By: Ann Davis-Rowe
As the old saying goes, there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. But when it comes to taxes, things aren’t always the most consistent. Or transparent. For instance, no one is quite sure how the 2017 tax cuts will actually affect everyone until we all file for 2018 in the spring of 2019. Because taxes can be so capricious, please know that if you are at all confused about filling out your tax forms or filing your taxes, I highly encourage you to speak with a personal tax professional (especially if you are looking into buying a house or marrying your S.O.). Don’t worry – it’s not that hard! Your bank or credit union may be able to help; check out their website or give them a call to see if you can make an appointment. You can also search the IRS database of tax professionals here. Even if you think you don’t have enough money to need a financial professional, they exist for a reason and the more you know, the better!
Now, on to the basics.
What is a W-4?
Anytime you start a new (non-contract) job, you will likely be asked to fill out something called a W-4. This form essentially tells your employer how much federal tax to withhold from your monthly (or bi-monthly) paycheck. The government then takes that cut from your paycheck each pay period to both a) prevent you from having to pay all of your taxes at once when you file and b) give itself money to help it function throughout the year. If you don’t fill out a W-4, the federal government will always withhold at the highest level possible, since it gives them more money in a handy interest-free loan.
Filling out a W-4 is not just for when you start a new job, although that is the most common scenario for doing so. Major life change events, such as marriage, divorce, a new baby, or buying or selling a house, also call for filling out a W-4. Similarly, you could request to fill out a new W-4 after you file your taxes and realize you want it updated – because, for example, you didn’t have enough withheld each paycheck and therefore found out you owed the government way more than expected after filing.
How do I fill out a W-4?
When you receive your W-4, you should also receive a Personal Allowances worksheet (if you didn’t receive one and want one, just ask your HR department). This worksheet will help you estimate how many deductions you should have; the more allowances you claim, the less you have withheld from each paycheck. While that sounds like a win-win, know that if you calculate incorrectly and don’t give them enough of your paycheck throughout the year, you will have to pay more to the government when you file your taxes.
Allowances include children and other dependents; married people may be able to claim a spouse, and there are different calculations if you plan to file your taxes alone or with your spouse. Married couples can choose to file separately if one of them has a significant itemized deduction, like medical expenses, but that is far more complicated and individualized than we can cover here and a subject to be covered one-on-one with a tax professional.
The ultimate goal of filling out a W-4 is to balance your paycheck tax withholding through the year with what you will actually owe for the whole year. Guess under, and you’ll have to pay more when you file your taxes. Guess over and, yeah, you’ll get money back when you file, but you also could have had more money on your paychecks.
For an estimated guess as to how much tax you will owe every year and what allowances you should claim, check out the IRS’s official calculator here. To see an example of the W-4 form and the worksheet, click here.
Am I exempt from income taxes?
Under a (very) few specific circumstances, you may be exempt from federal and state income taxes. Tax exemptions examples include: your income is lower than X amount each year, you have certain ability issues (i.e., you are legally blind), etc. FYI: just because you are a student does not mean that you are tax exempt…but you might be. These are very specific and individualized situations, so please see a tax professional if you think you may have an exemption.
Federal vs. State income taxes
Unless you live in the following states: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington (the state, not D.C.), or Wyoming, you will also have to fill out a state (or district) income tax withholding form for your employer. New Hampshire and Tennessee also have no state income tax – but they do tax on income from dividends and interest, and if you live there and have enough of those to be concerned, you definitely need more advice than can be found in this article.
Typically, the deductions you claim federally will match what you claim in state withholding. However, because these forms are all so different, if you want to do some research before getting new hire forms from your employer, just Google search “[your state] state income tax form” and you should find an actual copy and the instructions.
I received a W-2 in the mail. What’s that?
Employers are expected to send your W-2 – that is, their record of everything they paid you and how much tax was withheld – by January 31 of the following year. You must then file your taxes by April 15. Like most things in life, procrastination here is not your friend. Just because you can wait until mid-April to file doesn’t mean you should. The sooner it’s done, the sooner you don’t have to think about it. Plus, say you had too little withheld and ended up having to pay hundreds of dollars to make up for it: the sooner you adjust your W-4, the easier it will be when you file next year.
In case I haven’t said it enough, please note that referring to The Adult Dish is not the same as referring to an actual tax professional. If you have more questions, see one of those! But also, don’t worry too much – if all else fails and you had too much or too little withheld for the year, you can always go back to your HR department to fill out a new form and change your withholding rate as you see fit.