When solopreneurs run payroll, it's not always clear how to pay themselves. Read the basics on how to pay yourself as a business owner.
You likely started a small business because you saw an opportunity, or because you’re passionate about your industry, or maybe because you wanted to make a difference in your community or even the world — but you still need to get paid.
Being a solopreneur is both rewarding and challenging. But when you're first getting started, it can be especially hard to know exactly how you’re supposed to pay yourself, taking taxes, withholdings, and regulations all into account.
There are several options available regarding how business owners pay themselves. Each one has specific advantages and disadvantages.
Below, we'll look at how to pay yourself as a business owner and how business structures impact the method you ultimately choose to use.
When it comes to paying yourself, one factor to consider is how your business is set up. If you’re wondering how does a business owner pay themselves, a few of the most common ways are:
You should speak with a tax and business professional when deciding how to set up your business and which tax classification to use.
There are two main ways to pay yourself as a small business owner: salary or owner’s draw. We will explain each one to help you understand the answer to “how do business owners pay themselves?”
The first method to pay yourself from your business is known as an owner’s draw, or simply a draw.
An owner’s draw is when you take — or draw out — money from the business to use for personal expenses. This can be done at any time and for any amount. In this case, taxes are not automatically withheld so you’d have to declare it as part of your individual income when you do file your taxes.
This money does not go through the payroll process. It is the responsibility of the owner to calculate their own taxes from this amount and pay those personally.
For example, when paying yourself from your business, if the owner’s draw is $5,000, the owner receives the full $5,000 via a check or electronic transfer. The owner must then calculate his income tax and withholdings to file personally.
The next method is to pay yourself similarly to an employee.
When you choose a salary, you’re paid a set amount in regular intervals, and you’d run payroll where the appropriate taxes are withheld — even if you’re the only employee. The deducted amount is based on the W-4 you filled out and submitted to your business.
There is an exception for certain business structures. For example, a member of a partnership cannot take a salary due to IRS regulations. A partner would have to receive a draw and not a salary, which makes deciding “how to pay myself from my business” an easier one as the choice is not yours to make.
Once you know how to pay yourself, you must decide how much you will be paying yourself. It can be difficult, but reviewing a few key factors makes it much easier to find the perfect “magic number.”
Some business owners have the luxury of other income or revenue from previous business endeavors, investments, or retirement accounts. If your living expenses are covered, you can draw less from the business and use that money to expand and grow.
However, if you are on a tight budget, you may need to draw more to cover living expenses. In this case, you need to find the right balance between your lifestyle and how much you need to allocate toward your business investment. When determining the answer to “how do small business owners pay themselves?”, the longevity and successes of their business plays a large role.
Drawing additional money from a business when you already have personal income streams may put you into a higher tax bracket. As a result, a larger draw may cost you more tax liability than leaving it as business profits or using it for expansion.
Different methods for paying yourself also have different tax implications, which will factor into your choice of how much to pay yourself.
Be honest about how much it will cost to run the business without interruptions or cash flow problems. Make sure to include emergencies or seasonal expenses that may come up. Drawing too much and leaving the business vulnerable to cash flow issues will hamper growth and cause unneeded stress.
Consider this when deciding how to pay yourself as a business owner.
The type of business structure you have will also play a role in the answer to “how do I pay myself from my business?”
As a sole proprietor, an owner’s draw is your only option for paying yourself as there is no distinction from a tax perspective between personal and business expenses.
If your business is an LLC and you don’t have any other employees, you’ll also need to use an owner’s draw in order to pay yourself from your business.
S-Corps allow you to easily pay yourself a regular salary, as long as it is “reasonable” according to the IRS. While it may be appealing to be especially generous with your salary, know that the more money you take out of your business — especially early on — the less you’ll have available as you grow and expand.
Just like your business is always changing, how and how much you want to pay yourself may also be in regular flux. Roll by ADP helped one small business owner do just that:
“As a consultant, I don’t have a salary, per se. Sometimes I have a gig, sometimes I don’t. But it’s so easy to make changes in Roll that I just entered my payroll as $1 and then change the amount to whatever I want when I pay myself. Even with that, running payroll only takes maybe two minutes. It’s really fast. You just say, well, this month I’m going to pay myself $2,000, and then you put in $2,000 and click “next” and it starts running. Basically, that’s it.” ~Roberto Vernon-Galindo, ChangeIT
When taking a salary or using an owner’s draw, you need to continually be aware of your current equity and cash on hand, as well as projected income and expenses in the future. But having the right payroll tool on hand can help make the whole process of paying yourself much easier — watch this video to see what we mean.
Entrepreneurs start businesses not just because they have a great idea, but also because they want more control over the direction of the company and how money is spent. Paying yourself is an important part of that, and ensuring you do it the right way, especially early on, will help you see continued success.
One of the more common mistakes for business owners when taking a salary or draw is not fully understanding the tax implications. You may inadvertently end up with a higher tax liability, depending on your personal situation and corporate structure.
Next, you want to focus on keeping personal and business finances separate. Don’t pay for personal items with business resources. First, set up an owner’s draw or salary, then pay for those individual items or expenses.
Finally, make sure to take some amount as a salary or draw. The amount you take should always be a part of your business plan. As your business expands and becomes more successful, adjust your goals for a draw to compensate and stay current.
When should business owners pay themselves?
Paying yourself should depend on the business owner’s goals and cash flow. This can vary greatly depending on the industry, growth stage, and risk involved with the business.
In the beginning stages of a business, an owner may opt for a bi-weekly or monthly salary. Once the business earns more revenue, taking a quarterly owner’s draw may make more sense.
What are the consequences if a business owner pays themselves incorrectly?
If business owners pay themselves incorrectly, they are liable to pay higher taxes. Doing so can cause major difficulties for the owner. The result of this can be that they may have to spend time and money on paying off the tax bill later. People must understand that when you do not pay yourself correctly, there are consequences.
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