Payroll Tax vs. Income Tax: Understanding the Differences

Payroll Tax Explained: A Comprehensive Guide

When it comes to managing a business, understanding various taxes is crucial. Payroll tax plays a pivotal role for employers and employees. Let’s delve into the details.

What is Payroll Tax?

Simply put, payroll tax refers to the taxes employers deduct from an employee’s salary and wages. The question of “what is a payroll tax?” often arises among new business owners and employees.

Essentially, it’s a percentage of an employee’s pay that the employer sends to the federal, state, or local tax authorities. It’s one of the mandatory aspects of salary deductions and is used primarily to fund social programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

Understanding Payroll Tax Deductions

Payroll tax deductions are more than just a single deduction from an employee’s paycheck. They can be broken down into several categories:

  1. Federal Income Tax Withholding: This amount is determined based on the employee’s income, marital status, and claimed allowances. This is where the term “payroll income tax” comes into play. It’s the portion of the tax that goes to the federal government.
  2. Social Security and Medicare: These two form the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. Employers withhold a certain percentage of an employee’s wages for Social Security and Medicare and contribute an equal amount.
  3. State and Local Taxes: Depending on the employment location, state and local payroll taxes might be applicable. Not all states have this tax, so it’s essential to be aware of regional regulations.
  4. Other Deductions: While not strictly a tax, other deductions such as health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, or garnishments might also be part of the payroll deductions.

Whether you’re an employer setting up a payroll system or an employee looking to understand your paycheck, seeking the help of a Professional Tax Consultant makes things smooth.

Income Tax Demystified: Know Meaning & Types

Income tax, a term we often hear, especially during the tax season, can perplex many. But this guide is here to simplify things for you. Let’s understand in detail:

What Is Income Tax?

Income tax is a tax levied on the income of individuals or businesses. The government collects this tax in the United States as a primary means to fund various public services.

When people ask, “What are income taxes?”, they usually refer to the federal tax deducted from their earnings. But note that many states impose their income taxes, too. The government collects income taxes through two primary methods:

  1. Withholding from Earnings: This is the most common method where a portion of an employee’s pay is taken out and sent directly to the government. This is the “employee income tax” that most working individuals are familiar with.
  2. Estimated Tax Payments: Typically relevant for self-employed individuals or those with other taxable income not subject to withholding. They estimate and pay their taxes in regular installments throughout the year.
Types of Income Tax
  1. Individual Income Tax: This tax is levied on the income of individual citizens and residents. It’s what most people refer to when discussing their tax returns.
  2. Corporate Income Tax: This is a tax on the profits of corporations. Different rates and structures apply compared to individual income tax.
  3. Employer Payroll Taxes: While not strictly an income tax, employer payroll taxes are related. Employers are responsible for withholding certain taxes from their employees’ wages, which go towards Social Security and Medicare. This is in addition to the “employee income tax” withheld.
  4. Capital Gains Tax: This tax is levied on the profit from selling an asset, like stocks or real estate. The rate can vary based on the asset’s length and other factors.
  5. Dividend Tax: This tax is imposed on the dividend payments made to a company’s shareholders.
  6. Estate Tax: Applicable on the transfer of an estate of a deceased person.
  7. Gift Tax: Tax on transferring any asset (money, property, etc.) to another person without compensation.

Comparing Payroll Tax and Income Tax

It’s common for individuals to confuse terms or mix up different types of taxes. Two of the most commonly conflated terms are “payroll tax” and “income tax.”

Both are essential components of the U.S. tax system, but they serve distinct purposes and are calculated differently. Let’s understand the nuances of payroll tax vs. income tax. This is to help you find the major difference between income tax and payroll tax.

Distinguishing Between Payroll Tax and Income Tax
  1. Payroll Tax:
    This tax is specifically geared towards funding Social Security and Medicare. It’s a shared burden to which both employers and employees contribute. If you’ve ever noticed a deduction labeled FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) on your paycheck, that’s the payroll tax at work.
  2. Income Tax:
    This is the tax levied on your earned income, whether from employment, business, or other sources. It’s progressive, meaning the rate increases as your income does. While payroll tax funds specific programs, income tax revenue goes into the general federal budget, supporting a wide range of government services.

When discussing income tax vs payroll tax, understand that while all employees will pay both (up to a certain income level for payroll taxes), the rates and calculation methods differ significantly.

Taxation Methods and Rates: Payroll vs. Income Tax

The methods and rates for these two taxes vary, further emphasizing the distinctions between payroll taxes vs income taxes.

Payroll Tax Rates

The combined payroll tax rate 2023 is 15.3%, with 12.4% going towards Social Security and 2.9% towards Medicare. This burden is typically split between employers and employees, each paying half. However, self-employed individuals are responsible for the entire amount, though they can deduct the employer portion.
Example: An employee earns $100,000 in 2023. Their employer will withhold $6,200 for Social Security tax and $2,900 for Medicare tax, for a total of $9,100 in payroll taxes. The employee will also be responsible for paying their own portion of payroll taxes, which is another $9,100.

Income Tax Rates

Income tax rates in the United States are higher, meaning that higher-income people pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. The top income tax rate in 2023 is 37%.

Here is a table of the 2023 federal income tax brackets for single filers

Taxable Income Tax Rate
$0-$10,275 10%
$10,276-$41,775 12%
$41,776-$89,075 22%
$89,076-$170,050 24%
$170,051-$523,600 32%
Over $523,600 37%

Payroll Tax and Your Paycheck

Whenever you receive your paycheck, you might notice certain deductions. One of the primary deductions is for payroll taxes. But what is this tax, and how does it differ from the employee income tax?

  1. Nature of the Tax: Payroll tax is designed to fund federal programs like Social Security and Medicare. It’s a shared responsibility, with the employer and the employee contributing.
  2. Calculation: Payroll taxes are a fixed percentage of your gross income. This means that regardless of your earnings, the percentage remains the same, up to a certain income cap.
  3. Self-Employed Individuals: Those who are self-employed need to pay both the employer and employee portions of the payroll tax, though there are provisions for deductions to ease this burden.

Income Tax and Your Annual Tax Return

  1. Nature of the Tax: Income tax revenues feed into the federal government’s general fund, supporting various services and programs. It’s not earmarked for specific purposes, like the payroll income tax.
  2. Progressive System: Unlike the fixed percentage of payroll tax, the income tax system is progressive. This means the more you earn, the higher the percentage of your income you’ll pay in taxes.
  3. Tax Deductions and Credits: Your income tax liability may change depending on which tax deductions and credits you qualify for. These can significantly reduce the amount of tax you owe.
  4. Annual Filing: Individuals and businesses must file an income tax return annually, summarizing their earnings and deductions. This process determines whether you owe more taxes or are eligible for a refund.

Conclusion: Making Informed Tax Decisions

Understanding taxes is important for everyone, whether an individual or a business owner. Knowing the basics, like the difference between income tax and payroll tax, payroll tax settlement, and more, can help you make better choices about your money.
It’s not just about paying what you owe but also about using the rules to your benefit. The more you learn, the better decisions you can make. And if you ever feel unsure, feel free to ask a tax professional. After all, making smart tax decisions can lead to better financial health in the long run.


Is payroll tax flat or progressive?

Payroll tax is progressive. This means that the higher your income, the higher percentage of your income you pay in payroll taxes.

Is payroll tax income tax?

No, payroll tax is not income tax. Payroll tax is a separate tax used to fund social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Income tax is a tax on all income, including wages, salaries, and investment income.

What taxes are considered payroll taxes?

The following taxes are considered payroll taxes:

  • Social Security tax
  • Medicare tax
  • Federal unemployment tax (FUTA)
  • State unemployment tax (SUTA)
What are the different types of taxes?

The different types of taxes include:

  • Income tax
  • Payroll tax
  • Sales tax
  • Property tax
  • Excise tax
  • Estate tax
  • Gift tax


Mr. Joshua A. Webskowski

Joshua specializes in successfully resolving cases in all areas of tax resolution including liens, levies, & other IRS collections cases.

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