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Computer bugs, spite — even maple syrup — lead Americans to file taxes at last minute

Jon Sweeney / NBC News

The lines were long at the James Farley U.S. Post Office in New York as taxpayers wait to mail their taxes Monday.

Some people can’t stomach the thought of turning hard-earned money over to the federal government. For others, everyday life is just too busy. A handful admit a perverse thrill from waiting until the last minute.

And then there is Janet Metsa of Houghton, Mich., who had perhaps the most creative excuse for waiting until the final hours on April 15 to submit her tax return.

“We are making maple syrup and have been busy tapping trees in our maple bush and boiling the resulting sap. The tax deadline has just sneaked up on us!” she said. “We are not usually this late.”

Welcome to Tax Day in America — the Olympics of procrastination, the Super Bowl of stalling, the extreme sport of excuse-making, the high holy day of having something better to do. Festivus for the stressed of us.  

On Sunday night, with hours to go before the deadline, prime time for kitchen-table calculator-pounding, NBC News put out a call for readers to explain why they waited until the last minute.

We heard from people all over the country. They sent us emails. They tweeted. They posted to Facebook. All hungry to commune with others taking part in our national springtime ritual.

Jon Sweeney

Lyna Woo mails her taxes at the James Farley U.S. Post Office in New York on Monday.

Or maybe they were happy to find an excuse to put off the dirty work.

Emily Fritz of Richmond, Ky., keeps a box in the back seat of her car — a cute one, she volunteered, adorned with sea creatures and mermaids, better suited for recipe cards or old family photographs.

She works as a private nanny and keeps her tax documents in the box. It’s been sitting undisturbed for two months, she said, because she is dreading watching the numbers on TurboTax zip into the red.

“So instead of a refund, which I could SO use right now, I’m up at 5 in the morning writing this email and further avoiding my taxes because I don’t want to know how many thousands I owe,” she wrote.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of Americans are chronic procrastinators, said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University and — it turns out there is such a thing — a leading expert on procrastination.

It doesn’t take a doctorate to figure out why: We put off things that we consider “aversive,” meaning they are boring or complicated or unpleasant, like shuffling through forms with ugly names like Form 941 Schedule B.

The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t keep day-by-day statistics, so there’s no way of knowing with precision how many Americans are April 15ers.

But we know that what they lack in timeliness, they make up for in numbers. Last year, the IRS processed about 148 million returns. With three days to go before the filing deadline, the agency had received only about 109 million of them.

You do the math. But then, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

“I will be one of those rushing to file tonight,” wrote Amanda Scott of Washington. “It reminds me of the feeling I got when cramming for a test in college. Those days are over, but tax day gives me a slight reminder of what my time in undergrad was like.”

This is a rare subspecies of the tax procrastinator, the people motivated by nostalgia. More common were people like Mike White, who figured he would be more likely to blow the tax refund on something frivolous if he got it early.

It did not appear to be his main reason. About four in five Americans now file taxes online, but White said that he planned to file on paper this year, just to spite the government. He added that Uncle Sam could kiss an unprintable part of his anatomy.

“I would send them a paper 1040 with Braille Roman numerals if I knew how,” he said.

Putting tax preparation off is not a phenomenon restricted to everyday Americans. The Obamas filed their tax return this year with a mere week to spare — $608,000 in taxable income, $112,000 in federal taxes paid.

The First Filers left themselves slightly more breathing room this year by turning in their return April 8. Last year, they filed April 11. The year before that, April 13.

So this is progress.

The closest thing to a dog-ate-my-homework explanation came from Vanessa Weiss of Hilliard, Ohio, who works as an agent’s assistant in an insurance office. She said she is a habitual tax procrastinator but has a good excuse this time — a computer virus.

“I’m going to a friend’s tonight to use her computer,” she said.

Then she added: “It doesn’t help that this year I have to pay.”

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