Hitched: Filing Taxes, For Better Or For Worse

This Sunday, Patrick and I will celebrate our first anniversary as married people. I would love to tell you the last twelve months have comprised a life-changing, soul-altering period of self-discovery and exploration of what it means to be in love. That this column will be full of witty and insightful paragraphs full of meaningful revelations.

“Would you marry me again?” I asked Patrick over beers at our local dive. Sure, he said, “But I wouldn’t plan another wedding.”

On that point, we’re agreed. And we’re also agreed on this point: the main thing that the last year of nuptial bliss — and it really has been bliss — has taught us is that being married isn’t significantly different than being everything but married.

In fact, the most significant difference between my pre-marriage life with Patrick and my post-marriage life with Patrick? Twenty dollars.

Our April anniversary, barring the possibility of a zombie apocalypse in which citizenship as we know it disappears into a brain-smeared ether, will always coincide with filing our taxes. So that’s a precious joy I can now share with my dear husband. A precious joy that cost me twenty dollars.

What twenty dollars? The twenty dollars more I owed the federal government for filing my taxes as a married person than as a single person. I’m not bothered about the dollar amount — though I could have used that money toward a couple of pitchers of beer — but I am a little bothered about why it happened in the first place.

Married people have two options: file taxes jointly with a spouse or separately with a spouse. Through the wonder of modern technology, specifically the Turbo Tax software on which I rely so heavily, I learned that because Patrick and I earn about the same amount of money, filing jointly will kind of fuck us.

As my parents, both CPA’s, explained to me during a marathon tax-filing phone call on Sunday night, bless every inch of their amazing selves, filing jointly is supposed to be a kind of governmental tip o’ the hat to married folks, but it really only works in your favor if there’s a primary breadwinner in the household. Otherwise — and this is what happened to us — making about the same amount of money can, in combination, knock you both up into a higher tax bracket than if you’d filed on your own as a single person. For a self-employed independent contractor like myself, for whom a tax return is but a beautiful dream, any way I can save on what I pay into my taxes is a boon.

My husband works for a salary, which in theory should mean he’s a tax return kind of guy. But when we file jointly, my taxes owed increase by four unhappy digits. Which means it can cost me thousands just to be married.

My read on this — and I’d be happy for any Frisky tax professionals to steer me wrong from this interpretation, because I really dislike it — is that the federal government presumes one partner is going to be a primary breadwinner. If that’s the case, it may not be a such big deal to file jointly with a significantly lesser-earning spouse.

Which, to me, paints a picture of a kind of marriage I’m unlikely to ever have. As child-free folks, neither Patrick nor I will ever need to take time off work to raise a kid. Barring a financial windfall, I’ll never primarily be a housewife, and he’ll never primarily be a househusband. We’ll both be working, and working hard, for the rest of our lives.

Of course, the idealized, uber-’50s fantasy marriage in which Husband brings home the bacon while Wifey stays dusting armoires and planning elaborate dinner parties, is just that: a fantasy. A largely white, affluent, imagined marriage realized by the Cleavers and the Romneys and few others.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable for one spouse to simply end up in a significantly higher-paying job than their partner, who could work in any number of industries, or stay home as a househusband or housewife or as a teacher — sadly, given the reluctance in this country to pay educators what they’re worth for the work they do. I get that, so I’m not arguing for an evil, Cleaver-pushing government conspiracy. But I am saying I don’t particularly like the implications as I read them.

I do think what happened to Patrick and me — and to be clear, I am not complaining about being in the exceedingly privileged position of finding gainful employment and paying taxes in the first place — points toward something that, as a culture, Americans have been reluctant to acknowledge: the economic realities of dual-earning households to which the Cleaver/Romney model doesn’t and has never applied. We’re confused on all kinds of levels, confused about whether women need to “lean in” (barf, let’s talk about men leaning out), confused about who “should” stay home with the kids, confused about women who make more than their male partners.

As I stared at my computer screen this week, flipping my Turbo Tax filing status from married to single and watching that twenty dollars fluctuate, I thought about all of those things. And then I wrote a check. And then I ate ice cream with my husband, who made a trip to the store during the whole financial wrangling ordeal just to bring home a sweet reward for my efforts. I didn’t mind the twenty dollars so much.

Because as frustrating as filing taxes is, it’s really nothing compared to planning a wedding.