Cathy Derus holding a plate of food in her kitchen
Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis
The Way We Eat

“It’s Not Just Tax Returns.” A Chicago Tax Accountant on Juggling Kids, Pandemic Cooking, and the Weirdest Tax Day Ever

published Jul 14, 2020
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NameCathy Derus
Location: Chicago, IL
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 5; Cathy, her husband John, and their three kids Monica (7), Alex (4), and Cecilia (2).

If your mind has been a blur with trying to figure out when you need to file your tax return during the pandemic (that’s tomorrow!), or figuring out PPP loans and stimulus checks, Cathy Derus might have some answers for you. Cathy is the founder of Brightwater accounting, where she works as a CPA and financial planner for online businesses. And in between trips to the grocery store, and making orange soup for her kids (more on that later), she has managed to help her clients navigate everything going on right now (financially, at least).

I caught up with Cathy to talk about the new challenges of this unprecedented tax season, how she’s navigated parenting the last four months, and why she’s fine with an inflated grocery budget right now.

Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

So, tax season looks a little different this year. How are things … going?
My world turned upside down on March 13 when I found out my kids were going to start remote learning. They ended up doing it through the end of the year. I was trying to juggle getting work done, my husband was trying to work, we were trying to keep the kids entertained. It was a trip.

Fortunately, around the same time, they extended the [tax return] deadline, so it gave me a little extra breathing room. It hasn’t been as bad as the April 15 deadline, because we’ve had a few extra months to add things up. But some of my clients needed to get things done earlier just because they wanted to get that Paycheck Protection Program, the PPP. Or they needed help applying for the loan. Or they needed their stimulus checks.

So you have whole other layers to your job this year.
Yeah — it’s not just tax returns. There was all this other stuff that I wouldn’t normally be doing, too. I’m helping businesses figure out if they need the loan, how much they can get, and then helping them apply. Depending on when you filed your 2019 tax return, it might impact your stimulus check. There’s a little bit of tax planning and strategy going on.

Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

Is there any advice you would give to small businesses generally right now?
Hindsight is 20/20. But going forward, try to work on that emergency fund. That’s something that might be hard to do now, but as you get going again, it’s good to think about.

Another thing to think about is figuring out ways to pivot. What are some other services or products that you can offer? For example, it was my daughter’s birthday in June and instead of having a big cake where you could blow out the candles and spread your germs, we went to a donut shop, and they had individually wrapped donut sticks. Business owners are kind of figuring out how they can offer their service or their product in another way, which is great.

So, on top of everything going on with work, you’re also a mom to three young kids. And they are all at home. What’s that been like?
You make it work. I tag teamed stuff with my husband. He’d take the kids out for a bike ride or a hike, and I’d try to get stuff done. He’d have his Zoom calls and he’d sequester himself in the bedroom, and I’d try to keep them occupied and quiet, so there’s not screaming in the background.

That was the nice thing about the tax deadline being moved. I wasn’t as stressed. I emailed my clients, and I was like, Hey, the deadline has changed. I have kids home. I have extra coworkers and an intern that don’t pull their weight. So I need your help. Please extend me some grace. We’re going to work together. We’ll make the deadline.

And I will say, our kids have been back at summer camp for four weeks now. So that’s been a huge help. They’re there four days a week.

Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

What have meals looked like lately for your family during all of this?
It seems like the kids are either demanding snacks or screen time. There’s lots of popcorn, cheese sticks, and squeezy applesauce. A lot of meals involve working down what we already have: pantry mac and cheese, pizza, chicken fingers with veggies. We’ve had to get more creative with what we have.

We also signed up for a CSA this year for the first time. We get a random box of veggies and fruit every week. There are things that we’ve never purchased before, and we just kind of figure it out. It’s fun! It forces us to try new things and it exposes the kids to new vegetables that maybe we wouldn’t normally have.

Meal planning sounds like it’s way more important right now.
Yes. We had to be really intentional about what we’re making every week. When we make our grocery list we write down everything we’re eating for the week, and then we actually keep that list near the refrigerator, so we can say like Okay, Sunday and Tuesday, we said we were going to have orange soup.

Orange soup?
Orange soup. It’s like a Mexican-style chicken chowder. It’s from Against All Grain. It’s orange because there are sweet potatoes or butternut squash and then carrots.

Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

Has staying home affected your grocery budget?
It definitely went up during quarantine because everyone was eating all three meals and snacks at home. In addition to the kids being home, my husband has been working from home since March. Normally, he’d go out for lunch a few times a week. And I would sometimes grab lunch from a local spot. We’re buying way more snacks and coffee beans.

We didn’t feel too bad spending more on groceries and the occasional takeout order because we weren’t spending money anywhere else! So rather than looking at our food budget as one line item, I would evaluate our spending habits as a whole.

Any good budgeting tips that have worked for your family?
With the CSA box, we try to add more veggies to our meals and not have quite as much meat. That has seemed to help. I also think sticking to a list when you grocery shop helps. And looking to see what you have in your pantry and working with that. What bottle of weird thing is going to expire soon?

Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

Have there been any strange pantry meals you’ve made in the last couple of months?
No life-changing ingredient substitutions. But for recipes that called for brown sugar, we used regular sugar and molasses. Or we used up the almond flour that was in the freezer before buying more all-purpose flour. We used ground turkey instead of ground beef (since the grocery store was all out of beef). All-purpose flour instead of bread flour.

Okay, last question: What is your tax day cocktail this year?
We actually have our own quarantine cocktail — it’s called a Gold Rush. We have everything we need to make it in our pantry (this really delicious honey, bourbon, lemon). And now that it’s summer, it’s mojito season.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Cathy!

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.