What Is the Difference Between Gross and Net Pay?

March 26, 2024
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A paycheck’s path from gross to net pay isn’t just about numbers. It’s the key to planning a budget, getting taxes prepared, and making smart financial decisions. Whether you’re managing your own finances or running a business’ payroll, it’s critical to know the answers to these questions:

  • What is gross income or gross pay?
  • What is net pay?
  • What is the difference between gross and net pay?
  • How do you calculate gross pay and net pay?
  • How can employees maximize net pay?

Gross and Net Pay Explained

So, what is gross pay? It’s the money an employee earns before deductions, such as taxes, benefits, and retirement savings. Some of these deductions are mandated by law, while others are optional.

Net pay is the other side of the coin. It’s gross income after taxes and deductions are taken out. It’s often informally referred to as take-home pay.

On a paystub, gross pay is typically listed at the top, reflecting the total earnings before any deductions. The deductions are then itemized, and net pay appears at the bottom after subtracting these from the gross pay.

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Key Differences Between Gross and Net Pay

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If you’re an employer, it’s vital to distinguish between gross and net pay to accurately calculate payroll taxes, benefits, and cash flows, since gross pay doesn’t include these expenses. 

On the other hand, if you’re an employee, you’ll need to ensure you cover your expenses and make informed financial decisions based on the money you’ll have available.

Here are a few other key differences to know:

  • Gross pay stays relatively stable from check to check. Net pay fluctuates more frequently due to changing tax rates and elective deductions.
  • Gross pay figures can be used to compare compensation packages between different job offers and benchmark employee salary levels. Net income is more specific to each individual because it includes optional deductions.
  • Gross earnings are reported on year-end IRS tax statements like W2s and 1099s. Net pay does not appear on these forms.

How To Calculate Gross Pay

The method to determine gross pay varies: hourly employees receive wages, and salaried employees receive a fixed annual amount.

For an hourly employee, multiply the hourly rate by hours worked. For example, suppose John makes $20 an hour as a cashier and gets paid at the end of each month. If John works 30 hours a week, his monthly gross pay is calculated as follows:

$20 an hour x 30 hours a week x 4 weeks = $2,400/month

To determine John’s yearly wages, multiply his monthly wages by 12:

$2,400/month x 12 months = $28,800/year

Calculating gross earnings for hourly employees often involves variable hours and overtime, making it more complex.

To illustrate, suppose John works 35 hours a week for the first two weeks of the month, 42 hours the third week, and 31 hours the fourth week. If John makes 1.5 times his usual salary, or $30 an hour, for any hours worked over 35 hours in a week, here’s what the calculation looks like:

$20 an hour x 35 hours x 2 weeks = $1,400

+ $20 an hour x 35 hours + $30 an hour x 7 hours = $910

+ $20 an hour x 31 hours = $620

= $2,930

Determining gross pay for a salaried employee is somewhat simpler: 

Julia is a software developer who works at a web design agency. She makes $80,000 a year before taxes and other deductions. This number is Julia’s gross yearly pay—no calculation required.

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But what if you’re Julia’s employer and need to know her gross earnings per pay period for payroll purposes? In this case, divide Julia’s annual salary by the number of payroll periods in the year. For example, if Julia gets paid semi-monthly, or twice a month, calculate her net pay as:

$80,000 annual salary / 24 pay periods = $3333.33 per pay period

How To Calculate Net Pay

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Calculating net pay is the same for both hourly and salaried employees. After identifying gross pay, use the following steps to determine an employee’s take-home earnings:

  1. Identify Deductions. First, tally up all voluntary and mandatory deductions. These include federal and state taxes, health insurance premiums, 401k allocations, and any other sums.
  2. Subtract Pre-tax Deductions. Next, reduce taxable income by subtracting pre-tax deductions from the employee’s gross pay.
  3. Calculate Taxes. Then, deduct taxes, Social Security, and Medicare from the adjusted gross pay, factoring in the employee’s filing status and allowances.
  4. Subtract After-tax Deductions. Finally, subtract post-tax deductions, such as insurance premiums and garnishments, from the adjusted pay.

To illustrate how to calculate net pay, let’s return to software developer Julia. Her pre-tax deductions are:

  • Health Insurance: $6,000
  • 401k contribution: $2,400

Subtract these from Julia’s gross pay:

$80,000 – $6,000 for health insurance – $2,400 contribution to 401k = $71,600 adjusted gross pay

Next, we calculate Julia’s tax obligations and after-tax deductions, including company parking:

  • Federal taxes (20% bracket): $71,600 x 20% = $14,320
  • State taxes (5%): $71,600 x 5% = $3,580
  • Yearly parking fee: $1,200

Now we can calculate Julia’s annual net pay:

$71,600 adjusted gross pay – $14,320 in federal taxes – $3,580 in state taxes – $1,200 in parking fees = $52,500 net pay

Factors That Affect Net Pay

Various factors, including variable schedules and overtime for hourly workers, affect the percentage of income you and your employees bring home at the end of the day. Here’s a more detailed explanation of some:

  • Income tax, Social Security, and Medicare. These mandatory withholdings make up a large percentage of most employees’ deductions.
  • Health Benefits. Employees pay any insurance premiums not covered by their employer. They may opt for additional withholdings for more comprehensive or higher-quality coverage.
  • Retirement Plans. Many employees choose to contribute to 401k and other retirement plans.
  • Bonuses. Some companies award bonuses for strong performance or meeting goals. Holiday bonuses are also a common perk.
  • Reimbursements. Include employer-covered expenses like travel, uniforms, and equipment in the gross pay calculation.
  • Paid Time Off. Employees who don’t work during paid time off still receive income, contributing to gross earnings.

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3 Ways To Maximize Your Net Pay

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As an employee, you want to keep as much of your gross pay as possible. Here are some simple but effective ways to maximize your net pay:

  • Optimize Withholdings. Research ways to adjust your W-4 exemptions to withhold enough taxes to avoid penalties.
  • Increase Retirement Contributions. Earmarking more gross pay for your retirement plan lowers taxable income.
  • Increase Your Gross Pay. Lobbying for a raise, landing a better-paying position, or learning new skills can boost gross pay, directly translating into higher net pay.

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