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    How to Read a Paystub

    By Wasatch Peaks on July 25, 2020

    Q: My accountant suggests I review my paystub to see if any changes need to be made to the amounts withheld, but I’m finding that to be an impossible task. I always receive my paycheck via direct deposit and I'm not sure about the numbers or information on my paystub. Where do I begin?

    A: Having your paycheck directly deposited into your checking account can be super-convenient, but it can also lead to being unfamiliar with your paystub. It’s important to review your paystub occasionally to check for possible errors and to review the deductions, as your accountant suggests. No worries, though, Wasatch Peaks is here to help! We’ll walk you through a typical paystub and break down all the numbers and information so, going forward, you can do it on your own.

    Navigating your paystub

    Before reviewing the actual numbers, let’s take a moment to explore the way a paystub is structured.

    A typical paystub will have your employer’s information in the upper left-hand corner, followed by the pay period for that paycheck. The upper right-hand corner will be stamped with the date the payment was issued.

    Moving downward on the left-hand side, a section titled “Gross Pay,” will list the employee’s gross salary per pay period, along with any additional payments, such as overtime pay and benefits. Running parallel to these numbers will be two columns, one labeled “Current,” and the other labeled “YTD,” or year-to-date.

    The right side of the paystub will be designated for tax information and deductions. Each of the items listed here will have separate numbers for current amounts and YTD.

    Finally, the paystub will summarize all the information and provide a total for net pay.

    Now let’s talk about what each of these items means.

    Gross pay

    Gross pay refers to the total sum of money earned in a pay period before taxes or deductions are withheld. This number represents the employee’s taxable income for the pay period.

    The columns labeled “Current” and “YTD” help the employee track how much they’ve earned and paid in taxes and deductions for the pay period, and for the entire year through the respective pay period.

    The “Gross Pay” section often includes the employee’s rate per hour and the number of hours worked in the pay period. When multiplied, these two amounts should be equal to the total gross pay.

    There may also be various other payments listed here, such as overtime pay, bonuses and commissions.


    In this section, the paystub lists the various taxes the employee and employer pay each pay period.

    Here are the most common taxes listed on paystubs:

    Federal income tax

    Uncle Sam takes a bite out of every employee’s paycheck. The employer will use several pieces of information to determine an employee’s annual tax liability, including the employee’s marital status, income level and the amounts of allowances listed in their W-4. The estimated tax liability will be divided by the number of pay periods in a year to reach the amount that appears on the paystub. The employer will send this tax directly to the federal government.

    At the end of the year, the difference between the employee’s actual tax liability and the amount withheld will either be refunded to the employee or collected from them, as necessary. Employees can choose to have more or less money deducted from each paycheck by adjusting the number of allowances listed in their W-4s.

    State taxes

    Some states collect state income tax for each pay period.

    Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA)

    This refers to the law that requires every employee to contribute to the Social Security and Medicare programs with each paycheck. These contributions sometimes appear separately.

    By law, every employee must pay 6.2% of their gross income to the Social Security fund. Employers must contribute an additional 6.2% for each employee. Self-employed workers must pay both the worker and employer portions of this tax, effectively doubling their Social Security tax liability.

    Medicare tax liability is calculated as 1.45% of a worker’s gross income. Employers must pay an additional 1.45% for each employee they hire. Here, too, the self-employed must cover both contributions and pay 2.9% of their earnings to Medicare.

    Most paystubs will separate the employer’s tax liability for these programs and the   employee’s tax burden.


    Besides for these mandated taxes, many workers will find additional deductions on their pay stubs. These include deductions for insurance coverage; deductions for a health savings account, which allows employees to set aside pre-tax dollars to be used for medical expenses; child care deductions; and deductions for retirement savings plans, including contributions to a 401K or IRA account.

    Some paystubs will include a sub-section for employer contributions. This refers to any employer-sponsored contributions for retirement, healthcare costs and other benefits.

    In summary

    The final section of a paystub will summarize all the information listed above it and highlight the employee’s net pay, or the amount of money the employee will actually see on their paycheck. This section will also list any reimbursements, or money the business owes the employee for using their own funds for business-related expenses. In addition, the summary will include gross earnings, deductions and contributions and finally, the actual check amount.

    Now that you know what each item on your paystub means, you can easily review it and check it for errors. You work hard for your money — don’t lose out from a careless mistake.

    Wasatch Peaks

    Written by Wasatch Peaks