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Tax Withholding: What It Is And How It Works

Updated: May 20, 2024

The IRS implemented federal tax withholding during World War II to limit tax evasion and decrease the financial shock of a big tax bill at the end of the year. It utilizes a pay-as-you-earn collection system to capture taxes owed throughout the year. This guide will discuss the types of tax withholding, how it’s calculated, and how you can use it to your benefit, including understanding the implications for FITW tax.

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    • Tax withholding breaks your income tax payments up into smaller portions, paid each pay period. 
    • Your employer pays that money on your behalf to the IRS as part of the pay-as-you-go tax collection system.
    • The 2 types of federal withholding are U.S. Resident and Nonresident.
    • The simplest way for an individual to calculate the amount is to use the Tax Withholding Estimator.

    What Is Tax Withholding?

    Tax withholding is the action of holding back income tax from a paycheck. It applies to regular pay, pensions, bonuses, commissions, and gambling winnings.

    Employers must withhold employment taxes from your paycheck. The amount that gets held back depends on your earnings and the information you gave on your Form W-4. Federal income tax, social security, and medicare taxes make up your employment taxes.

    The Internal Revenue Service provides an online Tax Withholding Estimator that you can use to confirm your employer is withholding the correct amount. You should review your withholding: 

    • If the tax law changes
    • When you have life changes
    • At the beginning of each year
    Save 40 Hours During Tax Season

    How Does Tax Withholding Work?

    Your employer withholds income tax from your paycheck throughout the year and remits it directly to the Internal Revenue Service on your behalf. By taking a small portion each pay period, you lessen the shock of a huge tax bill at tax time. 

    Withholding income tax doesn’t increase or decrease your tax liability; it spreads the money owed in smaller payments over a year. The amount withheld is calculated based on your income, filing status, and the withholding allowance on your W-4. 

    Beginning with the 2020 W-4, employees are no longer able to request adjustments to their tax withholding using withholding allowances. Instead, employees provide employers with amounts to decrease or increase their tax withholding.

    If your employer has you submit a W-4, they must withhold income taxes every pay period. You can have additional tax withheld from your paychecks if you have a second income not subject to employer tax withholding. 

    Typically, sole proprietors, contractors, and those with other careers who do not pay through withholding, pay estimated taxes every quarter to lessen how much they owe for the year.

    According to the Internal Revenue Service, it is a good idea to use the Tax Withholding Estimator tool to review your tax withholding each year and whenever you have:

    • Major changes to your lifestyle including marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, home purchase, retirement, filing for bankruptcy
    • You or your spouse have a change in wage, start or stop working, or start or stop a second job
    • Self-employment income, interest income, dividends, capital gains, IRA distributions, and other taxable income not subject to withholding
    • IRA deduction, alimony expense, student loan interest deduction, or other adjustments to income 
    • Medical expenses, dependent care expenses, gifts to charity, taxes, education credits, interest expenses, child tax credits, earned income credits, and other itemized deductions or tax credits

    Change your federal tax withholding amount by completing sections 2 to 4 on a new W-4 and submit it to your payroll department, human resources, or employer.

    Withholding Tax Types

    The IRS outlines 2 types of withholding tax meant to ensure the collection of taxes owed. They are the U.S. Resident Withholding Tax and the Nonresident Withholding Tax.

    U.S. Resident Withholding Tax

    The U.S. Resident Withholding Tax is the IRS designation for the general withholding tax that applies to all U.S. residents. It specifically relates to the income earned by residents from U.S. employers and certain international sources. 

    The IRS designated the following earnings as subject to tax withholding:

    • Your regular pay, commissions, and vacation pay
    • Reimbursements and other expense allowances paid under a nonaccountable plan
    • Pensions, bonuses, commissions, gambling winnings, and certain other income 

    Nonresident Withholding Tax

    A nonresident alien or NRA is any foreign person with a U.S. source of income who is not a U.S. citizen or a U.S. national. NRAs include: 

    • Temporary workers or tradespeople
    • Foreign entities
    • Governments
    • Anyone conducting business in the U.S. as a nonresident 
    • People who have not passed a green card test or substantial presence test

    Through withholding, the IRS can capture the applicable taxes through a pay-as-you-go collection system. The NRA withholding tax rate is a flat 30% (or lower treaty rate). There are some cases when a reduced rate or exemption applies. For example, if there is a tax treaty between the foreign person’s country of residence and the United States.

    Nonresidents must file Form 1042 and related Form 1042-S for the year they engage in trade or business in the United States.

    Calculating Tax Withholding

    Your withheld tax includes Medicare and Social Security tax, and federal income taxes. The amount withheld from your paycheck depends on how much you earn and the information you gave on your Form W-4. 

    Your employer uses the most recent tables to calculate the amount of income tax to withhold. They will add or subtract adjustments you entered on your Form W-4 (extra withholding amount or deductions), then apply the applicable tax to the total amount.

    There is a benefit to adding an extra withholding amount on your W-4. The main benefit is it can ensure you won’t have a surprise tax bill when you file your federal income return. In some cases, you may even have a tax refund. The downside is you won’t have that money in your pocket during the year.

    Use the Tax Withholding Estimator to calculate what amount to enter in Step 4, Extra Withholding on your Form W-4. To use the estimator, you need the following information on hand: 

    • Your filing status
    • Your income and any additional income
    • Your pay stub information, including the end date of your most recent pay period, your per-period wages and year-to-date (YTD) totals, the amount of federal income tax per pay period, and the total paid year-to-date

    You also need to know the amount of any applicable tax credits and whether you take the itemized or standardized deductions. If you file jointly, you also need this information from your spouse. Both you and your spouse must use the same deduction method if you file jointly. Entering incorrect information can impact your year-end tax liability and potential tax refund.

    The table below outlines the 2023 Marginal Tax Rate used to calculate your withholding tax.

    Tax RateIncome Range Single, Married Filing SeparatelyIncome Range Married Filing Jointly
    10%$11,000 or less$22,000 or less
    12%$11,000 to $44,725$22,000 to $89,450
    22%$44,725 to $95,375$89,450 to $190,750
    24%$95,375 to $182,100$190,750 to $364,200
    32%$182,100 to $231,250$364,200 to $462,500
    35%$231,250 to $578,125$462,500 to $693,750
    37%$578,125 and over$693,750 and over

     Source IRS.gov

    Simplify Tax Preparation With Freshbooks

    Tax withholding can be useful if you have the right information. If you increase your withholding allowance or make estimated payments, you can further decrease your end-of-year tax burden. Review your tax situation by using the Estimator today.

    FreshBooks offers many articles and guides to help you and your small business through payroll, invoicing, filing tax returns, and more. FreshBooks accounting software can track and categorize expenses to help you capture every eligible deduction. Try FreshBooks free by signing up today to see how easy tax filing can be!

    Less Taxin', More Relaxin'

    Sandra Habiger is a Chartered Professional Accountant with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Washington. Sandra’s areas of focus include advising real estate agents, brokers, and investors. She supports small businesses in growing to their first six figures and beyond. Alongside her accounting practice, Sandra is a Money and Life Coach for women in business.

    Sandra Habinger headshot

    Written by Sandra Habiger, CPA

    Sandra Habiger is a Chartered Professional Accountant with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Washington. Sandra’s areas of focus include advising real estate agents, brokers, and investors. She supports small businesses in growing to their first six figures and beyond. Alongside her accounting practice, Sandra is a Money and Life Coach for women in business.

    FAQs About Tax Withholding

    What is an example of a tax withholding?

    If you file as a single person and you have a yearly wage of $18,000 after subtracting the withholding adjustments, your tax rate is 12%. If your bi-weekly pay is $692.30, then the amount withheld each pay period is $37.30 plus 12% over $519 for a total of $58.10.

    What percentage should I withhold for federal taxes?

    It is advisable to withhold about 90% of your estimated taxes owed. The amount you withhold will depend on your estimated gross income, applicable deductions or credits, and your status. Check your tax withholding using the estimator to calculate your anticipated year-end income tax.

    How much taxes are withheld from my paycheck?

    Income tax withholding only subtracts the estimated amount owed based on your income, credits and deductions, and your status. It spreads the annual amount due over your yearly pay periods. The exact amount will vary from year to year and by circumstance.

    How much extra should I withhold?

    You should only withhold extra taxes if you anticipate a higher income resulting from a secondary income or a change in your spouse’s income if your filing status is married filing jointly. The IRS does not recommend counting on a big tax refund for an injection of cash at year’s end.

    Is it better to withhold taxes or not?

    Generally, it’s better to have taxes withheld if you are employed or make estimated tax payments if you’re a sole proprietor. By breaking up your tax payments throughout the year, you can spread out the burden into manageable chunks.

    What happens if I don't withhold taxes?

    If you are employed and not exempt, you have no choice whether you have taxes withheld. If you are self-employed and you don’t pay your taxes throughout the year, you are more likely to get a substantial tax bill and potential penalties when you file your federal income tax return for the year.


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