If you listen carefully, you can probably hear a vague wailing sound coming from the general direction of Germany; a sort of pained whine, interspersed with sobs of horror and confusion. It happens around this time every year. It’s the sound of new-to-Deutschland freelancers trying to figure out how, in the name of all that’s holy, they’re going to do their taxes by the 31st of May.
The funny thing about all of this is that I actually thought I was prepared. I’d kept every receipt, every invoice, every pay slip, and even compiled them into neat spreadsheet documents, which I’d not only saved, but also printed out, paper clipped, labelled, slid into plastic pockets and put into specific folders. (Just in case there was any doubt that I’m turning into a German.)
The even funnier thing about all of this is that Germany has actually tried to simplify the process by allowing you to do your taxes online. Yes, the Germans have created a lovely system, the rather ironically titled, “elsteronline.de”, “Elster” meaning “magpie” – you know, the birds that love to steal your shiny things. I keep telling you Germans have a sense of humour…
Reliably informed by Sheila, the Half-Naked Aussie, that all we had to do was go to the Finanzamt and get a PIN number, I was confident that this was going to be a walk in the park. Of course, the idea that you had to go to an office to get a PIN to use in an online system seemed to defy logic, but well, this is Germany so…
We chose a time, met up, and then spent around twenty minutes trying to find a replacement bus for a train service that was actually running. You might think that this makes us total numpties, but with the underground trains in seemingly permanent disarray, and the overground trains on strike more often than your average German ends a sentence with “oder…”, it was a pretty easy mistake to make.
We eventually got to the Finanzamt where we explained to the confused German lady what we wanted. After around thirty seconds, she handed us leaflets and told us to go online and register. She didn’t add “like normal people” but I believe it was implied. I asked her if it was easy and she assured me that it was. And off we went; the whole procedure had taken under five minutes.
Eager to find out just how “easy” it was, I sat down that afternoon and tried to register. Following the step-by-step instructions (in German) in the leaflet, I was amazed to find that it actually was easy. I received a password by email, confirmed that I had received it, and Step One was complete. On to Step Two… oh no, wait, this is where the German part kicks in. Now that you’ve completed Step One, you have to wait a week to receive a second password – by post. Sigh.
One week later, I received a rather flimsy paper envelope with the words “paperless and secure” emblazoned on it. Ha. The people in the Finanzamt must be chuckling all the way to the bank.
I logged on to elster again and, without even looking at the leaflet this time, completed Step Two. I was then able to download a security key in .pdf form, which enabled me to access the system. About to pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate my ingenuity, I first decided to have a quick look at what lay ahead. This was the moment my brain exploded.
So, I used the “translate” button at the top of the screen:
Now, the thing is that, in Germany, you can earn over €8,000 without paying any tax. As I only moved here in September, by the end of the tax year, I was nowhere near this figure. Therefore, I’m not actually sure I have to file a tax report at all. However, this being Germany, I don’t want this to come back and bite me in the “amt” at some point in the future. There’s probably a fine for “not filling in forms that you didn’t actually have to fill in but because you didn’t fill them in now you have to pay” or similar.
So my current plan is to just fill in as many boxes as I can. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I figure if the Finanzamt people come knocking at my door at some point in the future, I’ll just email them the number to a P.O. Box and then tell them that in a week’s time they’ll receive a document in the post. That document will be this online blog post in secure paper form detailing the reasons why I failed miserably to cope with their “simple” online system.
When in Germany and all that…