Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Oh, it's awfully taxing

Self Assessment tax return. Four words that will send shivers down any freelancer’s spine, particularly around the Christmas period when we should be thinking about family, joy and cocktails but are instead plotting just how much longer we can put it off for, since the deadline is 31 January.

My mistake for the latest tax return was being a little cocky, thinking that actually, I had done one of these once before and it wasn’t too taxing, so why should this year be any different? In fact, I thought, it should be easy because up until April 2010 I was a full-time freelancer on a set wage. So, all I need is a few figures and hey presto! Tax return filed, Christmas parties here I come. But oh, no.

You see, what they don’t tell you is that once they have your carefully filled in figures, they then decide to guess that you’ll earn exactly the same amount in the following tax year. And ask you for the money upfront. This is a downright stupid assumption for any working person, but for a freelancer? Someone who works for different people, on different rates, at different times? And if you’re a poor, penniless writer like me and didn’t go to the School of Learning About Tax, you won’t have saved enough yet to pay it. Plus, as of April 2010 I was employed by the company so my only freelancing that required taxing was a couple of projects which would barely pay for a new dress – their numbers were 100% wrong.

So when, after over an hour of listening to the kind of hold music that makes your ears want to implode, some eejit who shouldn’t be allowed to speak to humans, let alone be in charge of people’s money, told me that I should pay the extra £2,000 ‘or else you’ll be fined for not paying’, I was not impressed. I pleaded with her that there is no way I would owe that, but would she listen? No. Instead she was pretty damn rude to me and said it’s on my head if I don’t pay it. So I hung up. The following weekend after getting as much advice as possible, I called again. This time I got a man who was so appalling at customer service I felt like changing the subject from my impending tax return deadline to whether or not his mother had ever taught him manners. I hung up, defeated. And might have thrown the phone at the wall.

“Not to be put off, in my rage I went full steam ahead into explaining the awful service I had received despite the fact that I am a good and honest tax payer who is simply trying to pay the right amount.”

Thankfully, an accountant helped me file the return and avoid a heart attack, since he understood that there was no way I was going to pay £2,000 which I would never get back. But this was not good enough for HMRC. Despite the explanations I included in my form, they still insisted I owed them money and as I hadn’t paid them and it was now February, I was in trouble. By this point I had had a massive phone bill through my door, had spent hours and hours of my time at work, before work and after work agonising over how to sort this out and, in short, I was livid.

I called that number again (I may as well have it on speed dial), waited and waited through the tinny chiming attempt at ‘music’ and was all ready to kick some HMRC ass, when I heard a lovely, friendly Scottish voice that sounded a little like Mrs Doubtfire. Not to be put off, in my rage I went full steam ahead into explaining the awful service I had received despite the fact that I am a good and honest tax payer who is simply trying to pay the right amount, and that actually I do not owe you any money so please can you stop sending me hate mail. Mrs Doubtfire turned out to be my hero. In her little Scottish voice she apologised profusely, agreed with me that her colleagues were clearly money-grabbing simpletons (my words, not hers) and said it would take about two minutes for her to sort it out. A quick bit of mental maths to work out what I did owe for the current tax year and we were finished. I have never been so happy in all my life.

I got the oh-so familiar letter through last month asking me to complete my next tax return. Needless to say, this year, if I need to call them and get through to an utter retard, I’m asking to be transferred to their manager. And they’d better have changed their hold music, or I’m reporting them for abuse. Read more by Judy.