What is Ordinary Income?

Ordinary income is any type of income earned by an organization or individual that is taxable at ordinary rates, such as wages, salaries, tips, interest income from bonds and commissions. Long-term capital gains, the rise in the value of investments owned for more than a year, and qualified dividends are taxed differently and are therefore not considered to be ordinary income.

How Ordinary Income Works

Ordinary income comes in two forms: business income and personal income. In a corporate setting, the term refers to any type of income generated from regular day to day business operations, excluding any income earned from the sale of long-term capital assets, such as land or equipment.

Meanwhile, from a personal perspective, ordinary income can be defined as any sort of cash inflow that is subject to income tax, as outlined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Key Takeaways

  • Ordinary income is any type of income taxable at ordinary rates.
  • Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are not considered ordinary income as they are both taxed differently.
  • In a corporate setting, ordinary income is any type of income generated from regular day to day business operations, excluding any income earned from the sale of capital assets.
  • For private individuals, ordinary income is usually only made up of the salaries and wages they earn from their employers before tax. 

Examples of Ordinary Income

Individuals

For private individuals, ordinary income is usually only made up of the salaries and wages they earn from their employers before tax. If, for example, a person works a customer service job at Target Corp. (TGT) and earns $3,000 per month, his or her annual ordinary income can be calculated by multiplying $3,000 by 12.

If this customer service employee has no other income sources, $36,000 is the amount that would be taxed on his or her year-end tax return as gross income. Alternatively, if the same person also owned property and earned $1,000 a month in rental income, his or her ordinary income would increase to $48,000 per year.

Businesses

For businesses, ordinary income is the pretax profit earned from selling its product or service. Retailer Target made $75.4 billion in total revenue in the year ending Feb. 2, 2019.

Source: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

However, those sales cost money to generate. The company claimed the direct costs attributable to the production of its goods sold was $53.3 billion. It also said it forked out $15.7 billion on selling, general & administrative expenses. Factor in depreciation and amortization as well, the loss of value of its tangible and intangible assets, and you get an ordinary income of $4.1 billion. This is the amount of income that Target will be taxed on for its fiscal year.

Important

Ordinary income can only be offset with standard tax deductions, while capital gains can only be offset with capital losses.

Special Considerations

The government wants to encourage people to invest long-term, so it decided to collect less tax on capital gains and common stock dividends.

Previously, dividends were taxed as ordinary income — up to 38.6%. Then in 2013, the government passed the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (JGTRRA), reducing the tax on most dividend income, along with some capital gains, to 15%. Those changes encouraged investing and prompted companies to increase or begin paying dividends.

Qualified Vs. Unqualified Dividends

Investors should be aware that not all dividends qualify for favorable tax treatment. Examples of unqualified dividends include those paid out by real estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs), income paid on employee stock options (ESO), as well as dividends paid by tax-exempt companies and on savings or money market accounts

Another thing to watch out for is eligibility requirements. Regular dividends paid out to shareholders of for-profit companies usually qualify for taxation at the reduced capital gains rate. However, investors must adhere to minimum holding periods to take advantage.

For common stock, a share must be held more than 60 days of the holding period, the 120 day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date. For preferred stock, the holding period is longer, beginning 90 days before the company’s ex-dividend date.