Why I Literally Taxed Myself, and Got Happier
Plus, it made others happier, too …
Can paying taxes actually make you happier? Well, yeah.
Just think about it. How many things are you happy to have that you could never pay for if they weren’t funded by taxes? The roads, the parks, a justice system, universal education, a social safety net (’cause you never know!)… it’s a pretty long list. Sure, it’s not a perfect system, but what is?
But what if you could make yourself happier by actually taxing yourself? I mean, doesn’t the power of taxation come from everyone being involved? How can you taxing yourself do any good?
Well, I recently moved. I’d been way out in the county and got tired of having to drive for half an hour to get anywhere. And I’d been wanting to downsize, so I sold the place, sold some stuff and gave some stuff away, and bought a house in town. It’s an older home, a lot like the houses I grew up in, and it feels comfortable, like a well-worn jacket.
In fact, it felt so comfortable that I got to feeling kind of guilty about living here. Like I didn’t really deserve it. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s true — I don’t deserve it. I just have it.
How many people work a helluva lot harder than I do, and don’t have a fraction of what I’ve got? Too many to count, I can tell you that. When you get down to it, I couldn’t possibly deserve the way I live. I may not be considered rich by contemporary American standards, but when you put things into a global and historical perspective, I am mind-bogglingly wealthy.
I am so wealthy, that I actually flush my toilets with drinkable water, if you can believe it. And I can have heated water with the turn of a knob, any time I like. There are two spigots on the outside of my house that dispense potable water, and the place where I live is so collectively wealthy that no one even bothers to steal it!
I can literally decide what temperature I want my house to be. I can talk with people all over the world whenever I care to. I own a machine that washes my clothes for me, and another that can take me across the continent at a mile a minute. I have flown through the sky across the ocean. More than once. I eat strawberries in the winter, and squash in the spring. I have no idea how to make cloth, but I have a closet full of stuff to wear. I can sit in my house and watch events that happened years ago, and listen to music performed by people I’ve never even met.
That’s pretty astounding right there. Not even the pharaohs of Egypt or the emperors of Rome had all that, or even dreamed they ever could.
Sure, it all costs money. And sometimes the budget gets pretty tight. There were times in my life when I had a lot less, but even when it was just one room with a sink and a hotplate and a microwave, an AC unit in the window, and a toilet and shower shared with two other rooms, I still counted myself damn lucky, all things considered.
So I was thinking about all this, and I was thinking about the folks I see out on the road, or on the sidewalks, carrying their cardboard signs, relying on the kindness of strangers. That’s a damn hard way to live, no matter what the reason or how you got there. And that’s when I decided to charge myself a homeful tax. As a way of reminding myself how good I have it.
The idea was, I’d tax myself a dollar a day. Thirty bucks in singles at the top of the month, stashed in the console of my truck. And every day, I move one of the dollars to the little compartment in the dash. When I go downtown, I take whatever’s in the dash and stuff it in my pocket. And when I see someone asking for money, when I’m walking or driving, I give them whatever’s there, whether it’s a dollar or two or five, depending on how many days it’s been since the last time.
That way, I could budget what I was going to give. I wouldn’t have to ask myself if I could spare a few bucks, because I’d already set it aside. It was a monthly cost of living, like the groceries or the power bill. It made things easy. And I’d be helping some folks out.
But then something happened that wasn’t in my calculations. That tension I felt whenever I saw someone asking for money — it loosened up. I wasn’t embarrassed anymore. I didn’t have to look away, or try to pretend I wasn’t looking away. Even if I had already given out the dash money, if someone asked me did I have anything to spare, I could honestly say “No, not today.” Maybe next time, I would.
And I stopped judging, too. Stopped asking myself if this person was really hard up, or if that person deserved my assistance. They were just there, and in need. And when people thank me, I look them in the eye and say, “Yes sir,” or “Yes ma’am.” Because they’re no longer an inconvenience. They are people, like me. Who I can say hello to, like anybody else. For the first time in my life, I see them that way. Until now, I hadn’t, not really. And I hadn’t even realized it.
Am I solving their problems? No. Does this make me deserve what I have? No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t let me off the hook.
What it does is to show me how I can be a little more generous, and a bit happier at the same time. It’s helping everybody out just a little bit. And that’s better than nothing.
And I start wondering, what else can I do without? Maybe I’ve had it all backwards, thinking about what I can amass as I get older to protect myself. Sure, you gotta eat, and have a place to stay and all that. But I’m already thinking about when I might can downsize again. Rather than piling up more in the bank account, perhaps I can reduce how much it costs to maintain my life on this earth.
Looking back, I wasn’t actually unhappy in that one room. I remember one night, coming home after a long cold drive in an electrical storm with the lightning dancing all around, so beautiful but dangerous to be out in, how grateful I was to get into that room and under my blanket. I had friends who would come over, and we’d sit outside in a few chairs I had out there. We’d talk and laugh. When I wasn’t happy, it was mostly because I felt I was underachieving, that I should have more than this, more to show for myself. Now, I’m wondering how I can get back there, in a way.
My homeful tax isn’t going to change anyone’s life. Not going to get anyone off the street, or make me a saint. I know that. But it’s one more ray of light in the darkness. And who knows, maybe that little ray of light can guide me to better places.
I suppose I’ll just have to follow it to find out.
Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.