- Your bonus is considered “supplemental income” by the IRS, and treated differently at tax time.
- Taxes will be withheld from your bonus according to the percentage method or the aggregate method.
- You may be able to offset some of the taxes with deductions.
- See Personal Finance Insider’s picks for the best tax software »
At one of my first jobs, I got an annual bonus.
I don’t remember the numbers.
What I do remember, however, is how surprised I was to see how much less I received than the number I was told at my end-of-year review. Thanks, taxes.
I know I’m not the only one mystified by the case of the missing bonus, so I reached out to Certified Public Accountant Lisa Greene-Lewis of TurboTax to ask: Is my bonus taxed higher than my regular pay?
Why are bonuses are taxed so high?
Bonuses are taxed heavily because of what’s called “supplemental income.” Although all of your earned dollars are equal at tax time, when bonuses are issued, they’re considered supplemental income by the IRS and held to a higher withholding rate.
It’s probably that withholding you’re noticing on a shrunken bonus check. Employers take taxes from your check in one of two ways:
The percentage method. This is the method your employer will use if, like I did, you receive your bonus money in a check separate from your paycheck. Your company simply withholds tax at a flat 22% (if over $1 million, the highest rate of income tax for the year is used, currently at 37%), to keep things easy on their end. This method also applies to other types of income that are considered supplemental, such as severance pay, commissions, over time, etc.
The aggregate method. This is the method your employer will use if your bonus is added on to a regular paycheck. Your employer will withhold tax from your bonus plus your regular earnings according to what you shared with your employer on your W-4. Because you’re receiving more money than usual, your employer will withhold more money than usual.
In fact, the IRS provides a handy calculator that figures out the tax withholding on your income, so you can brace yourself ahead of time. Greene-Lewis says that in some cases, depending on your income and tax rate, you might actually get some of this money back in the form of a tax refund.
You may be able to offset a large bonus with tax deductions
If your bonus is only a few hundred bucks, there isn’t much you can do about the taxes. If you’ll receive a considerable amount of cash, though, you have a few options.
“Maybe you can increase your retirement savings,” Greene-Lewis suggests, “or you can donate to your favorite charity and get a deduction there.” Keep in mind that there’s a $300 charitable deduction ($600 for married couples filing jointly) available for 2021, authorized under the CARES Act, for those who do not itemize. If you itemize, you might be able to get a larger charitable deduction.
“If you own a home,” Greene-Lewis says, “you can maybe prepay your mortgage and get a bigger deduction, or prepay your property taxes,” though that will be subject to the State and Local Tax (SALT) limitations. While none of these options allow you to keep more money from your bonus, they do provide tax breaks that could offset the tax on your bonus.
You can also consider deferring your bonus to a new tax year
While some people get their bonuses in January or February, others receive them around the holidays. “A lot of time employers like to pay holiday bonuses in December because they’re able to write that off if their books close December 31,” Greene-Lewis explains.
If that’s the plan for you, and your bonus is big enough to push you into another tax bracket, you can also ask if your company will defer the payment of your bonus to the new year.
This comes in handy if you expect your income to decrease in the new year, or if you expect your deductions to increase substantially enough to offset the taxes — for example, if you’re planning to buy a house.
While you might think, logically, that employees could be better served tax-wise by gradual bonuses paid over a series of paychecks or by a simple raise that tacks on some extra money year-round, Greene-Lewis says that a company’s ability to pay bonuses is determined between the time it finishes up its accounting for the year and when it officially closes its books.
In some cases, those bonuses have to be paid before that year is closed. Because a company doesn’t know how much it can afford to pay until the last possible minute, employees end up getting lump sums.
Libby Kane, CFEI
Executive Editor, Personal Finance Insider
Libby Kane, CFEI, is the Executive Editor for Personal Finance Insider, Insider’s personal finance section that incorporates affiliate and commerce partnerships into the news, insights, and advice about money Insider readers already know and love. She holds the Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) certification issued by the National Financial Educators Council. For 2021, she is a member of the Insider Committe, a cross-team focus group working on making Insider an even better place to work. Previously at Insider, she oversaw teams including Strategy, Careers, Executive Life, and Personal Finance. Before joining the company in March 2014, she was the associate editor at LearnVest, covering personal and behavioral finance. Her teams at Insider have tackled projects including: • Master Your Money, a year-long guide for millennials on how to take control of their finances • The Better Capitalism initiative, in which we examine how companies create long-term value for shareholders • Inside the Racial Wealth Gap, an exploration of the causes, effects, and potential solutions of the racial wealth gap in the US She’s written about everything from why Chinese children are so good at math to the business of dogs to hard truths about adulthood. In September 2016, she helped launch Insider Netherlands in Amsterdam. She’s always interested in research, charts, and people: new and interesting research, compelling charts and other visuals, and people who are willing to share the details of their impressive financial accomplishments and strategies.If you have something to share, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about how Personal Finance Insider chooses, rates, and covers financial products and services » Sign up to get Personal Finance Insider’s free email newsletter in your inbox »