Quit Complaining About Tax Day
By Alyce Gilligan
April 16, 2012
Today you might be scrambling through receipts and tax forms before this year's filing deadline. Or maybe you're bragging because you filed your taxes months ago. But chances are, your financial state could benefit from some better planning and increased knowledge of how—and why—we file taxes.
We spoke with Chuck Bentley, CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, about common tax mistakes to avoid, the importance of charitable giving and why good stewardship isn't just an option but a calling.
Every year, it's so easy for people to complain about their taxes. What would you say to people of faith regarding keeping a spiritual perspective of the tax process?
Many people do dread tax day. They put it off until the last minute, and they go into it with a great deal of fear and trepidation. I've even seen people who get very angry about it. I just read an article about it that [said] people are under such tremendous stress on tax day and the 30 days leading up to it that [in] the number of traffic accidents, you see a measurable increase. It's amazing how stressed out people get; it's just tragic.
From a spiritual perspective, the Lord said in Mark 12:17 that they should give to Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto the Lord what is the Lord's; the Lord Himself said that we are to pay our taxes. For Christians, we should be in a position that we do it joyfully, recognizing we're fulfilling our civic duty, which is a benefit to other people, and we should do so with integrity. Most people I've known who have a great deal of stress about their taxes are either unprepared to pay it through poor planning or they're very worried because of a lack of integrity in their tax return.
In your experience, what do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions people have as they approach their taxes?
I think there are a lot of those. First of all, the people who are not completely honest—they've either taken a lot of income in cash that they've failed to report or they've made phony deductions to try and limit their tax liability. People who've made those mistakes are in trouble because they have something that they should fear. They've compromised their integrity, and that's always a terrible mistake. There's an old story about a person who sent an anonymous letter to the IRS and enclosed $1,000. The letter said: "Here's $1,000 that I owe you that I know I've failed to report in the past. If I still can't sleep I'll send you the balance." People who compromise live in continual fear of the IRS coming after them.
Secondly, most people in America overpay their taxes throughout the year—that's a huge mistake. The majority of people will receive a refund on their taxes. That is making interest-free loans to the government. My recommendation is to increase your withholding every year so you're not filing a return and waiting on the government to give back money to you that you didn't need to send them.I also think it's a mistake to procrastinate. People wait until the last minute. Years ago, when most of the filings were done in the paper format, you would see people lined up at the post office in long lines, waiting to get their postmark in time to avoid a penalty. Do your taxes early.
And then finally, poor record-keeping. There are so many ways to be efficient and be a good steward of your income. If you're efficient, you abide by the law, you take advantage of the available, legal deductions, and if you keep good records then you'll minimize your tax liability.
What advice would you offer as people face the coming year to help them embrace better planning?
Well, I think your question poses the answer, and that is “better planning.” If you file your taxes online, you oftentimes have the opportunity to do a comparative analysis of how you stand income-wise, how you stand in terms of your charitable contributions, your deductions, your refunds. I find it to be very healthy to do that analysis and find where you stand.
But the best advice is to always live beneath your means. If you're spending less than you earn, then you'll have financial margin to make good decisions. For instance, to take advantage of starting an IRA and to receive the tax benefit for doing so. That's a double benefit and essentially an offer for free money and free income. So if you live beneath your means, that’s number one. Secondly, improve your charitable giving. We're one of the few countries in the world remaining that offer a tax benefit or a tax incentive for charitable contributions. And, finally, keep really good records. The tax process will help you know rather quickly whether or not you have a good record-keeping system. That will reduce your stress and allow you to be much more effective at stewarding the resources you do have.
What incentive would you give people who don't prioritize giving?
I really believe that as people of faith, it should be our highest priority. Our entire financial plan should orbit around the desire to be generous, as opposed to hoarding or keeping the money ourselves. The very first financial lesson that the Lord taught us in the Scriptures was to honor Him with the first fruits of our crops, to honor Him first as a top priority. If you get to tax time and you realize you're paying more in taxes and very little in charitable contributions, essentially, you [will] recognize the government is your top priority. They're getting a higher percentage of your giving. And obviously, that's mandated, and we have to do that. But I like to give as my highest priority, and I think it establishes a perspective that allows all of your other finances to become ordered in the right priority. Typically, in the American household, budget spending is the highest priority. If our giving becomes first, it breaks the grip of materialism on our lives, it brings satisfaction to our soul, and it allows us to enjoy the fruits of our labor because we're experiencing the happiness that comes from doing something beyond ourselves.
How can people see stewardship as a virtue?
Good stewardship is actually not only our responsibility, but it is a part of our role God has entrusted to us for our purpose on Earth. Adam was placed in the garden to be God's steward, and when he fell from that position, God restored him to that role through His grace and redemption. And now it's our privilege to be God's steward, to see Him as the owner of all things and ourselves as being strangers and alien on the Earth, just passing through, and being able to make a difference. Especially this generation—many say they have the heroic gene, they are genetically inclined to help other people, to be involved in social justice and many worthy causes. And if we steward our resources wisely, the majority of the impact of our lives is for the benefit of others as opposed to self. In the parable of the talents, that’s where the reward comes from. The good and faithful servant is the one who multiplied their income and used it for the benefit of other people. I don't see that as an obligation as much as a unique privilege and a joy of being a Christian.
Money is discussed more often in the Scripture than heaven and hell combined, because it's a competitor for control of our lives. Oftentimes we see people who center all of their goal, all of their ambition, all the use of their time for the acquisition and spending of money—and the Scripture teaches contrary to that. I think that, especially for young people, they're looking for something beyond materialism. They don't want to live a life that's simply fulfilling the purpose of accumulating more; they want to make a difference. And good stewardship is God's way of teaching us we can make a difference with what He's given us.