Getting Caught by Sales Tax Outside NH

Leaving the safety of New Hampshire's tax bubble

Illustration by Brad Fitzpatrick

I’m standing in Massachusetts with a cup of coffee in one hand and a dollar bill in the other.

The sign for a 99-cent cup of coffee persuaded me to pull in to this particular establishment because it just so happens that a dollar is what I have in the cup holder in the front of my minivan, and after a day of swimming and barbecuing, my wallet is somewhere in a bag in the back of the vehicle, directly under my sleeping children.
So I grabbed the dollar bill, hoping against hope that there is enough change left in there to pay the one toll on the way home.
And now here I stand in line, ready to make my purchase and resume my life behind the wheel as “driving dad.”

When the time comes I jovially set the cup of coffee on the counter and plunk down my dollar like a kid who’s buying the latest version of his favorite comic book (something I know a little something about).
But then a freezing chill comes over me as I hear the buttons on the cash register being pushed and a little blue set of digits appear on the readout that is facing towards me.

Oh, yes, I suddenly remember, sales tax!

Now, perhaps it’s because I’ve spent too much time in the winds and waves today and I’m a little punch drunk from all that outside time (I am, after all, a writer whose natural habitat is a dark coffee shop), but all of a sudden this seemingly simple transaction has taken on an epic air; the simple tired traveler versus the faceless corporation, a mere citizen versus big government run amok.

"All of a sudden this seemingly simple transaction has taken on an epic air"

When I was a kid growing up in a certain other state, I could figure out sales tax like no one’s business, computing numbers in my head on the fly when purchasing that coveted candy bar or comic book. Because back then computation was an urgent skill needed because money was hard to come by and having exact change was as necessary to small-town life (with one general store selling the required candy bars and Spider-Man comic books) as knowing how to swim is to a Hawaiian. Woe to the child who tried to buy a Snickers bar and came up five cents short. I could knock out 7 percent sales tax like it was a frog on a lily pad and I was a kid with a BB gun. I had to. That Spider-Man comic book was calling.

But on this particular day I realize that living in the great state of New Hampshire has made me soft.
And as all these thoughts fly through my head in a millisecond, I steal a quick, hopeful glance at the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray and realize with mounting dread that there isn’t one.

My options suddenly become clear, I can either depend on the goodwill of the young man behind the counter (“Phil,” as his name tag says), explain to him my particular funny predicament (“honestly, Phil, where I live the coffee really would be 99 cents”) and depend on his understanding and generous spirit, or I can trudge back out to the car and desperately search the seats for seven cents and run the risk of waking up the sleeping kids in the back.

In the end, Phil the cashier is generous and waves me along, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I exit the convenience store with my steaming cup of brew in my hands; thankful to be returning to the land where coffee is the price that it is advertised to be. 

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