What employees need to know about income tax withholding

When you start a new job, there are several forms you have to fill out for payroll and tax purposes. One of the most important is the W-4, or Employee’s Withholding Certificate. The W-4 tells your employer how much of your paycheck to withhold for federal income taxes. For employees, it’s crucial to get this right so you don’t end up owing a large sum when you file your taxes or having too much withheld each pay period.

Our Pay-As-You-Go Income Tax System

The U.S. federal income tax system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis. As employees earn income, employers withhold a portion of each paycheck and submit it to the IRS on the employee’s behalf. If not enough is withheld, employees may face an unexpected tax bill and penalties. If too much is withheld, employees typically receive a refund after filing a tax return. 

When personal or financial situations change, employees can submit a new W-4 to update their withholding. The IRS Tax Withholding Estimator tool helps determine proper withholding amounts and shows how take-home pay, refunds, or balances due may be affected. 

A few examples of changes include getting married, having a child, or buying a house. These changes can affect your tax situation. The good news is you can submit a new W-4 whenever your personal or financial situation changes. 

For most employees, the W-4 they submit at the start of a job will remain in effect indefinitely. However, it’s a good idea to revisit your withholding at least once a year or if your financial situation changes significantly. Getting withholding right saves stress during tax season and prevents painful surprises. While paying taxes will never top anyone’s list of favorite activities, a little extra effort upfront leads to greater peace of mind and an understanding of your overall tax situation.

Real-world example 

Meet Jane. She’s a graphic designer who just started a new job. Jane fills out her W-4, indicating her marital status, number of dependents, and other factors. This information helps her employer determine the right amount of tax to withhold from her paycheck. If Jane has too little tax withheld, she might face an unexpected tax bill and possibly a penalty when she files her tax return next year. On the other hand, if she has too much tax withheld, she’ll likely get a tax refund, but that means she’s been living on less of her paycheck throughout the year.


Now, let’s talk about independent contractors, the freelancers of the world. They’re in a slightly different boat. They need to pay their taxes directly to the IRS. Depending on how much they earn, they may need to pay estimated tax on a quarterly basis. It’s like running a small business; you have to handle your own tax payments.

The distinction between employees and contractors depends on specific rules. In some cases, workers may be misclassified, leading to problems. Wondering if you should be classified as an employee or independent contractor? Here’s a quick video to help you determine this.

Remember, whether you’re an employee or an independent contractor, understanding your tax withholding is crucial. It’s not just about filling out a form; it’s about taking control of your financial future.

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