S Corp Wages: Paying Yourself Tax Efficiently

Ways to pay yourself as an S Corp 

If you have structured your business as an S Corporation (S corp) or an LLC that is taxed as an S corp you can save in self-employment taxes.  That said, it is important to be intentional when deciding how to pay yourself as an employee of your business.  S corps don’t pay taxes on revenue but instead pass through income to the owners of the business.  This allows owners of the business to avoid the double taxation that C corporations who must pay taxes both at the business and the individual level find themselves subject to.   There are three ways that an S corp owner can pay themselves: salary, distribution, or a combination of the two.  As an owner that is actively involved in the day to day operations of the business, a combination is often the appropriate solution. 

S Corp Salary 

The salary component of pay will be subject to FICA taxes and as the owner and employee both sides of the tax must be paid.  There are two components of FICA, Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes.   For 2023, Social Security taxes combine to 12.4% of salary up to the taxable maximum of $160,200.  Medicare taxes combine to 2.9% of salary with no cap.  This means that salary under the Social Security tax limit are subject to a total FICA tax of 15.3%.   Example: Jane is the owner and operator of ABC Co.  As an employee of the business she is paid $200,000 per year in salary that is subject to both the employer and employee portion of FICA taxes.  The amount up to $160,200 is subject to the combined 15.3% amount ($24,510.60) while the remaining $39,800 is only subject to the Medicare component of 2.9% ($1,154.20).  The total amount of FICA taxes Jane will owe is $25,664.80. 

S Corp Distribution 

The distribution component of S-corp pay is not subject to these FICA taxes but will be subject to income taxes.  This means that any income that is categorized as a distribution instead of salary can save up to 15.3% in taxes.   Example: Jane’s business made $500,000.  Since she paid herself a salary of $200,000, the additional $300,000 of income is considered a distribution not subject to FICA taxes.  If this amount was considered salary it would have been subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax saving her $8,700 in taxes.  If she was treated as a sole proprietor or LLC tax treatment, 92.35% of the amount would be subject to Medicare taxes for an additional bill of $8,034.45. 

Reasonable Salary for an S Corp Owner 

Given the tax efficient nature of a distribution compared to salary, many business owners ask why they can’t simply forgo the salary and only receive distributions.  Because the owner of a business that has elected S corp treatment is often also an employee, the IRS is rigorous in it’s enforcement that the business owner must receive a reasonable salary for their work completed in the business.  When determining what a reasonable salary is, the IRS instructs owners to pay an amount that would be paid to others in the field.  This includes the following criteria: 
  • Training and experience 
  • Duties and responsibilities 
  • Time devoted to the business 
  • Efforts devoted to the business 
  • Pay to non-shareholder employees 
Benchmarking pay to other professionals in a business owners field is a way to determine a basis for pay.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides benchmarking data that can be used to help with these efforts.  Balancing this decision can have major tax implications for a business owner.  Electing too low of a salary can open them up to potential IRS scrutiny while too high of a salary can lead to unnecessarily high FICA taxes. 

Financial Planning Considerations of Electing S Corp Tax Treatment 

Additional Costs 

When analyzing if an S corp election makes sense, there are additional expenses and the cost of your time that will need to be considered.  There will be additional tax filings that need to be completed, payroll expenses associated with your salary, and the time it takes to ensure everything is completed properly. Additionally, the reasonable compensation component of a business owner’s pay is excluded from the qualified business income (QBI) deduction which can impact the amount of deduction received and qualification for certain business owners near the income threshold.   

Impact to Retirement Savings 

Your salary can have implications for the amount that can be contributed to retirement accounts such as a SEP IRA and Solo 401(k).     If you have a SEP IRA for your business, your contributions will be limited to 25% of your salary with a maximum addition of $66,000 in 2023.  For those over 50, the additional $7,500 catch-up contribution is available as well.   For a Solo 401(k), there can be nuances based on contribution type but in general the employee contribution will be limited to your W-2 salary wages up to $22,500 for 2023 ($30,000 if over 50).  Employer contributions are limited to 25% of your W-2 salary wages up to $66,000 ($73,500 if over 50).  After-tax contributions for those utilizing the mega backdoor Roth option are limited to self-employment compensation or the same $66,000 ($73,500 if over 50) limit. 

Impact to Social Security 

Social Security calculates your retirement benefit by averaging your 35 highest paying years indexed for inflation.  While you avoid the Social Security taxes on any income taken as a distribution instead of a salary, those monies are not counted towards your Social Security record and will have an impact on the retirement benefit you will receive when you claim.   Disclosure: While we are familiar with the tax provisions of the issues presented herein, as Financial Advisors of RJFS, we do not render advice on tax or legal matters. You should discuss tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional. 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Recommended Articles

Do you want our blog posts sent straight to your inbox?

We send out a weekly newsletter that mirrors the content of our blog posts. If you would rather digest this content directly from your inbox just fill out the form provided. 

Get Started with Dallas Wealth Advisors

Preferred Form of Communication