"I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don't need a receipt for the doughnut. I give you money and you give me the doughnut. End of transaction. We don't need to bring ink and paper into this! I can't imagine a scenario where I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut to some skeptical friend. 'Don't even act like I didn't get that doughnut - I've got the documentation right here. It's in my file at home. Under D.' - Mitch Hedberg
Until moving to LA, I’d never really appreciated the value that sales receipts seem to hold in our society. Up until now, they’d always just seemed like some thoroughly unwelcome byproduct of consumerism:
“Here’s the thing you bought, and here’s a piece of garbage with what you bought and how much it cost written on it so that you can remember this experience forever. Also, we’ve neglected to put any garbage cans between the door and your car, so you can either be an asshole and litter or just toss it into the passenger seat of your car and let it pile up there with all the other receipts.”
Because when you’re me, you really don’t want to have an easily traceable record of every purchase you make, because it kind of highlights all the sad and pathetic aspects of your life without any real context. The receipts that until a few months ago were piled up in my car painted a pretty bleak picture of my life, because most of them were either for handles of Jack Daniel’s, Philly cheesesteaks, or bulk quantities of snap peas and hummus.
I was always especially indignant about the receipts at restaurants – namely, the ‘CUSTOMER COPY’ that you wind up with. For a long time, a lot of them had ‘RETAIN THIS COPY FOR YOUR RECORDS’ at the bottom, and I loved the idea that the people printing these receipts assumed that a regular cheesesteak and bourbon purchaser such as myself would be well enough organized to have ‘records’ when I have enough trouble cobbling together enough clean clothes to leave the house some days.
For a long time my ‘records’ was my car – I’d toss my receipts in there and forget about them, and then they’d been retained. If you needed to verify that I’d bought something, just run on out to The Truman Capps Preemptive Memorial Archives On Wheels and take a look.
At this stage in my life, I can’t really imagine that there’s much for the IRS to audit me over anyway – and if they did, I don’t think it would take long for them to determine that it was in fact me who’d been buying all those cheesesteaks and all those handles of Jack Daniel’s. They wouldn’t even really need to see receipts or bank statements or anything; all it takes is a look at me, my apartment, and my car to figure out that I’m not some sort of criminal mastermind trying to get one over on the federal government; I’m just too fucking lazy to meticulously preserve and organize a paper trail of my rather embarrassing purchases.
My attitude on receipts, like so many other things, changed when I moved to Los Angeles and started interning and working as a production assistant. A large part of either of these entry level jobs is spending somebody else’s money on stuff that’s necessary for the production – things like a hacksaw, bananas, or 64 cans of black spraypaint.* The thing is, when somebody hands you their credit card or a wad of petty cash and tells you to go get something, they want you to come back with documentation that you spent that money on what they told you to.
*I don’t know if the Home Depot policy is to card everybody who buys spraypaint, or only people who buy more than 50 cans. They either thought I was Banksy or catering for the ultimate paint-huffing party.
So in the past few months I’ve gotten really good at holding onto every receipt I get, and requesting receipts when the cashier forgets to give me one. Once I had to turn around and drive the whole way back to the Ikea in Long Beach because the idiot behind the counter there forgot to give me a receipt for the $480 I’d spent on 39 throw pillows for one of the CODXP lounges – what I’m saying is, don’t doubt my devotion to receipts.
Recently, though, I discovered that there’s a good reason to keep even my own personal receipts. As it turns out, if you’re trying to establish yourself as a writer (like I am), the government will let you write off writing-oriented purchases on your taxes as business expenses.
For example, I go on a lot of runs in my car for my internship – if I hold onto those gas receipts, I can write the gas off as an expense of my trying to become a writer. My Hulu Plus membership? That’s research for being a TV writer, so I can write it off. My copy of FinalDraft is essential for my career as a writer, so it’s a $99 writeoff.
I can keep writing off writing expenses for up to three years – at that point, if I’ve not made any money from writing, I can’t write off my expenses anymore because clearly I’m not cut out to be a writer. It’s sort of comforting that the IRS has its own clearly defined, legal rubric for whether you’re a failure or not.
Receipts, which I once saw as garbage, now have a purpose – they’re essentially little tickets that are redeemable for money back from the government. Knowing that, now I’ve started to try and find a way to tie every purchase I make back to my writing career.
Because, when you think about it, technically everything influences my writing because I write about whatever is going on in my life on a biweekly basis. Remember all those references I made to Jack Daniel’s and Philly cheesesteaks earlier? I feel like that qualifies me to write off several years’ worth of whiskey and junk food as business expenses – I was just doing research for my blog! I blogged about XBox Live once, so why not write that off too? I’m still debating whether I should start saving the receipts from my mind bendingly expensive LA haircuts – if anybody at the IRS wants to argue that maintenance and upkeep of my hair isn’t a business expense, I could just direct them to the name of my blog.
But I’m not going to do that, even though I’m sure I could completely get away with it because nobody’s ever tried it before. It’s because trying to steal money from the government right now is like trying to take money from a completely paraplegic homeless guy who’s also kind of slow in the head. I mean, really, who needs the money more right now – me, the guy with a kind of stable monthly income, some savings in the bank, and no debt, or the entity that owes an almost inconceivable amount of money to China, can barely pay most of its staff, and thinks pizza is a vegetable?
Truman Capps would put his receipts in a file cabinet, but buying a file cabinet feels kind of like just giving up on life and saying, ‘Come at me, middle age!’