My 10-year-old son, David, is obsessed with taxes. He glares at the tax on restaurant receipts. He even ponders our property tax bill. When I broke the news about annual income taxes, due April 15, he was transfixed. "Why do we have to pay all this extra money?" he wanted to know.
When we both stayed home for a March snow day, I decided to teach him about the sensitive subject of paying our dues to society. After all, it's not something he's learning in school.
We mostly steered clear of politics. We didn't talk about our hometown of Burlington's school budget, for example, which was voted down on Town Meeting Day. And I didn't attempt to answer the question, "How much should we pay?" But we managed to cover the basics of this complex civic endeavor, with help from some resources I found online.
We started with the lesson plan on kids.gov, which includes this superb, simple taxation explanation: "Taxes are collected to pay for things that we all share, like roads, parks and playgrounds. We also share in the cost of services such as the public school system or the police department."
It offers a number of suggested activities, such as this one: "U.S. property tax rates vary from state to state, typically 0.2 to 4 percent. Have the students calculate the property tax for three properties at different values using the same tax rate."
I asked David to use his solid fourth-grade math skills to determine how much is due on a $100,000 property at a 1 percent rate. He was troubled that the answer meant the property owner needed to mail a $1,000 check to the authorities every year.
"That's a lot of money, Mom," said my boy, who, over the course of four years, has managed to save $200 in his bank account.
We reviewed the city of Burlington's online property tax calculator — burlingtonvt.gov/CT/PropertyTaxes/Calculate — which shows how taxes are calculated based on the homestead exemption rate of 1.5257 percent. David treated the program like a game and tested many different equations including the homestead tax rate for a $545,694,300 property.
Suddenly ditching his concern about the city's share, which was well over $10 million a year, he exclaimed, "This is fun!" I'm not sure many people have ever equated taxes with fun, but why not give him this financial freedom for a few seconds?
I also showed David whitehouse.gov/2012-taxreceipt, an initiative launched by President Obama to explain how our federal income tax dollars are being spent. It invites taxpayers to plug in their income, then estimates how many dollars the government spends in areas such as health care, international affairs, job and family security, and responses to natural disasters.
We used fake numbers, which made me feel less self-conscious about sharing our actual income with David. He deemed the site "cool."
Then, I decided to lean on the good old Boston Tea Party of 1773. Outraged by taxes on tea, the original revolutionary tea partiers tossed 45 tons of British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. With the help of a few websites, David and I figured out the value of the tea today and what its tax burden would be in 2014. Then, we used various sites to see how it might add up in the context of our lives.
The tea would cost nearly a million bucks today. If that were my salary, the income tax owed, at the current rate of 35 percent, would be $350,000. Owning a million-dollar home in Burlington comes with an annual bill of $22,841 in municipal taxes.
Our one-hour inquiry into taxes elicited "oohs" and "ah-has" from my son. David shifted from worry about the concept to excitement over the calculations. Staring at a stack of tax forms, I wish I felt the same.