How Many Tax Allowances Should I Claim?

Whenever you start a new job, your employer will probably ask you to fill out Form W-4. It’s a relatively simple document that requires you to enter your personal information and your tax filing status. But there’s one section of Form W-4 that stumps not only first-time job holders, but also veteran taxpayers:
  1. Total number of allowances you’re claiming
Section 5 complicates this short little tax form. What are tax allowances and why do they matter? Tax allowances indicate how much or how few taxes will be withheld from your paychecks, meaning that they impact your take-home pay each pay period.  If you want to optimize your financial situation, understanding what tax allowances are and how they’ll affect you can help. Below, we’ll provide comprehensive overview of all things related to tax withholding and allowances:

What are Tax Allowances?

A tax allowance reduces the amount of money that’s withheld from your paycheck. The money withheld from your paycheck goes toward your total income tax obligations for the year. The amount of taxes withheld from your paycheck is determined by the number of tax allowances you claim on your W-4, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on in this post. When you claim no allowances, your employer withholds the maximum amount of money. When you claim allowances, less money gets withheld and your paychecks are larger. How much will a single allowance put back in your paycheck? It depends. The value of a single allowance is based on:
  • Which tax bracket you’re in
  • How often your employer gives paychecks (weekly, bi-monthly, monthly)
  • Your filing status
A certified tax professional can help you figure out the number of tax allowances you should claim based on your situation.

How does tax withholding work?

Most employers withhold a small portion of your paycheck and use that money to pay a slice of your tax obligation. This is known as “tax withholding.” Employers also withhold money to pay for Social Security and Medicare. If an employer doesn’t withhold taxes from your paycheck, it’s probably because:
  • They’ve classified you as an independent contractor
  • You’re exempt from federal income taxes
  • You have no federal tax obligation (we’ll discuss this later)
But most likely, your employer’s going to withhold money from each paycheck you’re given. Instead of paying $11,000 at tax time, you’ll pay about $450 every month. You won’t pay it, technically, but your employer will take that money from your paycheck and pay it for you.

Claiming Tax Allowances on IRS Form W-4?

You’ll claim allowances on Form W-4, which tells your employer how much money to withhold from your paycheck. This is where you’ll need to determine what suits your financial situation best: having fewer taxes taken out now and paying them later, or having more taxes taken out now, owing less later on.

How Many Allowances Am I Entitled To?

Technically, you can claim as many allowances as you want—you could even claim 100. However, you could be penalized by the IRS for withholding too much tax. It’s called an “underpayment penalty.” Ideally, you want to pay at least 90% of your owed tax throughout the year. If you withhold so much that you pay less than 90%, you could be penalized. Page 3 of Form W-4 features a “Personal Allowances Worksheet” that you can use to determine what range of allowances you should claim. Here are the general guidelines: You can claim fewer allowances than you’re entitled to, but not more. In fact, the IRS can levy a $500 penalty if you claim more allowances than what you’re able (although employers will probably notice errors when you submit your W-4).

Single Taxpayers

For Single taxpayers, your allowances are not proportional to the amount of jobs you work. You’ll have the same number of allowances for all jobs.

Married Taxpayers

Married taxpayers are usually given an extra allowance per dependent.

Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs

It gets a little more complicated if:
  • You’re Single and you work 2 or more jobs, and your annual earnings exceed $20,000
  • You’re married and your total earnings exceed $50,000
If either of those describes your tax situation, you’ll have to use the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet on Page 4 of Form W-4. Don’t be intimidated by this worksheet. All you really have to do is compare your income with the given tables and do some simple math—the instructions will walk you through it. You might be wondering why you have to jump through these hoops. When you have two jobs, or when you’re filing jointly with a working spouse, the government doesn’t want you to claim allowances at each job. Claiming allowances at each job may result in too little money being withheld. That’s not good for the government; the government needs to collect some taxes during the year for budgeting purposes, and they’re also afraid that people won’t pay their tax bill on time if it’s too large. If you meet either of the above criteria, the IRS recommends that you claim all your allowances on the W-4 of the highest paying job, and that you claim zero allowances on all other W-4s. The “Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs” Worksheet will lead you to that result.

How Many Allowances Should I Claim?

Now that you’ve determined how many allowances you’re able to claim, you’ll have to decide how many allowances you should claim. Generally, if you don’t claim enough allowances, you’ll overpay your taxes throughout the year and receive a tax refund. If you claim too many allowances, you’ll owe the IRS money when you file your taxes.  Your first instinct might be that it’s better to overpay and receive a tax refund. Most people love tax refunds. And what’s not to love? A tax refund is a lump of money that you get right before summer—and from the IRS, no less! People use their tax refund to pay bills, put in savings, or splurge on shopping. But here’s the truth: a tax refund might not be the best thing for you, no matter how big your refund is. If you dispersed your tax refund across all your paychecks, then each paycheck would be larger. Think about it: would you be better off if you made an extra $50-$100 on each paycheck? That’s money you could put toward rent, food, your cell phone bill, or savings. When you overpay your taxes, you’re basically lending the government money but charging no interest. The money, which is rightfully yours, sits in the government’s pocket all year and you get nothing for it. Wouldn’t it be better to put that money back into your paychecks? On the other hand, you don’t want to withhold too much money from your paychecks. If you withhold too much money, then you’ll have a very large bill come tax season. Larger bills are harder to pay. The best strategy is to withhold close to the actual amount of money you’ll owe in taxes. Aim for either a small refund or a small tax bill. Either of these means that you received closer to your fair share of money on all your paychecks. Do you want a higher tax refund? Or do you want high paychecks? Follow these guidelines to achieve either.

Dependents

  • 0: Will most likely result in a tax refund
  • 1: Will get you close to withholding exact tax obligation—you might owe a small amount

Single with One Job, Multiple Jobs, or Married Couple with No Dependents

  • 0: Will most likely result in a very high tax refund
  • 1: Will most likely result in a moderate tax refund
  • 2: Will get you close to withholding exact tax obligation—you might owe a small amount

Married Couple with Dependents

If you claim 0 allowances or 1 allowance, you’ll most likely have a very high tax refund. Claiming 2 allowances will most likely result in a moderate tax refund. If you want to get close to withholding your exact tax obligation, then claim 2 allowances for both you and your spouse, and then claim allowances for however many dependents you have (so if you have 2 dependents, you’d want to claim 4 allowances to get close to withholding your exact tax obligation).

Head of Household with Dependents

You’ll most likely get a tax refund if you claim no allowances or 1 allowance. If you want to get close to withholding your exact tax obligation, claim 2 allowances for yourself and an allowance for however many dependents you have (so claim 3 allowances if you have one dependent).

Claiming and Exemption from Withholding

You might be eligible to claim an exemption from tax withholding. You’re only able to claim an exemption if you meet two criteria:
  • The IRS refunded you all your withheld federal income tax last year
  • You expect to be refunded all your withheld federal income tax this year
Why would the IRS refund all your withheld tax? Usually, it’s because you’re not making high-enough income. You’re exempt from paying taxes if you’re: Filing Status                       Annual Income No More Than
Single under age 65 $12,000
Single age 65 or older $13,600
Married filing jointly, both spouses under 65 $24,000
Married filing jointly, one spouse age 65 or older $25,300
Married filing jointly, both spouses 65 or older $26,600
Married filing separately, any age $12,000
Head of household under age 65 $18,000
Head of household age 65 or older $19,600
Widow(er) under age 65 $24,000
Widow(er) age 65 or older $25,300
The above criteria doesn’t automatically mean you’re exempt from withholding—first, you must have had all your withheld income tax refunded. Only then can you claim exemption for the following year, so long as your financial situation hasn’t changed.  

Fine-Tuning Your Withholding 

Most of the time, you’ll submit Form W-4 to your employer when you begin a new job. But you can and should update your W-4 throughout the year if your financial or life situation changes significantly. Consider updating Form W-4 for all major life events, including:
  • Marriage
  • Birth or adoption of a child
  • Losing a job
  • Retirement
  • Buying or selling a home
  • Bankruptcy
These situations may change your tax filing status, or they may change your income significantly. As we discussed earlier, your filing status affects the number of allowances you’re able to claim, and if your filing status changes then you may want to adjust the number of allowances you’re claiming so you’re able to withhold your preferred amount of tax obligation. But you may also want to change your filing status if you have a significant change in income, or if you’re saddled with greater financial obligations. Let’s say that you have a child. A child is a significant financial responsibility, so you’re able to claim an extra allowance on your Form W-4. By updating your form and claiming the additional allowance, your paychecks will be boosted so that you’ll get more money in your pocket to provide for your new child. Always account for new dependents because they can significantly affect your tax return. Or, let’s say you’re married, filing jointly, and both you and your spouse work. Last year, your spouse made more money so you claimed both allowances on her job. If you got a promotion that gave you higher income than your spouse, you’d want to update your Form W-4 and claim allowances on your job, instead. Update your Form W-4 for all major financial changes in your life, such as:
  • Realizing significant capital gains
  • Cashing in stock options
There’s one more important aspect of Form W-4 that we haven’t discussed yet. Section 7 enables you to withhold a specific dollar amount from each paycheck. This dollar amount is in addition to your allowances. You’re able to withhold any extra amount you wish. Why would you want to withhold extra? The most common reason taxpayers withhold extra money is to cover their tax obligation at the end of the year. Obviously, that’s mostly for anyone who expects to pay some taxes at the end of the year. If you’re claiming few allowances and expect to get a large refund, you’ll have little reason to have extra money withheld. But if you plan on withholding close to your actual amount of owed taxes, it helps to have a little money put away to pay the bill when tax season comes around. You might also want to withhold extra money if you’re self-employed. Taxes usually aren’t withheld from self-employed taxpayers, and so it’s a smart idea to compensate for that by withholding money for taxes using Section 7.

Tax Allowance FAQs

Is it better to claim 1 or 0 on my income tax allowances?

Claiming the right number of allowances on your yearly tax return is an important part of making sure your taxes are withheld properly. For single filers with one job, it can be difficult to decide whether to claim 0 or 1 allowances. If you’d rather get more money with each paycheck instead of having to wait for your refund, claiming 1 on your taxes is typically a better option. Claiming 1 reduces the amount of taxes that are withheld from weekly paychecks, so you get more money now with a smaller refund. Claiming 0 allowances may be a better option if you’d rather receive a larger lump sum of money in the form of your tax refund. Receiving a larger tax refund allows you to make big purchases, pay off debt and take vacations that otherwise would have been impossible. You should also claim 0 if your parents still claim you as a dependent.

How do I know how many tax allowances I should claim?

The number of tax allowances you should claim depends on your situation, so it’s important to consider a few factors. Choosing the right number of allowances is an important part of ensuring your taxes are withheld properly. Claiming too many allowances can lead to you owing the IRS at the end of the year, while claiming too few allowances can reduce your weekly or monthly paychecks. In order to decide how many allowances you can claim, you need to consider your situation. A single filer with no children should claim a maximum of 1 allowance, while a married couple with one source of income should file a joint return with 2 allowances. You can also claim your children as dependents if you support them financially and they’re not past the age of 19. Children attending college can be claimed until the age of 24.

What is the best number of tax allowances for a single person?

Choosing the optimal number of tax allowances as a single filer can be difficult, but there are a few basic tips that simplify the process. The important thing is understanding how many allowances you can legally claim and how those claims will affect withholding. If you’re a single filer working one job, you can claim 1 allowance on your tax returns. However, you also have the option of claiming 0 allowances on your tax return. Individual filers with children who are eligible may be able to claim them as dependents as well. Claiming 1 on your tax return reduces withholdings with each paycheck, which means you make more money on a week-to-week basis. When you claim 0 allowances, the IRS withholds more money each paycheck but you get a larger tax return. This can be an ideal option for individuals who need a lump sum of money to make a large purchase, pay bills or pay off debt.  

Summary

  • Most employers withhold a small portion of your paycheck and use that money to pay a slice of your tax obligation. This is known as “tax withholding.” Employers also withhold money to pay for Social Security and Medicare.
  • A tax allowance reduces the amount of money that’s withheld from your paycheck.
  • You can claim allowances on Form W-4, which you’ll usually fill out when you begin a new job.
  • You can technically claim as many allowances as you want, but if you withhold too much money then you could be penalized by the IRS.
  • Generally, the number of allowances you should claim is dependent on your filing status, income, and whether or not you claim someone as a dependent.
  • Typically, you can either claim more allowances and get higher paychecks, or claim less allowances and get a larger tax refund.
Update Form W-4 after any major life events that affect your filing status or financial situation.