Income Tax vs. Payroll Tax: Unraveling the Differences and Their Financial Impact

Payroll Tax vs Income Tax: Key Differences
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Kristen Larson
By Kristen Larson
October 27, 2023

payroll tax vs income tax

Navigating America's intricate tax system often feels like exploring a labyrinth, and for countless individuals, differentiating between income tax and payroll tax can be an intimidating challenge. 

In this extensive article, we embark on a journey through the complexities of these two tax categories, i.e., payroll tax vs income tax, dissecting their distinctions and illuminating their consequences for employers and employees.

What is the difference between payroll tax and income tax?

Income tax and payroll tax may sound similar, but they are fundamentally distinct. Income tax primarily falls on the shoulders of employees, with the tax burden increasing as income rises. In contrast, payroll tax is a joint responsibility, with both employers and employees contributing.

While income taxes are known for their complexity and flexibility, payroll taxes are relatively straightforward, employing a flat tax rate.

Moreover, income taxes are funneled into the government's general funds, whereas payroll taxes are designated for specific programs, including Social Security and Medicare, operating with fixed tax rates.

The Difference Between Income Tax and Payroll Tax

To better comprehend the contrast between these two taxes, we've created a concise comparison chart:


Payroll Tax

Income Tax

Tax Rate

15.3% (current federal payroll tax rate)

10% to 37% (federal income tax rate range)


Levied on both employees and employers

Levied on individual salaries and wages

Employer Responsibility

Withhold employer's share of payroll taxes, Medicare, and Social Security

Report employee earnings and remit deductions from employees' wages

Employee Responsibility

Pay federal and state social security and Medicare tax; pay local payroll taxes based on location.

Pay income tax to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) based on filing status and net income.

Calculation Method

Multiply employees' Social Security tax rate (6.2%) by gross pay; Calculate payroll tax by multiplying the Medicare tax rate (1.45%) by employee's gross pay.

Calculate income tax based on household income and subtract deductions and exemptions to determine taxable income.

How Are Payroll Taxes Different From Personal Income Taxes?

differences between income tax vs payroll tax

To fully grasp the disparity between payroll vs income taxes, it's essential to consider tax rates, levies, and the roles of employees and employers.

Income Tax Rate:

Income tax rates can vary significantly depending on the state, with some employing flat rates and others implementing progressive tax systems. High-income earners in states with flat rates pay the same tax percentage as all employees. In contrast, progressive states tax individuals based on their earnings.

Payroll Tax Rate:

The current Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) sets the payroll tax rate at 15.3%. This tax is split evenly between employers and employees. Unlike income tax, the payroll deductions rate remains uniform, regardless of income level. Some states, such as Texas, Washington, South Dakota, Alaska, and Florida, do not have income tax systems.

Payroll Taxes vs Income Taxes: Levies

While income tax and payroll tax share similarities, they diverge in terms of IRS levies and purposes:

Income Tax Levies:

Individual income tax is typically imposed on an individual's wages, salaries, and other sources of income. Most taxpayers do not pay taxes on their entire income due to exemptions, deductions, and tax credits. The IRS offers various deductions and credits to reduce taxable income and lower the tax rate.

Payroll Tax Levies:

Payroll taxes are primarily deducted from employees' wages and salaries to fund Social Security, Medicare, and other social insurance programs. Employers are responsible for withholding these taxes from employees' payroll processing. However, it's widely accepted that employees effectively bear the cost of employer payroll taxes through lower wages. The revenue generated from payroll taxes supports vital programs, including Social Security benefits for retirees, individuals with disabilities, and survivors of deceased workers.

Employee vs. Employer Taxes: Who Pays What?

Both employees and employers have specific tax responsibilities when it comes to payroll and income taxes. Let's delve into these responsibilities:

Employees' Income Tax and Payroll Tax Responsibilities:

Employees are subject to various tax obligations, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, state and federal income taxes, and, in some cases, local payroll taxes based on their place of work and residence.

Social Security Tax:

Employees' wages or salaries are subject to Social Security tax, collected by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). This tax supports survivorship benefits.

Medicare Tax:

Medicare tax, also known as hospital insurance tax, is a percentage deducted from employees' gross wages. It helps fund the medical insurance program established in 1965.

Federal Income Tax:

This tax is mandatory for all employees in the United States and covers earnings from various sources, including sole proprietorships, limited liability companies, and nonprofits.

State Income Tax:

Employees working and residing in the same state are required to pay state income tax, with rules varying between states. Some states use flat tax rates, while others implement progressive tax systems.

Applicable Local Taxes:

Counties or states impose municipal or local taxes to fund public services. Employees are obligated to pay these taxes if they work in areas governed by such laws.

Employers' Payroll Tax and Income Tax Responsibilities:

Employers also have specific tax responsibilities, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, federal and state unemployment taxes, and local taxes where applicable.

Social Security Tax:

Employers pay a 6.2% Social Security tax rate set by the IRS. Employers and employees together contribute a combined 12.4% to the relevant authorities. This tax is considered a deductible business expense.

Medicare Tax:

Employers share the responsibility for Medicare tax, which has no wage cap. The IRS imposes this tax on employers, allowing them to share the burden with workers.

Federal Unemployment Taxes (FUTA):

Employers are responsible for paying federal unemployment tax, which is 6% of each employee's first $7,000 in annual wages. This tax is specific to employers and ceases when an employee's annual wages surpass $7,000.

State Unemployment Taxes (SUTA):

Many states levy unemployment taxes ranging from 2% to 5% on employers within the state. The rules and rates for state unemployment taxes vary by state. 

Applicable Local Taxes:

Employers must adhere to local payroll tax regulations, as they can differ significantly across counties and municipalities.

Individual Income Tax vs. Payroll Tax Usage

Governments utilize taxes as a means to generate public revenue, and the IRS enforces tax collection on behalf of the government. Understanding how individual income and payroll taxes are used is essential:

Income Taxes Usage:

Income tax revenue is essential for funding various government functions, including foreign affairs, national defense, public services, law enforcement, and other governmental obligations. These taxes contribute to social programs and local community development. Additionally, income taxes play a role in servicing interest on the national debt.

Payroll Taxes Usage:

Payroll taxes, collected from both employees and employers, serve distinct purposes. These taxes fund programs such as Medicare, federal and state Social Security, and other social insurance initiatives aimed at benefiting society. Furthermore, payroll taxes contribute to unemployment insurance and support federal employees.

FAQs on Income and Payroll Taxes

Is Payroll Tax Flat or Progressive?

Unlike individual income taxes, payroll taxes employ a flat rate, meaning that all employees pay the same tax percentage, regardless of income. Progressive tax systems, on the other hand, apply varying tax rates based on income.

Is Payroll Tax the Same as Income Tax?

No, payroll tax and income tax are not the same. Employees pay both income and payroll taxes, whereas employers only pay payroll taxes. The IRS enforces income taxes and applies them to citizens, while payroll taxes are used to fund specific programs.

What Taxes Are Considered Payroll Taxes?

Payroll taxes encompass federal unemployment income, Medicare, and Social Security. Additionally, certain payments, such as those to contractors and termination benefits, are subject to payroll tax deductions. Employees have these taxes withheld from their paychecks, while employers also contribute.

What is an unemployment tax refund?

An unemployment tax refund is a financial reimbursement provided to individuals who have overpaid unemployment taxes during a specific tax year. This typically occurs when someone has had more taxes withheld from their income for unemployment insurance than they owe based on their earnings and the applicable tax rates.

Conclusion: Understanding the Difference Between Payroll and Income Tax

While many taxpayers may find it challenging to differentiate between income tax and payroll tax, there are clear distinctions between the two. Tax rates and fund allocation are key differentiators. How to calculate payroll taxes varies with companies. 

Income tax is primarily the responsibility of employees, while workers and employers share payroll taxes. Whether you are self-employed or work for a company, understanding the contrast between income and payroll taxes is crucial for managing your financial responsibilities.

The future of payroll tax calculations depends greatly on keeping your financial data organized. Use Real Check Stubs for accurate figures!

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