Learning to avoid avoidance

Yesterday, I got a scary-looking letter from the IRS.

I could have tossed it, along with all of the other mail, onto my desk, making sure to hide it under a catalog or something so I wouldn’t have to look at it for a few weeks. That’s how I handled paperwork before YNAB.

Instead, I opened it.

I used to be so disorganized that I was always getting government letters or second notices from billers. I automatically assumed anything I didn’t recognize had to be bad news. And the only way to avoid bad news, as everyone knows, is not to open the mail.

Eventually, when the letters came by registered mail or the notices started showing up on pink paper or with return addresses from collection agencies (I’m ashamed to say that happened once or twice), I would reluctantly deal with them — and, often, the associated late fees — in a desperate and sometimes tearful fashion.

The amazing thing, which I only figured out a couple of years ago, was that this finely honed craft of avoidance never actually saved me any time, trouble or money. How could I have known?

In fact, I wasted a lot of energy avoiding the envelopes under the catalogs on my desk and lying awake in bed wondering just how bad things really were. I felt guilty knowing that I should be opening the mail. I lived under a constant cloud of low-level financial anxiety.

After I found YNAB, however, I determined that I couldn’t really move forward with a budget until I knew what my bills were. (Yes, this was a revelation for me. And yes, I swear I am in many other ways an intelligent person.)

It took several evenings, and several glasses of wine to brace me, but little by little I got through every piece of paper on my desk. I paid what I could pay, called or wrote to creditors and government agencies, and filed or recycled the rest. It was the first time I had seen my whole desktop in years and, more important, the first time in my entire adult life I didn’t have a single unopened envelope haunting me.

So, yesterday’s IRS letter? It was a notice for my husband’s business saying that, while I had paid all the payroll taxes for the first quarter of 2013, I had failed to file the associated report. I made a copy of the report (which I swear I had filed, but let’s face it, I’m still not perfect) and mailed it out, saving myself weeks of needless worry and guilt.

The late filing may carry a small fine. If so, that notice will come later.

And I will open it the day it arrives.