I woke up on April 11th and didn't find my $1,700 refund in my checking account. Upon further inspection it seems that George, my new accountant, put the wrong bank routing number on the return, and my cash is currently sitting in limbo between the IRS and the Bank of America.

When I first moved to New York, I used to do my taxes myself, literally adding and subtracting figures on the back of a magazine with a dollar store calculator. And it always came out right. It wasn't until someone suggested Benny, a patient man who specialized in media people's taxes, did I go see him. Benny never advertised. He was just a business card passed quietly around the newsroom. He got me a better refund (it's amazing what you can deduct as a writer) and gave great financial advice. He was like a father who didn't judge your income.

Eventually Benny needed to retire and so he sold his thriving business to George, a 40-something, slightly manic man who could do even more magic tricks with deductions. Benny assured me I could trust him. And I did, to the tune of $250. When the problems started popping up, George didn't return my calls or e-mails. On April 16th, when I was still missing my refund, I was told by a flummoxed Benny that George was on a plane to a Florida vacation.

I was frustrated. I tried to call the IRS. At one point I got George's brother on the phone. (I am nothing if not thorough.) I considered breaking some knees. Then I realized there was a lesson in all this, and that lesson is fiscal responsibility, on both a large and small scale.

If I couldn't handle my taxes, how would I ever negotiate a decent mortgage, haggle with a car dealer or budget for things like my future children's educations? Had I been willing to sit down in a quiet place and do my own taxes, I could have saved $250 and been $1,700 richer right now. But it was easier to hand them off to someone else, pass the buck, if you will, then put in the two hours of my own precious time. In the U.S. it's easy to do that in a lot areas of finance. Maybe that's not such a good idea.

I once had a science teacher who said that the less you know, the more you will pay for. In my case, I've paid with cash as well as sweat equity. There are people all over the country who didn't understand the nuances of interest rates and mortgages and are now losing their homes to foreclosure. There are college students who are damaging their credit ratings by taking every credit card that is offered on campus because they don't understand how the credit business works, or why they're offering students so many cards. For some reason, everyday Americans are averse to gaining financial knowledge, and the result is exactly the economic muck we're waist-deep in now.

If there was ever a time when we should all sit down and crunch the numbers ourselves, it's now. If even big investment banks have to be bailed out by the government, maybe it's time to take a self-assessment and make sure everything's in the black on a personal level, and make sure it stays that way. Maybe it's time to read some Suze Orman books or take some continuing ed classes in finance. It's like those public service announcements that question where your children are at ten o'clock at night. It's the eve of a recession, do you know where your cash is?

Otherwise, you're going to end up with a case like mine. Someone who seems competent is going to make a mistake with your dough and leave you in the lurch while they're sunning themselves in Orlando, or worse, a remote Caribbean island. Almost two months after first filing, I still don't have my $1,700. George lost a lot of clients thanks to his creative accounting and poor Benny watched the business that he spent so many years building up crumble into a shell of itself.