How Much Tax Do You Really Pay?

By Jonas Elmerraji | February 16, 2010 AAA
How Much Tax Do You Really Pay?

It's mid-February, and tax time is fast approaching. While you may know what you tax bill looks like when it's time to pay Uncle Sam (or get your refund check), but did you know that you're actually paying out a whole lot more than you think?

That's because scores of extra add-on taxes can add up to a significant chunk of cash by year's end. Here's a look at what you're actually shelling out in taxes:

Cryptic Tax Codes

Part of the reason that tax season is so dreaded by most people is the fact that state and federal tax code is so cryptic. Taxes tend to be complicated, and they vary drastically from state to state and city to city. For our purposes today, we're going to take a look at what the average household would pay out in average taxes.

There are two kinds of taxes: direct taxes, which are paid directly to the government; and indirect taxes, which are paid to intermediaries or are hidden fees in the product and services that you pay for. We'll start with direct taxes, since they're the ones coming up on April 15. (Learn more in "Temporary" Taxes That Stuck.)

Divvying Up Direct Taxes
According to the Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey, the median U.S. household earns somewhere around $50,740 annually – this is the number that we're going to use to compute our hypothetical tax burden.

The most obvious direct taxes are federal, state, and local income taxes. And while these three big-ticket items change based on where you live, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that Americans earning median incomes pay an average of 19.7% of their incomes for these taxes. For our hypothetical family, that means income taxes of $9,995 when all is said and done.

There are a number of other items that can affect a family's income tax liabilities too. For investors, capital gains and dividends impact the total tax toll, but for our purposes, we'll stick with the CBO's 19.7% estimate.

But that's not all when it comes to direct taxes. Social Security and Medicare adds 7.65% to that total – 15.3% if you're self-employed. This brings our total to 27.35% of income.

For homeowners, property tax adds a sizable amount to the family's tax bill too – according to taxfoundation.org, the average household paid $1,897 in property taxes in 2008, contributing 3.7% to our hypothetical family's taxes. (Learn how to lessen your tax burden; read Five Tricks For Lowering Your Property Tax.)

Allowing for Indirect Taxes
Then come the indirect taxes. Indirect taxes often miss consumers' tax estimates because they're typically paid when you make a purchase, and they're easier to forget about. Sales and excise taxes are a good example.

Just because we often don't think about sales tax doesn't mean it's not a significant amount of money. While not all states and localities charge a sales tax, with rates as high as 7% for states and 5% for municipalities, sales tax can easily climb up to 3% or 4% of income.

Included in that figure are gasoline tax, which makes up more than 19% of the cost per gallon in some places, communication taxes that you pay for your phone and cable bills, and so-called "sin taxes" – excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products.

Tallying the Taxes
Ultimately, your total tax bill depends very much on who you are and what you do. Things like inheritance tax, the alternative minimum tax, fees and licenses that might not apply to all tax situations. But to be on the safe side, we'll allocate 2% of our favorite hypothetical family's income to these miscellaneous taxes.

So, when all of those costs are tallied, how much is the total tax bill? For an average family, paying average tax rates, the total amounts to around 36.6% of income – a potentially shocking amount of money for many people.

Ultimately, paying your taxes ends up a whole lot less painful than writing a check for 36.6% of your income. Thanks to the power of indirect taxes and payroll withholdings, the actual check you cut by April 15 should end up being a considerably smaller chunk of change.

So, what's your real tax burden? Probably a whole lot more than you expected. (Learn about cutting your taxes in Give Your Taxes Some Credit.)

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