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How to Calculate Payroll Taxes for a Small Business

How to Calculate Payroll Taxes for a Small Business

When you own a small business, you have several responsibilities that you need to oversee throughout the year. Payroll tax management is one of the more notable obligations that are on your plate. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily obvious how to estimate payroll taxes for a small business.

While it’s not the most enjoyable job, it’s critical that you calculate payroll taxes correctly. Every employer must withhold payroll taxes from each paycheck, so proper handling of these deductions is important to both your employees and the government. This responsibility is a lot of pressure for a small business owner who isn’t familiar with how to withhold payroll taxes. That’s why we’ve put together a breakdown of how to calculate payroll taxes for your small business.

A small business owner learning how to calculate payroll taxes. 

What Payroll Taxes Do Employers Pay?

Payroll taxes are one part of what the IRS considers as employment taxes. The term “employment taxes” actually refers to a variety of taxes that are directly connected to your employees. These taxes include:

  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes
  • Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) taxes
  • Additional Medicare tax
  • Self-employment tax

While some people confuse payroll taxes with income tax, the term “payroll taxes” specifically refers to FICA taxes. These FICA taxes are made up of a combination of Social Security and Medicare taxes, both of which are deducted from employee paychecks to fund their respective programs. Altogether, FICA taxes account for a total flat rate of 7.65 percent that’s split between Social Security and Medicare.

These taxes are deducted from employee paychecks, but employees aren’t the only people who contribute these percentages to Social Security and Medicare. Both employees and employers are responsible for paying them, and the employer payroll tax percentage is the same as what employees owe. As such, your business needs to match the flat percentage deducted from each paycheck.

How to Calculate FICA Taxes

The bad news about calculating payroll taxes is that you’re going to have to do some math. The good news is that the math for calculating FICA taxes is much easier than estimating federal income taxes. 

The reason why FICA taxes are much more manageable to calculate is that they’re flat percentages. As of 2021, the combined FICA tax rate is 7.65 percent of an employee’s gross pay. That rate is split into the following percentages:

  • Social Security tax – 6.2 percent
  • Medicare tax – 1.45 percent

Of course, payroll deductions aren’t always that easy. There are a couple of exceptions to the base rates that can affect your calculations for both Social Security and Medicare taxes if an employee makes more than a certain wage threshold.

Calculating Social Security taxes

In general, calculating Social Security taxes is straightforward – just multiply an employee’s gross pay by 6.2 percent. The resulting number should be deducted from an employee’s paychecks and matched by the employer. However, there is an annual limit to how much employees and employers contribute to Social Security taxes. 

Every year, the Social Security Administration sets a wage base for Social Security taxes. Essentially, employers and employees only have to pay these taxes up to a certain dollar amount. The taxable maximum is set at $142,800 for 2021, which means that Social Security taxes only count toward the first $142,800 an employee makes in a year. For example, an employee who makes $150,000 wouldn’t pay Social Security taxes on the final $7,200 in gross pay.

Additional Medicare tax

As with Social Security taxes, there are certain wage thresholds that will impact your exact calculations. Unlike Social Security, these thresholds can mean that individuals pay more in Medicare taxes. 

There are no annual Medicare tax limits. Instead, employees who earn more than certain amounts have to pay an additional Medicare tax rate of 0.9 percent. Those wage thresholds are: 

  • $200,000 for employees who are single
  • $250,000 for a married employee who files jointly
  • $125,000 for employees who are married, but file separately

It’s important to note that the additional Medicare tax only applies to wages earned above the set thresholds. For example, an employee who is single and earns $250,000 would owe 1.45 percent on the first $200,000 and a combined 2.35 percent on the subsequent $50,000.

Another key detail is that employers are not required to match any additional 0.9 percent contributions. Instead, they would only contribute the standard 1.45 percent. However, employers should still withhold the additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax from employee paychecks. Employees should also file Form 8959 if they meet the requirements for additional Medicare tax.

Payroll Tax Deductions Examples

Instructions on FICA tax calculations are nice, but sometimes it’s best to see an example on how to break down these calculations. Let’s start by assuming you have an employee who makes $52,000 in gross pay a year. Here’s a quick breakdown of the annual payroll tax responsibilities for that employee.

Annual breakdown of payroll taxes for a small business employee. 

While the numbers above give you an idea of how much both you and your employee will pay in annual payroll taxes, you’ll also need to determine deductions on a per-paycheck basis. Identifying per-paycheck tax deductions will allow you to withhold the right amount from each employee's paycheck while helping you keep track of what you owe when it’s time to pay the employer portion of payroll taxes. 

Determining deductions on a per-paycheck basis depends on your pay frequency. There are multiple pay period options depending on your location – weekly, biweekly, semimonthly, and monthly are all fairly standard. You’ll need to divide an employee’s annual gross pay by the number of pay periods in a year and apply the appropriate FICA tax percentages to that individual paycheck. Here’s a breakdown of that same $52,000 employee on a biweekly pay period.

Per paycheck breakdown of payroll taxes for a small business employee. 

How to Pay the Employer Portion of Payroll Taxes

Calculating and withholding FICA taxes is just one part of the process. As an employer, you still need to pay those withheld and matched taxes to the IRS.

Employers can report and pay FICA taxes through their Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) account. Employers must send regular payroll tax reports to the IRS through Form 941. The due dates for Form 941 are the final day of each quarter (April 30, July 31, Oct. 31, Jan. 31). 

In terms of depositing payroll taxes, the frequency depends on how much you paid in the past year. Businesses that reported more than $50,000 in federal taxes on average must deposit taxes semiweekly. Businesses that pay on a monthly business owe these taxes by the 15th of the following month.

New businesses or businesses that reported less than $50,000 on average only have to pay federal taxes on a monthly basis. The due dates for these payments depend on your paydays. If paychecks are due Wednesday through Friday, you need to deposit taxes by the following Wednesday. If payday falls on Saturday through Tuesday, those same taxes are due by the following Friday.

Take the Pain out of Payroll Management

Even if you have a grasp on calculating payroll taxes, you still have a lot of work to do. Managing payroll and tax filings can be one of the most time-consuming and challenging tasks there is for a small business owner. That’s why employers turn to GMS for payroll administration.

When you work with GMS, you get to stop worrying about the ever-changing nature of payroll tax management and start spending time growing your business. Contact GMS today about how we can help you take control of your critical HR functions.



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