DEFINITION of 'Bracket Creep'

A bracket creep is a situation wherein inflation pushes income into higher tax brackets. The result is an increase in income taxes but no increase in real purchasing power.

BREAKING DOWN 'Bracket Creep'

This is a problem during periods of high inflation, as income tax codes typically take a longer time to change.

Why Bracket Creep Is a Concern

Bracket creep can occur on an ongoing basis if the overall economy grows yet taxpayers do not see substantial increases to their income. In other words, they are charged more taxes without realizing any real improvement on their actual income. This can create a financial drag on the economy as taxpayers spend more money on taxes though they have not reaped any benefits of a tangibly higher salary rate.

Salaries may see nominal increases where the take-home pay shows no real change; however, if the Internal Revenue Service has not made adjustments to the brackets, it can force taxpayers into paying higher rates. Bracket creep essentially increases taxes for individuals without any legislation for a tax increase.

The loss of money to this form of taxation can amount to trillions of dollars over a twenty-year period. This can be particularly challenging for individuals and households in lower income segments because the taxes they must pay can escalate rapidly the larger the salary they begin to earn.

Furthermore, there may be expenses, such as rent, that are floating and prone to increase faster than income. There is some debate over how bracket creep affects taxpayers in the higher-earnings brackets, because of the higher tax rates they may already be charged, the push to an even pricier bracket can drastically reduce their net income. This, in turn, can encourage the use of tax planning services in order to curtail the progression of bracket creep.

The IRS and Bracket Creep

Typically, the IRS relies on the Consumer Price Index to scale its adjustments by taking into account base year versus current year indicators. The calculation for the adjustments can be made multiplying the base value of a tax parameter by the current Consumer Price Index, then dividing that by the CPI of the base year.

There are other ways the IRS may adjust the brackets, such as measuring the average wage growth in order to get a sense of inflation. As bracket creep affects personal wealth, there is often debate regarding tax cuts and how adjustments are made to tax brackets to better account for the increases.

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