Most workers receive their paychecks twice a month — and while it’s all-too-easy to simply have those paychecks put into your bank account through direct-deposit, it’s important to understand the numbers and codes that are appearing on your pay stubs. If you don’t, you might be accidentally losing money.
The first step when it comes to reading your paychecks involves familiarizing yourself with the standard financial and tax information that appears on all of them. This includes the deductions for federal and state taxes, Social Security, Medicare, personal insurance plans and retirement savings. Beyond that, you can ask your human resources department to explain any proprietary codes they’re using on your pay stub. Here’s a more detailed guide to how to read your paycheck.
The Basic Building Blocks of Paychecks
A pay stub generally lists:
- Your taxable earnings
- Your gross pay or the total amount of money that you earned that pay period
- Your net pay or the amount of money that you get to take home with you. Your net pay matches the dollar amount listed on the paycheck that you’re so eager to cash.
- Withholdings for federal taxes, state taxes, Social Security and Medicare, which largely account for the difference between your taxable earnings and net pay.
Let’s break it down further, piece by piece, in an attempt to help you better manage your money.
Federal Income Taxes
The federal government gets a piece of your income from each and every paycheck. This piece of income is your withholding tax — a partial payment of your annual income taxes that gets sent directly to the government.
The amount of money withheld for federal taxes depends on the amount of money that you earn and the information that you gave your employer when you filled out a W-4 form or Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate.
On a W-4 form, you can make allowances for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. For 2016, each allowance that you take exempts $4,050 from withholding.
For every allowance that you take, less money gets withheld for federal taxes and more money gets added to your paycheck. Take fewer allowances and a bigger chunk of your income will be withheld for your federal taxes.
Depending on where you live, you may or may not be required to pay a state income tax. As with federal taxes, money for state taxes is withheld with every paycheck.
The federal government requires every working American to contribute a portion of their paycheck to Social Security, a system of supplemental retirement programs established in 1935. Every worker contributes 6.2% of their gross income directly into the Social Security fund, and every employer chips in an additional 6.2% for each employee. The Social Security fund provides benefits to current Social Security recipients.
The federal government requires every working American to contribute to Medicare, a U.S. government insurance plan that provides hospital, medical, and surgical benefits for Americans age 65 and older and for people with certain disabilities. Every worker contributes 1.45% of their gross income to Medicare and every employer chips in an additional 1.45% on behalf of each employee.
These federal and state withholdings account for much of the difference between your gross income and net income (or take-home pay). But there may be other deductions as well, depending on the programs that you sign up for with your employer.
If you signed up for medical, dental, or life insurance through your employer, your contributions to these plans will be deducted from your pay.
Retirement Savings Plans
Contributions to retirement savings plans such as a 401K plan will also be deducted from your pay. When you sign up for a 401K plan, you select a percentage of your pre-tax salary that you’d like to contribute to the retirement account. If you choose 5%, then 5% of your pre-tax pay will be contributed to your retirement account.
Flexible Spending Accounts
A flexible spending plan allows you to set aside pre-tax dollars for medical expenses including health insurance copayments and deductibles and prescription drugs. Contributions to a flexible spending account are deducted from your pre-tax income.
Health Savings Accounts
A health savings account is another way to put pre-tax dollars aside in a special account for medical expenses. To be eligible for a health savings account, you’ll need to select a high-deductible health insurance plan. Contributions to a health savings account are deducted from your pre-tax income.
Why It’s Important to Track Your Deductions
Each pay stub includes year-to-date fields for each withholding category so you can track how much money you’ve paid for taxes and Social Security and Medicare throughout the year. Many employees include a similar listing for contributions to retirement savings plans and health plans. You’ll generally see these fields marked as “YTD” (year-to-date) on your pay stubs.
It’s important to stay on top of this information. Any errors are your responsibility to find and to report to your company’s human resources department. The last you thing you want is for an error to be repeated through several pay periods. If you have questions about any of the information listed on your pay stub, be sure to contact a human resources person at your company.
A pay stub also lists gross and net income to-date. So you’re able to track just how much money you’re making (your gross pay) and how much money you’re actually taking home after taxes and other deductions (your net pay) throughout the year. You can use this information to build a spending plan, work on reducing your debts or start saving for the future.
The information on your last pay stub of the year should match the information on your W-2 form, which details your wages and taxes paid for the year. Be sure to check.
Why It’s Important to Securely Store Your Pay Stubs
Some pay stubs include your Social Security number along with your name and address, so it’s important to find a safe place to keep them for your records. A locked drawer or filing cabinet works best. If you ever have reason to believe your pay stub — and, as an extension, your Social Security number — was compromised, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit for signs of identity theft. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing your free credit report snapshot updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.
To learn how to get control of your finances and about budgeting best-practices, read more from our experts by visiting our Personal Finance Learning Center.
Jeanine Skowronski contributed to this article.