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Federal Income Tax Rates Went Down but Your Federal Tax Withholding Increased. Here’s Why…

Written by Nickel - 186 Comments

Did Your Federal Income Tax Withholding Increase?

In the past few days, I’ve heard from several readers who noted that their federal income tax withholding has increased in 2011 despite the fact that 2011 income tax rates will be unchanged from 2010.

This situation has been made more confusing by the so-called Payroll Tax Holiday, which knocks 2% off your Social Security taxes. If income tax rates are the same, and your Social Security taxes have decreased, why has your withholding increased?

For starters, the Making Work Pay tax credit has expired. Unlike most income tax credits, which can be claimed when you file your taxes, the Making Work Pay credit was given out incrementally via reduced federal income tax withholding during 2010.

It’s also important to note that, the Payroll Tax Holiday is a separate issue entirely, and it affects a different line on your check stub. As I noted above, this affects your Social Security taxes, which are typically listed as FICA-OASDI on your check stub.

While the Payroll Tax Holiday went into effect on January 1st, the IRS has given employers until January 31st to implement the changes in their payroll systems, with an expectation that any over-withholding be rectified by the end of March.

So… If you’ve seen an increase in federal income tax withholding (or failed to see a decrease in Social Security withholding), you now know why.

Published on January 7th, 2011
Modified on January 9th, 2012 - 186 Comments
Filed under: Taxes, Working

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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186 Responses to “Federal Income Tax Rates Went Down but Your Federal Tax Withholding Increased. Here’s Why…”

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  1. 1
    BG Says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I haven’t gotten the first paycheck for the year yet, but good to know any inconsistencies will be corrected come end of March.

  2. 2
    BG Says:

    One other comment: if you are a wage earner who earns around $30k or less a year: your overall taxes will go up in 2011.

    This is because the “Make Work Pay” credit you were receiving in 2010 was worth more than the “Payroll Tax Holiday” that everyone (including the rich) is receiving in 2011.

    For people earning more than $30k a year, 2011 will have lower taxes for you than 2010. 2012? nobody has a clue what taxes will be like then…


  3. 3
    kathy Says:

    In other words the extra money that we were told we would be getting on our payroll checks so that we can stimulate the economy is really not true. Althought we are getting a 2.2 percent cut on our social security taxes our federal income taxes are raising due to the making work pay credit is expiring. How is this suppose to put more money in our checks?

  4. 4
    jim Says:

    BG, 2% of 20k is $400 which is the amount of the ‘making work pay’ credit. so shouldn’t the break even point be $20k rather than $30k?

    In other words last year you would get $400 credit with ‘making work pay’. THis year you get 2% off the payroll tax. 2% of $20k is $400. So if you made less than $20k then your 2% will be lower than the $400k but if you make over $20k then it will be more.

  5. 5
    Nickel Says:

    Jim: Making Work Pay was $800 for married filing jointly, so I suspect that BG was just splitting the difference.

  6. 6
    BG Says:

    Jim) yep, you are right: $20k (single) or $40k (married) are approximately the break even points.

    Make less than those numbers, then bigger tax bill this year. The more you make, the less your taxes are this year.

    I try to tell anyone who will listen: the best investment you can truly make is to not pay taxes (legally). Use 401k’s, use HSAs, use traditional IRAs (not Roth!!), use whatever accounts/tricks/incentives the government throws out there to reduce the taxes you have to pay today — cause once paid, you never get it back.

    For example: my HSA contributions are giving me a 41% guaranteed return on that money — just by avoiding the tax. How?!?: it only costs me $4,354 in take-home pay to fully fund the $6,150 HSA account.

    Kathy said) “…we were told…really not true…”
    I hope you didn’t vote Republican, because that is the reason right there.

  7. 7
    Holly Says:

    In other words “our” money that is deducted for retirement has been lowered. The money that goes to “Uncle Sam” has been increased. What a smokescreen.

  8. 8
    Ryan Says:


    Sort of. While the amount paid into SS will obviously be lower than usual in 2011, it won’t affect the benefits you receive upon retirement. The Fed will borrow around 112 billion to keep SS whole.

  9. 9
    Jo Says:

    Ah, the money games the politicians love to play with our taxes.

    I say make it a flat tax for all concerned; that will be the best and only way to reduce the deficit. Because the more they try to wrest from us what we earn, the more complicated things will get….and the sooner we’ll end up in the poorhouse.

  10. 10
    Mark Says:


    While the tax deferrals on 401(k)s, IRAs, and HSAs sound like a windfall, one must keep in mind that when the 401(k) and IRA funds are eventually withdrawn, these withdrawals will be taxed at rates in effect on the date of withdrawal. Who knows what they (tax rates) will be then. Right now our tax rates are historically low, with all the debt the US has incurred, a tax rate increase is reasonably foreseeable in the future. Personally, I would prefer to pay taxes now (low rates) on my retirement investment contributions rather than later (high rates). Also, the earnings on Roth IRAs are exempted from tax when withdrawn, another good reason to use this retirement tool. The smartest actions would be to use all the tools (401(k), IRA (Regular and Roth), HSA, etc.) available to you to minimize your total (current and reasonably expected) tax exposure.

  11. 11
    BG Says:

    #10 Mark) I agree with you overall, but there are details I disagree with. For example, Roth -vs- Traditional accounts: both offer two different styles to avoid taxes. Roth lets you avoid future taxes, but you are taxed today at your _highest_ marginal bracket. Traditional accounts allow you to avoid taxes today (at the highest marginal bracket) to pay _future_ taxes at whatever rate they may be.

    But the devil is in the details. In the future (just like today), there is a very good possibility a good chunk of income will be tax-free. For example, a married couple with no kids in retirement pays no taxes on the first $19,000 of income ($11,600 standard deduction plus two personal exemptions of $3,700 each). If they take that money out of a traditional IRA (versus a Roth), then they paid no taxes going in, and more importantly no taxes coming out either (including on the growth).

    If that money is coming out of a Roth account, then they paid taxes (in the past) NEEDLESSLY.

    The same logic goes for the next $17,000 of income: it is only taxed at a 10% rate (today). The next $52,000 of income is taxed at 15% — if you are in the 25% bracket today, are you saving enough in traditional accounts to fill the 0%, 10%, and 15% brackets? Most people would likely answer NO if they took an honest look at their savings rates.

    This means that if you are in the 25% bracket today, you need to be saving enough in traditional accounts to generate $88,000 of yearly income before even considering a Roth. If you were to draw down your retirement savings at a 4% rate (in retirement), you need to have more than $2 million (in today’s dollars) in traditional accounts (not Roth) just to fill the low brackets.

    “Right now our tax rates are historically low”: I agree with that for very high wage earners, they are paying some of the lowest rates we’ve ever had in the US. These people should look at Roths as a hedge for new/higher marginal tax brackets being created in the future. But they also should be using traditional accounts to fill the lower future brackets too.

    Of course, there are people on the margins that are very close to a tax-bracket: if just above a tax-bracket, go heavier on the traditional side. If just below a tax-bracket, go heavier on the Roth side.

    “The smartest actions would be to use all the tools (401(k), IRA (Regular and Roth), HSA, etc.) available to you to minimize your total (current and reasonably expected) tax exposure.”

    I absolutely agree with that.

  12. 12
    SomeGuy Says:

    BG and Others,

    BG’s math assumes that income tax rates and tax law in general are the same in retirement as now. For those with long retirement horizons and/or those who think taxes are inevitably going to have to increase, that could be a flimsy assumption.

    Also keep in mind that a Roth IRA does not require distributions to be started at any age, whereas I believe both 401(k) and Traditional IRA plans do (and Roth 401(k)s, for that matter).

  13. 13
    Baker Says:

    Ok, I read the article but still don’t understand. When I received the firest paycheck for 2011 by Fed tax went up from 13.28 biweekly to 28.47 that is nuts. I only work 40hrs per biweekly paycheck. Is my Payroll person messing this up?????????

  14. 14
    BG Says:

    #12 SomeGuy) I’m assuming that the low brackets will always exist and that they are adjusted for inflation every year. This has historically been true.

    I do agree that I believe taxes will increase: and that will be done by the (re)creation of the higher marginal tax brackets. But the lower brackets should still be filled with money from traditional accounts, especially for the ZERO bracket if not for the others. (The zero-bracket is the standard deductions and personal exemptions).

    The only major risk/change I can see, is the implementation of side-kind of ‘Fair-tax’: which is essentially a national sales tax. If this were to happen, again, it would be wise to be avoiding Roth-type of accounts as much as possible — because you’d be paying the income-tax today, as well as, the national sales tax in the future.

    If you think your _effective_ tax rate in the future, is going to be higher than your highest _marginal_ tax rate today: then go with Roth (and good luck to you).

  15. 15
    BG Says:

    #13 Baker) if by ‘biweekly’, you mean “every other week” — then those numbers sound right if you are single. The difference is $400/year which was the value of the ‘Make Work Pay’ credit that existed last year (and doesn’t in 2011).

    Check to see that your FICA/SSA portion is 30% less than what it was last year (for the ‘Payroll-tax Holiday). But, as Nickel said, companies have until the end of March to get the FICA-OASDI portion straightened out.

  16. 16
    jim Says:

    Baker, Yes thats correct. You’re paying $15.19 more per check which is about $400 total for the year. (15.19 x 26 = 394.94)

    Mark, “Right now our tax rates are historically low, with all the debt the US has incurred, a tax rate increase is reasonably foreseeable in the future.”

    Someone could have made that same argument in the 90’s or the 80’s or the 70’s. Our national debt has done nothing but go up and up and up over the past 60 years and tax rates have done nothing but go down down down at the same time. Yet today its all different? Why is that?

  17. 17
    Frank Says:

    Some of us work for state and local governments where we do not pay the Social Security tax, but do pay into a state of local system. Because of this we get no break from the Payroll Tax Holiday, but we will pay more tax because of the expiration of the Making Work Pay Credit. I’m having about $45 per month more withheld from my salary.

  18. 18
    Sherry Says:

    #13 Baker-I am in the same boat although I am married with kids…..my withholding doubled; about $15 less bi-weekly for me. I was trying to figure out why and have come to understand of how the Making Work Pay Credit worked and that makes sense. 26 weeks x$15 and there we go. I only make about 33K a year-sad but true. Am I to understand that basically now we are having that credit taken away, but for those that make more money and are possibly in the next tax bracket, they are seeing more in there paycheck and having less taxes taken out? This just seems so unfair.

  19. 19
    BG Says:

    Sherry) The ‘Make Work Pay’ credit, which existed in 2009 and 2010, was a credit that was directed towards the lower earners. High earners didn’t actually get a reduction in taxes with that credit.

    Now, in 2011, everyone (low and high earners) are getting a 32% reduction in the Social-Security portion of the FICA-OASDI tax. Specifically the rate went from 6.2% (of every dollar) down to 4.2%.

    In the end: your income tax is higher in 2011, but your social security tax is lower. Unfortunately, the way the math works, is that couples earning less than $40k (singles less than $20k) will have an overall tax increase. People who earn more than that will see an overall tax decrease.

  20. 20
    Janice Says:

    Frank – I’m in the same boat as you. I work for a school district that does not pay into social security. My withholding went up $53 per month. Something is wrong with this picture! No tax increase for couples making less than $250,000. What a joke!

  21. 21
    mbarnes Says:

    I, too, have a state position in which I do not pay into social security, but am forced to pay into the nation’s most broke pension system (IL). I did not get a raise. My actual take home pay has decreased as a result of higher federal taxes. I am in-effect making less money this year than last.

  22. 22
    LGS Says:

    I have to disagree with the statement that higher incomes will see a decrease. – I just ran payroll for myself and I am not in the 30k & less bracket and my witholding increased by $70 for one pay period. That’s up $69. I think it’s a increase across the board. Personal income is 50k, and husband’s is 70k.

  23. 23
    Baker Says:

    BG and Sherry- My other withholdings did not change just the Federal. Also Since I file jointly with my husband how do I get that money back. I have never heard of the “make work pay” credit. I can’t believe how they take money from those who earn so little. My federal withholding went up more than 50%. Doesn’t make any sense

  24. 24
    Zole2112 Says:

    I just checked the tax rates and some of the Federal tax withholding rates are going up more than the reduction in our SS rate (2%). One of my employees had her SS reduced by about $9.70 but her Federal withholding went up by $15 so she loses $5.30, on total wages of $504, to a tax increase. If you make $5880/month with 0 deductions your SS goes down by $117 and your tax withholding goes up by $47 so your overall decrease is $70. So much for not raising taxes on people making under $250k.

  25. 25
    Lynn Says:

    For those that are still confused, we got a letter from ADP with our first payroll that said due to congress dragging their feet, the first paycheck of the year would reflect Federal tax rates that would have been had congress not kept the rates the same. Your second pay check of the year should see the tax rates changed back to previous year amounts.

  26. 26
    BG Says:

    #24 Zole2112) sounds like that person doesn’t have their W4 filled in accurately — they likely get large tax refunds when they file. “0 deductions”, is probably not accurate for anybody — unless you are the lower earner in a two-earner household and the difference in earning is large between you and your spouse.

    #23 Baker) Your company has until the end of March to get the Social Security tax portion straightened out on your paystub. The ‘Make Work Pay’ tax-credit is located at:

    “Once you complete Schedule M, you’ll transfer the dollar figure you come up with on line 14 of that document to either line 63 of Form 1040, line 40 of Form 1040A or line 60 of Form 1040NR. Form 1040EZ filers will take their work sheet calculation and enter it on the EZs line 8.”

    So, look at your 2009 tax form and make sure you got that credit. If not, you can file an amended return for 2009 to get the refund (and ensure you do 2010 correctly).

  27. 27
    BG Says:

    #22 LGS) you lost the ‘Make Work Pay Credit’ in 2011. So that is an $800 increase in income taxes. However, based on your numbers, you should see a decrease of $2,400 for the ‘Payroll tax holiday’ (if neither of you are government employees who do not pay Social Security taxes).

    So you are paying $1,600 less in taxes in 2011 (compared to 2010) — about a $133 monthly increase. As said earlier, companies have a few months to get the ‘payroll tax holiday’ withheld from your paychecks appropriately though — so if you aren’t seeing the money today, you will by March/April.

    #24 Zole) BTW: I claim 8 deductions on my W4 (married w/ 2 kids, single earner) — my withholding is about perfect, I normally get a small refund, or owe a small amount when I file.

  28. 28
    base Says:

    What a joke. My federal tax deduct increase was about the same as my social security tax deduct savings. If I have this right, govt. has found a way to dip in to the SS# fund in a way we all can see instead of just stealing it. I guess this puts to sleep the myth if it will be there in the future.

  29. 29
    BG Says:

    #28 base) There isn’t a massive bank account containing everyone’s Social Security contributions. Think of it more like a pyramid scheme: the money you pay today, goes to someone in retirement today.

    The question is: will our kids (and their kids) keep playing along when we are in retirement?

    I’m betting not, so it is on us (the current working generation) to save for our own retirement (in 401ks, etc), while also paying for our parents/grand-parents through continual SS-tax withholdings…

  30. 30
    tk52 Says:

    I was so looking forward to a little extra because of FICA cuts.
    After the raise of Federal taxes, I got a whopping 92 cents higher paycheck.

  31. 31
    asalene coffey Says:

    thanks for explaining this helped me a lot.

  32. 32
    Michael Mossburger Says:

    It’s just like you demoncrats to blame Republicans for everything. You people are the biggest whiners in the world. Republicans are in charge you blame them demoncrats are in charge you still blame the Republicans, you are ridiculous.No wonder people hate demoncrats. Also demoncrats is not a spelling error.

  33. 33
    Baker Says:

    First the Republicans were the ones to hold everything up because their rich friends more money and not have to pay anything extra even thought they would never notice it.

    Second is a question is the tax cut/increase because I do not pay into soc. sec. permanent or is it going to go back after a year or until Washington wants to change it?

  34. 34
    Phoebe Call Says:

    If the Republicans were so against expiration of ALL tax cuts, why would they and Obama agree to let only this “Make Work Pay” tax credit for the poorest Americans expire? Why keep the tax cuts for the rich and not this one for the poor (20K is poor!)? It makes no sense and it goes against Obama’s promises.

  35. 35
    Gary Says:

    On my latest paycheck my witholding tax increased $75.00. I do not pay S.S because I am a county government employee. I am divorced and my children are grown and I no longer have any deductions. My co worker is married with children and my withholding is 4 times what his is. I was supposed to retire 7 years ago but with each blow to my paycheck and loss of benefits I find myself having to keep working despite declining health. I found an old check stub in my drawer and my bring home pay 10 years ago was more than what it is today. People that have never worked a day in their lives have more benefits than those of us that have worked hard their entire lives.

  36. 36
    Amanda Says:

    One more reason to not trust the government. Seems like everything you heard with regards to the tax cuts expiring last year pointed toward “more money in your paycheck” with an emphasis on “2% decrease in payroll taxes.” I surely don’t recall hearing anything about the MWP tax credit expiring. I was suprised when I got my first paycheck for 2011 and the increase in net pay was a mere $15. I guess I should be greatful, but it is disappointing when you are expecting that number to be 2-3 times more. I just keep hoping a flat tax will come soon.

  37. 37
    BG Says:

    I can’t wait until next year when everyone starts complaining when their Social Security taxes go up 47% — which is just back to 2010 (and the prior decade) levels after the ‘Payroll tax holiday’ ends.

    It is amazing to see people who pay very little (if any) income taxes in 2010, now complaining that they are paying more in 2011. It is twice as amazing to see people who pay NOTHING in social security taxes (gov employees) complain that they aren’t getting the ‘Payroll Tax Holiday’ tax-break in 2011.

    Here is a clue people: federal taxes need to go up 48% (from 2010 levels) just to balance the budget. We have been fighting two wars for 10 years, and instead of raising taxes 10 years ago (to fund the wars): they were lowered in 2001, 2003, and the low rates were just extended for two more years.

    For all the ‘poor’ people out there who voted Republican: you are getting exactly what you deserve/voted for. Lower taxes for the rich, higher taxes for the poor, and never ending deficits and massive federal debt.

    Democrats aren’t blameless as they need to grow some b@lls and stop caving into Republican demands & threats (ie; “republicans holding the middle-class hostage to secure massive tax-breaks for the rich”).


  38. 38
    Gary Says:

    That would all be well and good if the economy was robust and people had money in their pockets but the average person is saddled with increasing debt, facing foreclosure, unemployment and some wondering where their next meal is coming from. I never complained about the Payroll Tax holiday as I do not pay S.S. but I do compalin when my withholding goes up dramatically.Does it stimulate the economy when I start cutting things out of my budget to make up the $150 extra loss of income? As a government employee I have not had a raise in 6 years, have had my benefits slashed in half and after 32 years am faced with the fact that because of bad investments by the government I work for I will have drastically reduced pension if I’m lucky to have one at all. W Yes we are fighting two wars but we are also funding pork belly products for all the rich politicians. Its time to say “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore”!

  39. 39
    Janice Says:

    I’m with you Gary. It’s very disappointing when you work hard and bring home less. I think everyone who voted for Obama should be complaining as their paycheck goes down and taxes go up. Maybe they learned their lesson!

  40. 40
    Rob Says:

    Shouldn’t we all stop thinking about ourselves and what this increased FIT withholding does to our lives and our families, and instead focus our hope that Wall Street doesn’t have to pay excessive taxes on their trillion dollar profits and billion dollar bonuses?

    C’mon fellow Peasants. Show a little heart.

  41. 41
    Gary Says:

    Rob, you’re exactly right! How could I have been so selfish? Thanks for putting things in their proper perspective!

  42. 42
    Robert Says:

    OK but the BIG question here is:

    How can Obama take “credit” for a payroll tax holiday and say that the temporary SS tax reduction will stimulate the economy when it is already eaten up (and more) by the elimination of the Federal Income Tax “Making Work Pay” credit? Just sounds like another “3 Card Monte” smokescreen by this lying & manipulative Chicago Politician.

  43. 43
    Don Says:

    BG, thank you for the helpful information. Unfortunately, you’re forgotten that the Payroll Tax Holiday was proposed by Democrats not Republicans. The tax bill was passed by a Democrat controlled House and Senate and signed by the President. If President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were opposed to the tax bill, how could it have passed? Why didn’t Democrats include extending Make Work Pay in the bill?

    You are correct that we shouldn’t have gone into two wars while decreasing taxes. I think you’ll find that most Republicans agree. Most Republicans don’t want policies that benefit one group more than another, but they feel the best way to create jobs is to provide money to people who create jobs. I’ve worked for almost forty years and I haven’t created a single job. But my employor creates hundreds of jobs my spending his money on the research and development of Bio-Fuels. Why should he pay a higher tax rate than I do just because he makes more money? He is doing more to help society by creating jobs than I ever could through comsumer spending. Isn’t the owner of an accounting firm helping society more than a single accountant who employs no one?

  44. 44
    Jerry Says:

    Taxes, taxes, taxes. I am in the cigar business.
    Love it or hate it, it makes no difference. But
    our litle factory of 25 generated around $125,000
    for our numerous stockholders to share. Our good
    government got over $800,000 in excise tax to blow
    however they wanted under the guise of S-chip (State
    Children’s health insurance program), signed by Mr.
    Obama after taking office. Now why would they reduce
    employees contributions to Social Security when we
    all know it is already WAY underfunded? Personally,
    they figured we stupid people would not notice the
    federal deduction was going back up. Smoke screen!

  45. 45
    Monte Says:

    I received my usual 3% increase to my pension – which amounted to $66 – I ended up with $8.76 increase on my check. Government as usual the guy on the street gets screwed every time.

  46. 46
    Monte Says:

    Thank the @@@@ Democrats incharge – they are always for the poor people BUT what have they ever done for the poor – they have the plantation mentality of “as long as we keep the people ignorant, always giving handouts, with no encouragment to take responsibility for themselves” they will always vote Democratic. The Republicans also have problems – they both get in office & keep their party at the top – they are supposed to be American first not Democrats or Republicans. They can’t look out for the good of the country with always having their own agenda. They need term limits – that way they can represent the people with nothing like an election held over their heads.

  47. 47
    Cortney Says:

    I was looking forward to the additional 2% on my paycheck this year. However, I wasn’t aware that the Making Work Pay credit was only good for 2 years. So, therefore, they kind of washed each other out. BUT, I’m still bringing home less money because of our increase in medical insurance. No one can get ahead in this game. It’s all one big joke anymore. We are supposed to get a 2% wage increase this year. That might result in about $5 more per paycheck after the all the additional deductions. It seems like everyone has their hand out wanting my money the minute I start making more….

  48. 48
    Misty Says:

    all I know is that I am retired and not only did my health insurance increase so did my Fed Withholding Tax. It does not pay to retire anymore unless you are rich and then it don’t matter. I am making less and less every year on retirement. People complain cause then only got a 1% raise, well we on Social Security and other pension plans did not get any raise – just more and more is taken out of our pockets every year.

  49. 49
    Ian MacFarlane Says:

    I’m still puzzled. Both my wife and I are retired and we receive a civli service pension. Our federal tax withholding was increased by a large amount, but neither of us work. So how did that come about? Once more the rich make out and the poor and middle class get screwed. Come from electing all those Regressives to Congress.

  50. 50
    Bonnie Says:

    First let me state that I am a democrat. That being stated, I am so confused. Were we screwed. I hear them say they were lowering taxes on the pres conferences. I know the rich got a big break but us low enders were suppose to get tax cuts too. Was it all a lie. 50 dollars less a month from 2 jobs is 100 less a month and some rich person gets more money. I think this may end up being a huge problem. The poor can not take it anymore. Look what is happening in Eygpt and Greece. It happen years ago in France. All we now is for our Government to say “let them eat cake”.I can nt afford to wait for a refund tog et this monry back a year from now. This is going to set back the economy and business will fail. 2011 the year of a great depression. Thanks all you elected government officals.

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