Pay Cycle, Pay Day, Pay Period - What’s The Difference Between Them?

The Difference Between Pay Cycle vs Pay Day vs Pay Period
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July 9, 2023
Time to read: 11 Minutes
July 9, 2023
6 min read

Setting up a sound payroll system benefitting both employers and employees is an essential step in starting any business or company. Determining how and when your employees would receive their payments for work done is a necessity to handle your own payroll. This means that it is essential for you to understand basic paycheck terminology.


Read on to learn the difference between the terms pay cycle, payday, and pay period.

What Is a Pay Cycle?

Also known as a “pay schedule,” a pay cycle describes the frequency when an employer pays their employee for work rendered. It tells you how often payroll runs and the specific days your workers receive their salary. The pay cycle takes into account the day that you issue payment to the employee, known as payday, and the period an employee worked that reflects on their paystub, known as the pay period.


By establishing a pay cycle, your business could create a calendar showing when employees could expect compensation for their work. It would also detail the time duration included in a particular payment.


As an employer, you would assign pay cycles to positions to help control when employees in such positions are paid. You could also determine the schedule for processing payroll components, such as recurring benefits and earnings, when assigning a pay cycle to the payroll calculation.


After choosing which pay cycle suits your organization, you could generate a pay period for each cycle. This includes default payment dates based on what information you provide. You could also modify these dates during the stretch of a pay period to handle exceptions, such as when a payment date lands on holiday.


Pay cycles ensure that employees receive their payment for their work in a regular and predictable fashion. It also gives you information associated with taxes, insurances, and expenses that go hand in hand with deadlines.

Pay Cycle Types

As an employer, you have the freedom to set up your own pay cycles when otherwise not dictated by law. The following are different types of pay cycles you could consider.

- Daily 

Daily paychecks issued at the close of each workday are among the least common type of pay cycle. They could become prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, especially for small businesses. It could be beneficial to less financially stable employees who may need to cover unexpected expenses without waiting for the entire pay period in other types.


  • Paycheck per year: 365 (at most)
  • Payroll date: Everyday
  • Hours per pay period: 8 hours


- Weekly

An employee designated with a weekly pay cycle is paid once per week with a specified starting date that automatically updates at the beginning of each pay period. Weekly pay is the most favorable type for workers paid hourly or has irregular schedules and freelancers. It is also best for employees who generate many overtime hours as they could be paid for their time quickly.


A weekly pay could also become expensive with high time commitment, as you would incur cost and effort each time your payroll runs.


  • Paycheck per year: 52
  • Payroll date: Usually every Friday of the week
  • Hours per pay period: 40 hours (regular) plus overtime (if any)


- Bi-Weekly

Bi-weekly pay cycles are the most commonly used type by businesses and organizations. Designating this pay schedule means your employees get paid every two weeks. Their paychecks would arrive on a predetermined day of the week, which usually falls on a Friday.


Two of the twelve months of the year would only have three pay periods, which could be difficult for some businesses that have to manage irregular bonus periods in their accounting and reporting. This is also true for benefit deductions because they usually occur on a monthly basis. You would need to manage those deductions based on 26 pay periods instead of only 12 for monthly cycles.


  • Paycheck per year: 26
  • Payroll date: Usually every Friday of every other week
  • Hours per pay period: 80 hours (regular) plus overtime (if any)

- Semi-Monthly

Semi-monthly to bi-weekly pay cycles both pay employees twice a month. That is why some employers confuse and use them synonymously. Unlike bi-weekly pay schedules, which pay every other week, semi-monthly cycles have recurring paychecks twice per month. This means that regardless of how many weeks there is in a month, workers would still receive payments twice per month.


If you choose to adopt a semi-weekly pay cycle, your employees could receive their salary on the first day and 15th day of the month or the 15th and last day of the month. Accounting teams and salaried employees prefer this method because they expect payroll to run twice a month.


  • Paycheck per year: 24
  • Payroll date: Usually the 1st and 15th day, or the 15th and last day of the month
  • Hours per pay period: 87 hours


- Monthly

The least common pay cycle for employees is the monthly-based period. However, they are not entirely unheard of. Some companies and businesses find that they benefit from using this method because it requires less time and lowers the cost to run payrolls. It also makes deducting insurance benefits and other premiums easier as they are charged on a monthly basis.


While monthly pay cycles are suitable for business owners, it is the least preferred by employees. It would take a month for new workers to receive their first payment. They would also need to wait until the current pay period ends before they receive their paycheck. Employees would also have a hard time managing their personal expenses when they only get paid monthly.


  • Paycheck per year: 12
  • Payroll date: End of the month
  • Hours per pay period: 173.33 hours (average)

What Pay Cycle Suits You The Best?

Pay cycles dramatically affect your business’s operations, especially since it involves money and your employees. It influences your ongoing expenses and overall net income, as well as employee recruitment, retention, and satisfaction. When choosing the most beneficial pay cycle that suits your business, consider these five elements:


- Payday Laws


While other US states do not have specified regulations to determine your business’s pay period, others observe these laws. They dictate when your employees should receive their paychecks, what type of employees have regulated paydays, and if any special exemptions may apply.


- Employee Types


Review what kinds of workers you have within your organization or business, considering which pay cycle would benefit them. As discussed earlier, you could have different types of employees at the same time with their respective preferred pay cycles. Adopt a more regular pay period, such as weekly cycles for hourly employees and bi-weekly or semi-monthly schedules for most salaried employees.


- Costs


Make sure to consider your budget as you choose a pay cycle. Each task and responsibility accompanying the management of payrolls have various costs you need to make yourself aware of. Remember that the more often you process paychecks, such as on a daily or weekly basis, the more costs add up. This means that too frequent pay schedules could end up burdening your business.


- Cash flow


In line with identifying the costs associated with running payroll, you would also need to secure enough cash flow to operate smoothly. Take advantage of the times of the month when your business generates the highest returns, selecting a pay cycle you are equipped to handle and ensures regular paydays occur.


- Overtime


According to federal law, employers need to calculate overtime rates on a weekly basis. For example, an hourly, non-exempt employee would have a payroll that needs to include overtime weekly. You should also take into account this element even when using a bi-weekly or semi-monthly pay schedule.


Businesses that employ hourly workers that most likely generate large amounts of overtime may run a payroll better using a weekly pay cycle.

How To Set Up Pay Cycles

An employer uses pay cycles to determine the frequency of pay periods and paydays for each position. First, list how many distinct combinations of pay cycle frequencies and pay dates your business uses, as each combination requires you to use a separate pay cycle.


For example, your business could have a semi-monthly pay cycle frequency paid every first and fifteenth day of the month for management positions. Salaried or non-management positions could receive payment on the last day of the pay period in a weekly or bi-weekly cycle. Meanwhile, hourly employees could receive their pay on the Friday after the last day of the pay period.


In this case, you would need to use three types of pay cycles, which you would then assign one to each position in your organization. To create a new pay cycle, specify a position’s name and description. Then determine which of the following pay cycle frequencies is the most suitable for every position. It could be daily, weekly, bi-weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, quarterly, semiannually, and annually.


In some cases, different groups of positions could have the same pay cycle but have different paydays. As such, you could pay both salaried and hourly employees a bi-weekly frequency. If both positions receive their payment on the last working day of the pay period, you could employ the same pay cycle for salaried and hourly workers.


However, if hourly employees receive payment on the Friday after a pay period’s last working day, but salaried workers receive payment on a pay period’s last working day, you need to assign two bi-weekly cycles for each type. Designate one bi-weekly pay cycle for salaried workers and another bi-weekly pay cycle for hourly workers.

What Is a Payday?

This is usually your employees’ favorite day during the pay period. Also known as the check date, payday is when they regularly receive their compensation, typically in the form of paychecks. Payday depends on which pay cycle you choose based on the previous considerations discussed.


Payday also determines the due dates for payroll tax filings and deposits, reflecting on the paychecks or paystubs issued. It is your responsibility to meet the required deadlines for paying monthly federal and state taxes. This is still true even when you issue only a single paycheck. If you fail to deliver on time properly, you could face penalties that could hurt your bottom line.

What Is a Pay Period?

Pay period refers to the full stretch of time your employees performed their jobs. This is the total hours or days a worker completes before payday. For example, if your employees worked from April 1st to 15th, the amount of time done is the pay period, reflecting on their paystubs.


As previously discussed, daily pay periods produce at most 365 paychecks per year, while weekly pay periods generate approximately 52 paychecks per year. Daily and monthly pay periods are the least common and least popular types for employers and employees. Meanwhile, monthly, semi-monthly, and biweekly make 12, 24, and 26 paychecks each year, respectively.


Employee paystubs reflect pay periods detailing how many hours an employee worked before payday. The check stubs also include the pay rate, benefits, and deductions, such as taxes withheld and contributions. For salaried and exempt employees, their pay depends on an annual amount divided by the number of pay periods in a year.


Running a smooth business means that you need to consider and understand every aspect of each element carefully and monitor them closely. One of the most potentially confusing topics is the difference between pay cycle, payday, and pay period.


The pay cycle describes the frequency of when employees receive their payment, payday refers to the day they receive the payment, and pay period covers the time your employees performed their jobs. Determining these terms are essential as they influence your ongoing expenses and overall net income, as well as employee recruitment, retention, and satisfaction.