$1.454 trillion. That’s the total of all taxes owed by American taxpayers to our friends at the IRS in 2016 (for the 2015 tax year). If you divide that hefty sum by the number of taxpayers, it averages out to a tax rate for the typical taxpayer of about 13.5 percent for each tax return.
Not so bad, you say? Well, we all know that’s not the entire story of the taxes you and I pay every year, because there’s much more to our tax burden than the amount we pay to Uncle Sam’s servants at the Internal Revenue Service. So for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might say, we call your attention to this insightful article on the financial website Motley Fool. It was published only a few days ago, and its title asks the question, “What’s the Average American Tax Rate?” It turns out that the average American is paying almost 30 percent of his or her income in taxes, and depending on where they live and how much they make that amount could be significantly higher.
Let’s look at some overall national averages, just to gain some perspective. Motley Fool reports that the IRS assessed nearly $1.5 trillion in 2015 and received almost 151 million tax returns. Averaging the amount of tax assessed per taxpayer ($9,655) and the gross income of the average American taxpayer ($71,258) translates into the 13.5 percent average rate. But as Motley Fool points out, because about one-third of those returns owed no taxes at all, the average federal tax bite is actually quite a bit higher.
Then there are taxes for Social Security and Medicare. These, as the Motley Fool article explains, can get complicated. If you’re curious, you can read the article to see how the author arrived at the statistic, but when you factor in how much of Social Security tax is paid by employers and how much by employees, the average taxpayer cost turns out to be roughly 4.7 percent. Medicare taxes come out at approximately 1.3 percent, so roughly 6 percent of the average American’s income is helping to fund these entitlement programs.
Let’s look beyond the federal level to see what other taxes Americans are paying, starting with state and local income taxes. It’s true that Washington is currently one of just seven states with no state income tax (the others are Florida, Texas, Alaska, Nevada, Wyoming and South Dakota, in case you were wondering), but most of us who live here suspect that our state makes up for it in other ways. For the Motley Fool article, the authors quoted the U.S. Census Bureau and came up with the national average state and local income tax of 9.9 percent.
Then there’s property tax and sales tax. The news site Thomson Reuters recently calculated that sales tax throughout the nation averaged almost 8.5 percent in 2015, even though some states have little or no sales tax (obviously those of us who live in Washington are used to high sales taxes). Property taxes, however, are virtually impossible to calculate, since the number of variables is so high.
So if we just look at the four biggest categories for most taxpayers – federal, state, Social Security and Medicare – the effective tax rate for the average American taxpayer is just a hair under 30 percent. That does not include sales tax, property tax, or a bunch of other taxes that can sneak up on us all the time.
Before we leave this topic, however, here’s one more twist on the tax tale. Just this week, the Seattle Times published this provocative analysis by reporter Gene Balk revealing that the tax structure here in the City of Seattle is actually among the most inequitable in the U.S. As Balk put it, “Seattle’s taxes are among the nation’s kindest to the rich – and harshest to the poor.” The article cites a recent nationwide study comparing the tax burdens in 51 major American cities, comparing the weight of taxes on the average low, middle and high-income household. It turns out that Seattle has the fourth-highest tax burden in the nation for families earning $25,000: these families pay more than 15% of their income for local taxes. Only Philadelphia, Honolulu and Birmingham ranked worse. By contrast, if you live in an upper income household, with earnings of $150,000 annually, your tax burden here in the Emerald City is just barely over 5 percent – fourth lowest in the nation. Taxes tabulated included taxes on income, property, sales and automobiles.
There were plenty of assumptions that went into these tabulations, and the Seattle Times article does a good job of explaining them. One take-away for us is that taxes, whether federal, state or local, do affect people disproportionately, and we should all learn to have compassion for those people, especially retirees on fixed income, whose tax burden is getting harder to bear with each passing year. But the other realization these articles brought home is that taxes have to become part of your financial planning strategy. All too often we encounter people facing retirement who think they’re adequately prepared because they have a financial plan in place – but as we examine their so-called plan we find it to be woefully incomplete, with critical elements like tax planning completely overlooked.
Approaching your retirement years with nothing but a slapdash financial plan is like trying to drive your car down the road with one tire. It just won’t get you very far! Instead, you need the type of comprehensive retirement planning we practice at AgingOptions, where all the facets of your life work together interdependently and in harmony: your financial plans, your legal protection, your housing options, your medical coverage and your family communication. We call this type of plan a LifePlan, and it will become your blueprint to allow you to create the retirement you’ve always hoped for. Why not invest just a few hours and find out more? Come to one of our free LifePlanning Seminars – and bring all your questions. It will be time well spent, we assure you.
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