I forgot to mention that Sam’s ITIN arrived last week which means a) My tax return was received and b) We can file the state return. Unfortunately, the timing means that we’re not likely to see the cheques until after we come back from the UK but that doesn’t stop me accosting the postman every time he arrives in case there’s something we can fast-track through the bank.
Another month, another 30 days of not updating the blog like I should do 🙂
This month saw me file my taxes.
Taxes are filed in two parts: Federal and State.
I shouldn’t have left it so long but, as per most of my student life, I left it until the last minute. I went to H&R Block in Millbrae after arranging an appointment only to find that the receptionist booked me in for a different day than the one I asked her for. The lady I spoke to had a client coming in at the same time but he never turned up so she saw me instead. I explained my circumstances, including the part about them needing to enter some dummy number in the box for Sam’s Tax ID as we needed to submit the ITIN application at the same time as filing the return. She entered in some of the details and got to Sam’s Tax ID and then spent about 5-10 minutes hitting the keyboard and tutting as she tried to get the cursor out of the field and stop the computer from beeping at her. She finally had to call over her colleague to tell her what to do. It was at that point that she told me that the Millbrae branch wasn’t qualified to deal with my tax return and I needed to speak to their Premium branch. That was disappointing. She could have told me that before I went into the office.
So, an appointment was arranged through the Premium office manager and I duly arrived on time only to find that there was no record of me speaking to him. D’oh ! It did, however, mean that I got a $32 discount on the tax preparation work. I spoke with a lady who took me through the questions on the return and I gave her the details from my UK P60 and P45. At the end, she told me that I was owed a large refund from Federal but I owed money to State. She also told me what the cost for the work was and that she would call when I could pick up the finished return. She got a bit confused and had to speak with a colleague on the best way to file my return.
I got the call a couple of days later and went to pick up the return. I got a bit of a shock when I was told that the final bill came to over double the cost I was shown previously. I queried this and got to speak with their “Master Accountant”. He sat down and looked through the return and discovered that the lady had entered in a lot of the details incorrectly and, more importantly, had not thought I could claim for Rachel and Joanna. He spent about 20 minutes working through the figures and it turns out that I get a slightly lower refund from Federal but I actually get a refund, of probably the same amount, from State. Woohoo ! The downside is that the cost of the tax preparation was more than when I went in :-S I weighed up the pros and cons of this and it boils down to: PRO: I get a better refund from State, CON: I have to pay more to H&R Block, PRO: I get a better refund from State. The total cost of the preparation is more than covered by the refund so I put this one down to experience.
This is only going to happen this time as I was only in the US for part of last year and could claim a tax credit for my UK earnings. I’m also going to be able file electronically next year so I won’t need to use H&R Block for tax preparation.
The other benefit is that because I filed for a refund, the fact that I filed late won’t mean I get penalised.
So, I’m waiting for my Federal refund to come back and that should include the ITIN for Sam and then I can file my State return and get the refund back on that.
I like this country. I’ve made certain, like I did in the UK, that the refund comes back as a cheque because it’s always nice to see the government give something back.
The other important news for this month is that we’ve bought and paid for our tickets back to the UK in June for my brother’s wedding. My family have been arguing over who loves us the most and where we can stay. I think we’ve got it sorted out. The most important thing is that I get to watch all three of England’s first-round matches. Going to visit Sam’s family is a little more difficult as they don’t have the space to fit us all in so we’re staying with some friends for a few days and then moving to other friends for a few more days and then moving to other friends for a few more days. During this time, I will be working in the UK office so that we can get an extended stay.
Our first port of call is likely to be a curry house 🙂 I’ve certainly missed UK curries. In Millbrae, there is a lot of Asian influence so we have Thai and Chinese restaurants but no Indian restaurants. There are a couple in San Mateo but they don’t deliver.
We need to make a list of all the British things we want to bring back with us when we return to the US. I’m guessing that PG Tips are high on that list as is Dairy Milk. I may see if Cadbury’s do international deliveries.
It’s been quite a while since I last posted.
Things have been *very* busy at work with the new release of our mail software. Go to www.scalix.com for more information. End commercial.
Rachel’s birthday fast approaches and it’s hard to believe that it’s been 8 years since she soaked the changing area at Basingstoke maternity hospital during her first nappy change 🙂
She wants karaoke stuff but, for some reason, the karaoke machine we bought her a couple of years ago doesn’t want to work here. Yes, we’ve plugged it into the step-up transformer and, thanks to my father-in-law, we got some replacement fuses but it still won’t work.
To that end, never one to pass up the opportunity to buy a new gadget, I purchased a mod-chip for our Playstation 2. I’m not sure of the legality of these things but it allows the PS2 to display correctly on our NTSC TV even if the game is supposed to be PAL and it will also allow us to play US games. I did some research and found a solution that provides a couple of clip-on enhancements (steady 🙂 ) meaning there is no soldering required. The instructions are easy to follow but it appears that Sony built the PS2 as some sort of logic puzzle. You have to undo a series of screws, take a piece out and then turn the device over and repeat. This goes on for about 9 steps. It’s a shame my application to go on the Crystal Maze came to nought as I think I’d be walking home with the gold token prize by now. The good news is that the installation went smoothly and I’m left with only 3 screws that failed to make it back into the chassis which is a world record for me.
Having shied away from doing any soldering on the PS2, I found a neat little headphone amplifier at http://tangentsoft.net/audio/cmoy-tutorial which provides a battery powered amp that fits into an Altoids tin. My manager has one but she decided it wasn’t worth the effort to make it herself and she bought hers ready assembled. This is my first major electronics project and, I’m surprised to say, has been quite successful, i.e. it works first time. I need to iron out some kinks in the circuit but it didn’t blow up when I turned it on so that has to be a bonus.
Today, I took a day off so that we could get some of Rachel’s presents and also so that we could go into San Francisco to apply for ITINs (Individual Tax Identification Number) for everyone. Driving in SF is like driving in London, you spend a lot of time driving around in circles looking for a parking space that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg but eventually you give up and park in the first parking lot you saw when you swore blind that you weren’t going to pay that sort of money just to park for an hour.
We went into the government building and had to go through metal detectors before we could get in only to find that we needed the building across the street.
Once we got into the tax office, it was fairly sedate. We went up to the front desk and explained what we needed. The man behind the counter gave us some forms to fill in and, once we’d done that, told us that we didn’t need to do anything else other than hand the forms to H&R Block.
This means that we have to go back to H&R Block and explain that the lady I spoke to last month was not telling us the precise details. I can forsee some disagreement there but we’ll bear with it. Apparently, I can apply for an automatic 6-month extension for filing the taxes. That may come in handy before we have to pay any dues.
Taxes have to be done by April 15th. Given that I have no idea how the American tax system works, I decided that I would start early.
Most people will buy the latest edition of either Turbo Tax or Tax Cut to run on their PCs. The latter has the advantage that it’s branded by H&R Block who are basically a chain of high-street accountants that people can use to get their taxes filed. We got a copy of Tax Cut and I fired it up.
The software goes through a large number of steps and will ask you questions about your earnings etc. I started to work my way through and just about managed to get myself past the name and address section without a problem.
The first hurdle was that I was asked about my dependents. I put Rachel’s details in and the software responded that she could not be counted as a dependent. I figured that something was amiss so I delved into the help section and started looking for anything that bore a resemblance to an international relocation. There was nothing. I can’t enter Sam’s details without putting in her Social Security Number ( see many previous rants about SSNs ).
I don’t want an IRS audit this early in my US existence so I decided that we would chalk this up to experience and make use of a face-to-face consultation with H&R Block. Luckily, they have an office in Millbrae so I phoned up to make an appointment.
The woman on the other end of the phone asked me what my situation was and I explained that we’d just relocated, I was married with two children. She then asked me for their SSNs. No joy there, they don’t have them. OK, how about their Federal Tax IDs ?
( Sound of brakes screeching )
Apparently I need to get them a Federal ID before I can include them on my tax return. So, I now have to find our local IRS office so that I can apply for IDs. The search begins tomorrow.
In other news, today is Super Bowl XL with Pittsburgh against Seattle. Seeing as I see American Football as Rugby with padding, I don’t plan to watch the whole 3 hours of television coverage but it’s interesting to see the spectacle live ( and I can watch it in HD and Dolby Digital sound ).
Two things guaranteed in life.
The death part of it came in the shape of a rat’s body found just outside our front room. It was quickly dispatched in a cardboard box via South San Francisco Scavengers (garbage men).
The taxes part has arrived in the shape of a W2 which is the equivalent of a P60. US tax year is January to December but filing must be done by 15th April. This gives me enough time to locate the best tax software (TurboTax apparently) and then work out what the heck I’m supposed to do.
The hunt starts for an accountant 🙂
In the US, the typical way of saving for retirement is the 401K which is mostly equivalent to a pension plan with lots of added twists and turns. I need to investigate what is available to me but, according to this survey http://uk.news.yahoo.com/09012006/80/save-money-nah-win-lottery-survey.html
I don’t need to bother.
I’m just off to the local Safeway to invest in Mega Millions.
OK, I promised not to be so miserable but …
Towards the end of 2005, with Christmas approaching and the fact we’re trying to save up the money to get back to the UK in the summer, things got a little tight financially. We’re over the hump now and we’ve spent the last couple of weeks balancing the books and working out the budget for 2006.
The one thing that this has highlighted is how slowly financial transactions are being handled.
Sam bought some books for the girls during the summer and the debit card transaction only appeared on our statement on Dec 31st. On some days, a purchase at Safeway will appear immediately. On others, it takes about 4 days. Refunds back to the card take a lot longer than the store taking the money from us in the first place.
We finally picked up our car last week.
Those fine people at Addison Avenue gave us the money and we bought a Nissan Maxima. It’s a nice roomy car with a big gas guzzling engine. So, we’re official Americans now.
I shall take great delight in handing back the rental car to Enterprise but not before I’ve negotiated some kind of frequent flyer credit with them for spending nearly $9,000 with them, albeit some of the money was from Scalix. It may hold us in good stead when we come back to the UK for my brother’s wedding in June next year.
Sam drove to the shops and back in the new car. She’s still very nervous about making sure she’s on the right (in all senses of the word) side of the road. She’s going to get the hang of it but she really needs to play on the freeway. Still, every long journey begins with a single step.
We got our insurance set up. The phone jockey at Progressive was trying to get us to buy liability only (3rd Party) which seems a bit strange. We opted for fully comp because we can’t get roadside assistance with 3rd party cover. We now have to pay over-inflated prices for 18 months before we will be considered as careful drivers. After the rigmarole that was credit checks, I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to fight them on this one.
This week, the news has been good.
Thanks to the efforts of our CFO, the Addison Avenue credit union are going to lend us some money. I’m an official American 🙂
This is a major relief because we will no longer be handing over large amounts of money to Enterprise for the rental.
That said, the other night I was grateful we still had a rental because of a stupid mistake.
Sam’s sister has been here for a few days with her boyfriend and we took them around the tourist traps at Pier 39 and did the cable cars and horse rides etc. etc. We spent a long time there and a good time was had by all. After the evening meal at a restaurant ( making sure they validated our parking ticket ), we headed back to the car park only to have me tap my pockets and realise that I didn’t have my car keys.
We’d been all over the city that day so there were any number of places they could have disappeared. When we got to the car, I peered through the window to see the keys sitting on the back seat. Why the car hadn’t been stolen, I don’t know. Maybe the 294m Americans are more honest than we thought. I won’t test that theory.
The car has manual locks (it’s a Dodge) but there were no doors we’d forgotten to lock so I needed to call Enterprise Roadside Assistance. I spoke to a couple of operators who both asked me how I was. “Fine”, I replied, “except for the fact I’ve locked my keys in the car”. They both laughed weakly. We then proceeded to try and define my precise location.
“Do you have a zip code, sir ?”.
[ At this point, I only know 2 zip codes: the office and our house ( and maybe Beverly Hills 90210 ) ]
“Sorry, I don’t know the zip code.”.
“That’s OK, sir. Can you tell me where you are ?”.
“I’m on level 4 of the parking garage directly opposite Pier 39 in San Francisco”.
“What street is that on, sir ?”.
“I have no idea. Embarcadero, I think”.
“How do you spell that, sir ?” (They start to sound like Marcie, Peppermint Patty’s friend in the Charlie Brown cartoons).
“Thankyou, sir. What’s the nearest cross street ?”.
“Again, I have no idea. We’re opposite Pier 39. The biggest tourist trap in San Francisco. If you send someone out who’s local, they’ll know where I am”.
“I understand that, sir, but I need to write something down on the form”.
“OK. I’ve just looked on our parking ticket and there is no address. Do you have a map in front of you ?”.
“Can you find Taylor ?”.
[ Pause ]
“If you go North on Taylor, you’ll hit the water. When you get to the water, work East along Emarcadero until you see Pier 39. We’re in the parking garage directly opposite”.
“No, I still can’t see it, sir. Is that San Francisco in California ?”.
[ This time I pause ]
“Yes it is”.
I breath a sigh of relief as she decides that is all the information she needs about the location.
She asked me whether the car had automatic locks or an alarm. It’s a Dodge, it has nothing. So, now she has the make, model and registration of my car and the fact that she could break into it at any point.
The mechanic turned up in about 30 minutes, got out of his truck, jammed a wedge into the driver’s window, thrust a coat hanger through and opened the lock. All in the space of about 2 minutes.
Remind me not to buy a Dodge Neon when we go car shopping.
This week has been very short due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This is taken more seriously than Christmas as it’s an all-encompassing holiday because it’s non-religious ( unless you count the bit about the pilgrims ). Like Independence Day before it, all of our friends and work colleagues have asked us if we’re going to celebrate it.
My usual answer to Independence Day is that we will celebrate the time we got rid of the colonies. For Thanksgiving, I usually tell them we celebrate the forced take over of land belonging to the Native Americans. Surprisingly, most of them agree.
We’ve been invited to our neighbours’ house for a meal. They are Swiss and Venezuelan so they’re just looking for an excuse to eat and get drunk.
What more reason do you need to celebrate ?
October 31st is the time of year where everybody takes leave of their senses, dresses up in various costumes and then goes around the neighbourhood demanding candy with menaces.
Yes, it’s Halloween.
We were invited to a neighbour’s party and we all dressed up. I managed to get a Grim Reaper outfit from somewhere and made my face up to look deathly pale ( no change there you might cry ). At the appointed hour, we all arrived at the door and I found out that it was a kids’ party where most of the parents were in civvies and I looked a right eejit.
Halloween itself was an interesting night. Sam took the girls trick-or-treating with some friends and they all went to the rich part of town where people decorate their houses and distribute big handfuls of candy. The whole city seemed to have descended on one street and, by the sounds of it, it was a real melee.
Rachel and Joanna came back with buckets full of sweets, desperate to eat them all at once. We’re rationing them so they won’t be finished until Christmas 2006.
My evening was such that I wasn’t allowed to sit down on the sofa with a cup of tea without the doorbell ringing and either some cute four year-olds dressed as giraffes or Dracula holding out pumpkin-shaped buckets or a group of teenagers in black eye shadow and lipstick holding out a pillow case. Luckily, we ran out of candy and I had to turn off the porch light. After that, nobody bothered us and I got to drink my tea 🙂
This week, we went to see BofA to talk about a car loan. Last week, we applied to borrow some money for cars because I’m paying a ridiculous amount of money to rent a car monthly. We mistakenly thought that, although the interest rates were not as competitive, the fact that we had an account with the bank, they have a relationship with Barclays in the UK and we spoke directly to the person who set up our account in the first place, it would hold us in good stead.
The person who set up our account is the Branch Manager. She has the title Vice President but this means absolutely nothing. She is not able to make lending decisions on her own, she has to refer them to the loans department. The first thing that the loans department did was to credit check us :-S We were rejected because of the usual story, i.e. no credit history. Usual frustrations, usual banging of heads on walls.
I ended up speaking with my CEO. Our CFO has contacts with a credit union and arranged for me to speak to the Branch Manager there. She sounded encouraging saying that lending to overseas visitors is something that they have done before. It’s likely that this means we will part company with BofA so we can bank with the credit union but I’m sure that neither BofA or I will be shedding any tears over that. We have our fingers crossed that we can work this through.
It seems that it’s not just us who are having financial difficulties. The school keeps sending begging letters to the parents for donations of $25 to $40 per child for art material or reading material or to be able to pay for someone to come and read the children stories. The financing of schools is a big topic and Californian schools are not well funded which is why they keep tapping the parents for cash. The problem we have is that the PTA stated that the membership fee ( which equates to $100 per child per family ) is to assist the school for funding certain projects. One such project is called Art In Action where the children get to learn about different art forms. According to the PTA accounts, $8000 has been spent on this project. However, at least in Rachel’s class, the volunteer parents are teaching the lesson. For free. This week, it was Sam’s turn to teach the lesson. She had to explain about cave paintings in Lascaux and discuss the techniques being used. Excuse me ? Sam is well-versed in a multitude of skills but I don’t remember going to her graduation ceremony at Art college. The teacher was sat at the back of the class. How is it possible to spend $8000 if you get someone to teach for free ? I don’t believe that they spent $8000 on wax crayons.
This weekend, it hit home about how far we are from the UK. My best friend got married and we weren’t able to attend. So, a big congratulations to Neil and Carron. We managed to speak with them the day before and the day after and it all went well. We’re just waiting for the pictures of the day.
And in other news, I obtained minor celebrity on the BBC News website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4392080.stm#captions