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United States here, specifically NY state (if it makes a difference). Say we have a super small, 1-man member-managed LLC that has elected to be taxed as an S-corporation. This way, the 1-man member can take both a wage/salary (as a W2) throughout the year as well as cut herself shareholder distributions periodically, say, quarterly. The idea behind this strategy is that the total tax obligation for the member is slightly less than if it was just a standard LLC where the member was paying themselves via shareholder/member distributions.

So now, lets say in the given year the business takes in $100 in total revenue. The general allocations of that $100 is as follows:

  • W2 Payroll (for the single member) -> $30
    • Say there are $10 of payroll withholdings
    • So the net pay to the single member is $20
  • Shareholder Distributions -> $10
  • State/Federal Taxes for the Business -> $25
  • Operational Costs -> $15
  • "Leftovers" (can be used for whatever) -> $20

It is my understanding that the single member would have to pay personal income taxes on the $20 of net payroll earnings. Furthermore, the single member would also have to pay personal income taxes on the $10 of shared distribution earnings, and so their total personal tax obligation to state/fed would be based on personal income of $30. Let's say the total personal tax obligation here (based on brackets) is $8.

It is my understanding that the business would also (of course) have its own state/federal tax obligations of (say, based on the tax bracket) $25, as noted above.

So to begin with, if anything about my understanding above is incorrect or misled, please begin by correcting me!

Assuming I'm more or less correct...

My question

In the example above, the total taxes paid by both the single member (as personal income) and the business is $8 + $25 = $32. For the sake of this example I'll call this Total Tax Obligation.

Is there anything the member can do, either with Operational Costs or "Leftovers", to legally reduce the Total Tax Obligation of $32? Itemizing deductions, etc.? What are these strategies and how do they work at the high level?

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    One point, if it's a simple one-person operation. AFAIK: there is absolutely no difference at all between (A) forming an LCC and (B) very simply, doing your taxes as a self-employed person. (You save the considerable cost of having an LLC formed.) – Fattie Sep 1 at 15:07
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    Thanks @Fattie (+1) that's a fair point to make, but let's just push the "I believe!" button here and say that this is the lay of the land: single member LLC electing S-corp taxation. – hotmeatballsoup Sep 1 at 15:10
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    Your numbers do not add up (or are misleading). The employee would pay tax on $30 of income, but $10 of tax would be withheld (to be trued up at tax time). The business would pay tax on net income of 100 - 30 - 10 - 15 = 35. I'm not sure where the $25 of "state/federal tax" is coming into play. – D Stanley Sep 1 at 15:44
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    Also if you're asking if you can reduce tax burned by increasing expenses, the answer is yes, but one should not arbitrarily spend money just to decrease tax. It makes no sense to spend $20 just to keep from sending the government $5 (unless of course the $20 is more beneficial to the business). – D Stanley Sep 1 at 15:45
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    @hotmeatballsoup Yes, exactly. The witholdings are to account for the tax that will be due at filing (and are broken into fed/state/local as appropriate) – D Stanley Sep 1 at 16:55
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First off, let's correct or clarify some of your assumptions about S-Corp taxation. Note these are basic simplifications and do take into consideration the various tweaks due to tax laws or income brackets:

  1. With Payroll, there are company and employee expenses. So, to hit your $30 amount, you would pay yourself $27.87, and then both you and the company would pay 7.65% FICA taxes, so the company would add on $2.13 in FICA (meaning the company pays $30 total), and then you would also pay $2.13 in FICA, and perhaps pay an additional $5.74 in state and federal taxes to get your take home down to $20. (Why this is spelled out will become clear down below.)
  2. There is no federal company tax for an S-Corp. (Note some states do charge a small tax on S-Corps.)
  3. In your example, the total company expenses are Payroll ($30) + Other operational expenses ($15). Total expenses are $45 and so company income (profit) is $55. With an S-Corp (and LLC taxed as an S-Corp), that $55 flows through to you.
  4. Your personal tax liability is now $27.87 (your W2 wages) + $55 = $82.87. This is what you would pay your federal and state taxes based on. Suppose your state + fed tax rate is 25%, then your total tax liability is $20.72. Note that you have already paid $5.74 in taxes as part of your W2 wages withholding, so your total additional tax liability is $20.72-5.74 = $14.98.
  5. Distributions do not have any tax liability. If you leave the money in the company, or take it out, it makes no difference from a tax stand point (unless you distribute more than you have and go into debt, then there is a tax penalty.) Typically, owners will choose to distribute at least the amount needed to cover the taxes, so in this case you might distribute $14.98 so you can pay the tax without having to personally come up with the money for it.
  6. Note from a tax savings point of view, the difference between LLC as an S-Corp, vs a typical LLC or sole proprietorship, is basically just the FICA savings. Without the S-Corp you would also have to pay the addition combined 15.3% FICA tax on the $55, which would be $8.24 in additional FICA taxes. Note that would reduce the company profit by half of that amount ($4.12), which would also reduce your personal tax liability by that amount, meaning you would only owe fed and state taxes on $78.75 instead of $82.87. So you would pay $8.24 in extra FICA, but save $1.03 in income taxes, for a net savings of $7.21 by electing S-Corp.

As for additional ways to reduce your tax burden, it basically comes down to increasing your expenses. You can't create fake expenses that don't have a corresponding payment coming out of your bank account (or CC statement), but you oftentimes can shift some personal expenses into your business and count them as an expense. For example, if you use your cell phone for business, a portion of your cell phone bill could be expensed to the business. Similarly for a new laptop, monitor, or gas used (or miles but not both) when you drive to and from clients.

Note in general, you are always better off having less expenses instead of more, because even though less expenses translates to more profit and more tax, it also mean more money is leftover for you, which is typically the ultimate goal of a for-profit business.

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    Thank you for this absolutely amazing answer @TTT (+1) -- please give me the evening to digest it all, but this is exactly what I was looking for! – hotmeatballsoup Sep 1 at 19:30
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    One important point about maximizing expenses. Consider the example of correctly charging your cellphone to your freelance business as an expense. Many people who go down the path of LLC, not to mention a whole S-corp, don't realize that you can absolutely do that, identically, with the identical saving simply filing as "self-employed". There is absolutely no difference whatsoever in "what you can call an expense" if you simply file as self-employed, versus, spending thousands on a corporate structure .. @hotmeatballsoup – Fattie Sep 2 at 12:09
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    @Fattie - I agree. The advantages of corp vs sole prop for small businesses is mostly liability protection, and the ability to sell shares to raise capital. The S-Corp advantage is mostly just FICA savings once a "reasonable" salary is met. But expenses in general, would be the same. To your point I can't think of anything that is an expense for S-Corp that wouldn't be for sole prop. – TTT Sep 2 at 13:55
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    @hotmeatballsoup I got that number from your salary ($27.87) - 7.65% of that for FICA ($2.13) = $25.74. I then said let's specify $5.74 for fed+state taxes so that your take home would be exactly $20 like you proposed. Note you can choose how much to withhold from yourself since you are your own employer. The amount you actually pay come tax time (based on tax brackets) is what matters, and the withholding you've already had simply reduces how much you owe (or entitles you to a refund). Just make sure you always withhold enough that you don't have to make additional estimated tax payments. – TTT Sep 3 at 20:38
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    @hotmeatballsoup FICA is the same for every employee. It's 6.2% for Social Security + 1.45% for Medicare. SS maxes out once an employee hits (in 2020) $137,700, and Medicare never maxes out. Medicare actually goes up by an additional 0.9% once you make over $200K in wages. More info here: irs.gov/taxtopics/tc751 – TTT Sep 3 at 20:44

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