What is a 'Sales Tax'

A sales tax is a consumption tax imposed by the government on the sale of goods and services. A conventional sales tax is levied at the point of sale, collected by the retailer and passed on to the government. A business is liable for sales taxes in a given jurisdiction if it has a nexus there, which can be a brick-and-mortar location, an employee, an affiliate, or some other presence, depending on the laws in that jurisdiction. 

BREAKING DOWN 'Sales Tax'

Conventional or retail sales taxes are only charged to the end user of a good or service. Because the majority of goods in modern economies pass through a number of stages of manufacturing, often handled by different entities, a significant amount of documentation is necessary to prove who is ultimately liable for sales tax. For example, say a sheep farmer sells wool to a company that manufactures yarn. In order to avoid paying the sales tax, the yarn maker must obtain a resale certificate from the government saying that it is not the end user. The yarn maker then sells its product on to a garment maker, which must also obtain a resale certificate. Finally, the garment maker sells fuzzy socks to a retail store, which will charge the customer sales tax along with the price of said socks.

Different jurisdictions charge different sales taxes, which often overlap, as when states, counties and municipalities each levy their own sales taxes. Sales taxes are closely related to use taxes, which governments charge residents who have purchased items from outside their jurisdiction. These are generally set at the same rate as sales taxes, but are difficult to enforce, meaning they are in practice only applied to large purchases of tangible goods. An example would be a Georgia resident who purchases a car in Florida; she would be required to pay the local sales tax, as though she had bought it at home.

Nexus

Whether a business owes sales taxes to a particular government depends on the way that government defines nexus. A nexus is generally defined as a physical presence, but this "presence" is not limited to having an office or a warehouse; having an employee in a state can constitute a nexus, as can having an affiliate, such as a partner website that directs traffic to your business' page in exchange for a share of profits. This scenario is an example of the tensions between e-commerce and sales taxes. For example, New York and other states have passed "Amazon laws" requiring internet retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) to pay sales taxes despite their lack of physical presence in the state.

Excise Taxes

In general, sales taxes take a percentage of the price of goods sold. For example, a state might have a 4% sales tax, a county 2% and a city 1.5%, so that residents of that city pay 7.5% total. Often, however, certain items are exempt, such as food, or exempt below a certain threshold, such as clothing purchases of less than $200. At the same time, some products carry special taxes, known as excise taxes. "Sin taxes" are a form of excise tax, such as the $4.35 New York State charges per pack of cigarettes.

Value-Added Tax

The U.S. is one of the only rich countries where conventional sales taxes are still used (note that, with limited exceptions, it is not the federal government that charges sales taxes, but the states). In most of the developed world, value-added tax (VAT) schemes have been adopted. These charge a percentage of the value added at every level of production of a good. In the fuzzy sock example above, the yarn maker would pay a percentage of the difference between what they charge for yarn and what they pay for wool; similarly, the garment maker would pay the same percentage on the difference between what they charge for socks and what they pay for yarn. Put differently, this is a tax on company's gross margins, rather than just the end user.

RELATED TERMS
  1. Use Tax

    A sales tax on purchases made outside one’s state of residence ...
  2. Taxes

    An involuntary fee levied on corporations or individuals that ...
  3. Assessment

    Occurs when an asset's value must be determined for the purpose ...
  4. Direct Tax

    A tax that is paid directly by an individual or organization ...
  5. Consumption Tax

    A tax on the purchase of a good or service. Consumption taxes ...
  6. Tax Rate

    The percentage at which an individual or corporation is taxed. ...
Related Articles
  1. Taxes

    Use Tax Vs. Internet Sales Tax: How Are They Different?

    Learn about the differences between a use tax and an Internet sales tax. Find out about transactions in which the taxes apply, and to whom they apply.
  2. Taxes

    Internet Sales Tax Vs. Brick & Mortar Sales Tax

    Learn about the differences between sales taxes and Internet sales taxes, and the goods and services that typically incur each type of tax.
  3. Taxes

    5 States Without Sales Tax

    Learn about the five states that do not charge sales taxes and about other taxes the states levy instead in order to generate revenue.
  4. Taxes

    How an Internet Sales Tax Will Affect Your Small Business

    Learn about how the Marketplace Fairness Act may impact small business owners should it pass in the House and what the act requires from business owners.
  5. Taxes

    Revisiting the Internet Sales Tax Bill: 2013 Vs. 2015

    Learn about the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2015 being reviewed by congress and the differences between it and the 2013 Marketplace Fairness Act.
  6. Taxes

    Internet Sales Tax's Effect on Interstate Commerce

    Find out how a national Internet sales tax could affect interstate commerce, and why some bigger online retailers are lobbying for such a tax.
  7. Taxes

    The Court Cases That Have Shaped US Sales Tax Law: How They Apply Today

    Explore two Supreme Court cases that established legal precedent for the treatment and apportionment of sales taxes at the state level.
  8. Taxes

    Do Tax Cuts Stimulate The Economy?

    Learn the logic behind the belief that reducing government income benefits everyone.
  9. Taxes

    Understanding Taxes

    Taxes are mandatory fees that individuals and corporations must pay to their governments.
  10. Taxes

    5 Most Taxing Taxes for Americans

    There’s not much that unites Americans like their hatred of taxes. Here's a list of taxes we dislike the most.
RELATED FAQS
  1. Does location matter for taxes when calculating gross sales?

    Learn more about gross sales taxes and how merchants are impacted by them. Find out if different business locations are impacted ... Read Answer >>
  2. What is the difference between a state income tax and a federal income tax?

    Learn the difference between state income tax and federal income tax based on tax rates, deductions, tax credits and taxable ... Read Answer >>
  3. What are the differences between regressive, proportional and progressive taxes?

    Understand the differences between the most common tax systems including regressive taxes, proportional taxes and progressive ... Read Answer >>
  4. What is the difference between a regressive tax versus a progressive tax?

    Determine how progressive and regressive taxes impact your personal finances, and learn more about how you pay both types ... Read Answer >>
  5. What's the difference between the marginal tax rate system and a flat tax?

    Find out about the difference between marginal tax rates and flat taxes. Gain insights on both systems and the arguments ... Read Answer >>
  6. How does the marginal tax rate system work?

    The marginal tax rate is the rate of tax that income earners incur on each additional dollar of income. As the marginal tax ... Read Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. IRS Publication 970

    A document published by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that provides information on tax benefits available to students ...
  2. Federal Direct Loan Program

    A program that provides low-interest loans to postsecondary students and their parents. The William D. Ford Federal Direct ...
  3. Cash Flow

    The net amount of cash and cash-equivalents moving into and out of a business. Positive cash flow indicates that a company's ...
  4. PLUS Loan

    A low-cost student loan offered to parents of students currently enrolled in post-secondary education. With a PLUS Loan, ...
  5. Graduate Record Examination - GRE

    A standardized exam used to measure one's aptitude for abstract thinking in the areas of analytical writing, mathematics ...
  6. Graduate Management Admission Test - GMAT

    A standardized test intended to measure a test taker's aptitude in mathematics and the English language. The GMAT is most ...
Trading Center