I suppose there might be people out there who can file their annual tax returns stress-free. Congratulations! For the rest of us, condolences!

Money and Stress

In 1943, the US government enlisted the help of Donald Duck to educate Americans about how to pay their income tax and why it was important to the war effort.

“Money is a major source of stress on people, and what tax season does is shine a great big spotlight on the issue,” Michael McKee, a Cleveland Clinic psychologist and president of the U.S. branch of the International Stress Management Association, told WebMD. “Money takes center stage at tax time, even if you might have been able to push it to the wings the rest of the year.”

A 2004 survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association found that nearly three-quarters of Americans cited money as a significant source of stress. Money is also consistently among the top causes of marital contention, says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and financial self-help author based in Washington, D.C.

Heightened Tax Stress

And nothing focuses us on money like tax time. Anyone can face the stress of having money due and too little money on hand. For those who itemize, there are additional sources of stress:

eFiling comes with the risk of computer glitches or internet lag affecting your tax returns.
  • The frustration of the forms’ language
  • Finding time to do the work
  • Filing for an extension
  • Missing documents
    • (This is a biggie. It could be anything, but it’s often receipts. I won’t go into the time my husband inadvertently threw away all of our 1099s.)

Then there are miscellaneous stresses:

  • You finally wedged a CPA appointment into a jammed schedule only to discover that said CPA has moved, you can’t find the office, miss the appointment, etc.
  • Your CPA retired last summer
  • A bigger accounting firm absorbed your old one and now communications are via a headquarters in South Carolina (or wherever)

Sources of Financial Stress

But virtually every item on the topic index is rife with sources of stress. These may or may not be directly related to the taxes due, but dealing with them at tax time could well trigger strong emotions. Here is a select list:

Tax season causes everyone financial stress. These stacks are just some of the $110,000,000 worth of stamps the IRS used to send out tax forms in 1914.
  • Alimony paid or received (or not)
    • …and associated hostility
  • Business use of home
    • …and the strain it puts on family
  • Casualty or theft loss
    • …and the aftermath of being a victim of crime
  • Child and dependent care expenses
    • …meeting them, but also finding such services in the first place, and possibly the precariousness of arrangements
  • Contributions
    • …a willing tithe to church, or possibly being pressured to support your alma mater
  • Education expenses
    • …and doubts about whether the degree is worth it
  • Foreign assets, expenses, taxes, and income
    • …and what to do about off-shore accounts and tax shelters, should you be one of those people
  • Gambling winnings (or losses)
    • …and whether to join Gamblers Anonymous
  • Gifts
    • …to whom and what and whether they were freely given
  • Medical and dental expenses
    • …and the trauma of diagnosis, surgery, recovery (or not)
This income is from an Etsy shop, right? Nothing nefarious to report here!
  • Miscellaneous income and adjustments
    • (They really expect people to report illegal income??)
  • Mortgage or education loan interest paid
    • …and the continuing burden from years ago
  • Moving expenses
    • …and whether the move was up or down, willing or forced
  • Sale of home, stock, or other capital assets
    • …and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
  • Unemployment compensation
    • …and whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating
  • Sale of home, stock, or other capital assets
    • …and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
  • Unemployment compensation
    • …and whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating
Whether taxes are justified …and if you ought to throw tea in the harbor to protest.

If you are filing a joint return, remember (and remind your spouse if necessary) not to displace anger/frustration rooted in the process.

Other Sources of Tax Stress

The Darius Vase depicts, among other scenes, the Royal Treasurer receiving taxes from conquered nations of the Persian Empire, circa 340 BCE.

Then, too, sometimes there are ongoing issues about money. For example, if one partner is a spender while the other partner is a saver and a worrier. This can result is resentment at tax time, when a couple may examine how their habits are affecting their lives and marriage.

“Of course, we all bring our individual emotional baggage to tax preparation. Fear of the government also emerges at tax time. Some clients of financial counselor Karen McCall are so afraid of the IRS that they won’t take even the most innocuous deduction. “They’re paralyzed because the IRS is an authority figure, and if they have unresolved issues around authority figures in their lives, that can cause a lot of fear.”

Sometimes, that fear of filing taxes stems from is understandable. As Michael McKee says, people who have been through audits can suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome during tax season for years afterward.

Avoiding Tax Stress

You may not be able to avoid all stress at tax time, but consider ways to lessen it. Mellan and McCall offered these tips in a WebMD article on coping with tax stress.

Little known fact: if you set all your money and assets on fire, you won’t have to declare them as assets to the IRS!
  • To avoid last-minute stress, file early and break up the job into little pieces, Mellan suggests. Do your taxes while listening to music or whatever else makes you feel relaxed.
  • For filers with math anxiety, Mellan recommends hiring a preparer or investing in tax software. Tax software typically collects information through an “interview” and the computer does all the calculations.
  • Fractious couples should strategize on ways to avoid chronic money fights, Mellan says. For example, try communicating financial information through notes or other modes that won’t carry an accusatory tone.
  • McCall suggests channeling tax-time stress into a resolution to track your finances more carefully. Better money management is the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises each year, she says.
  • Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can turn to your buddies at the IRS. Options include filing an extension or setting up an installment plan for tax payment. For more details, visit the IRS website at
This would all be so much easier if the IRS explained taxes like they would to a preschooler.

Bottom Line: Tax time is stress time. You’ll just have to deal, starting with recognizing the danger zones and ameliorating as best you can.


I have to work very hard not to spend all my money (and time) one books.

Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.

Does owning an entire city count as filthy rich?

How much money?  These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.

Being penniless isn’t so bad when there are open barrels of food everywhere.
  • Penniless
  • Poverty stricken
  • Poor
  • Lower middle class
  • Middle class
  • Upper middle class
  • Well off
  • Rich
  • Filthy rich

*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.

Social attitudes toward shopkeepers often depends on the quality of merchandise.

Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.

Musicians playing in a bar are often treated differently from musicians playing in a symphony hall, though their incomes are often almost identical.
  • Begging or panhandling
  • Gambling
  • Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
  • Illegal activities
  • SSI disability
  • Medicare/Medicaid 
  • Hourly wage
  • Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
  • By the job/ piecework
  • Having multiple jobs
  • Salary
  • Salary plus bonuses
  • Stocks/bonds, dividends/interest
  • Trust funds
  • Family loans/gifts

Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.

Some people value experience and travel more than money, making a living on the road, feeling the wind in their fur… er… hair.
Assassins are generally exempt from income and property taxes, though sales tax may still apply.

Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.

  • Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
  • Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
  • Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
  • Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
  • Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)

Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.

Making everything at home is a way to save money and ensure quality.
  • Always more where that came from
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
  • Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
  • Always live below your means
  • Clips coupons and shops sales
  • Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
  • Buy quality, not quantity
  • Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid

Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.

Relationships can get really complicated if your friends sell you off for scientific experiments.
  • Similar
  • Comparable
  • Much above
  • Much below
  • Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
  • Income disparity causing conflict

Where the money goes:

  • Religious tithes
  • Charitable contributions
  • Necessities only
  • Whatever strikes one’s fancy
  • Luxuries, with or without guilt
  • Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
  • Hobbies (what?)
  • Supporting family or friends who need a hand
  • Pets
  • Back into a business
  • Stocks/bonds
  • Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
Partying with demons is surprisingly expensive.

How money is handled:

If these characters offer a loan, running away is probably the best response.
  • Cash only
  • Charge everything possible
  • Pay by debit card whenever possible
  • Pay bills as soon as one arrives
  • Have bills paid by bank debit
  • Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
  • Tip lavishly or stingily?
  • Bank account
  • Checking account
  • Savings account
  • Needing to take payday or title loans
  • If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?

Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?

No matter how carefully one budgets and saves, it can all be taken away at any time when a horde of dragons comes by.