Personal Finance

How the IRS will treat those one-time tax bonuses

Key Points
  • You may have more taxes withheld, which means that check could be less than you expect.
  • AT&T, Comcast, Fifth Third, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Bank of America, among others, plan to give many employees a $1,000 one-time bonus.

A spurt of one-time bonuses announced by a number of companies — stemming from the passage of the GOP tax plan — has left employees wondering how much cash they'll actually see.

The short answer: Don't be so quick to count the ways to spend that money.

AndreyPopov | Getty Images

Even if you're sure you'll get a bonus, remember that the taxman gets a piece before it even reaches you. And because of the way bonuses are initially taxed, you might see a higher-than-normal withholding when you receive that extra pay.

In general, the federal supplemental tax rate of 22 percent applies, plus Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and your applicable state and local taxes. The federal rate may be more or less than your regular federal, state and local withholdings, depending on your income level. (See the new withholding rates below).

The Internal Revenue Service allows companies to use several methods to withhold taxes from bonuses, which the agency considers "supplemental income." The first way would reduce your bonus by a flat rate of 22 percent regardless of your tax bracket. The other method would withhold taxes at whatever rate your regular income is taxed. (Bonuses above $1 million are taxed differently.)

Either way, the amount could be smaller than you expect. However, at tax-filing time, you could see a refund if too much were withheld. Bonuses are added to whatever you've earned for the year when computing your tax bill.

"It's exciting to contemplate what you'd do with any amount of extra money, but it might cause you to make financial decisions that don't look so good in hindsight," said Kathryn Hauer, a certified financial planner with Aiken, South Carolina-based Wilson David Investment Advisors in a December interview.

Among the companies announcing worker windfalls, AT&T said it will give a $1,000 bonus to more than 200,000 U.S. employees; that applies to all union-represented, non-management and front-line managers. Comcast, which owns CNBC parent NBCUniversal, also said it plans to give $1,000 bonuses to more than 100,000 eligible employees.

Sinclair Broadcast Group of Baltimore said it will give a $1,000 bonus to almost 9,000 full- and part-time regular employees, and Bank of America said that U.S. employees earning up to $150,000 annually — about 145,000 workers — would get a $1,000 bonus by the end of last year.

Meanwhile, BB&T has announced it will pay $1,200 bonuses in January to almost three-fourths of the bank's associates (about 27,000), and said it would raise its minimum hourly pay rate to $15 from $12, effective Jan. 1.

And Cincinnati-based bank Fifth Third said it will give $1,000 bonuses to some employees, along with increasing the minimum wage it pays workers to $15. Wells Fargo also is increasing its minimum wage to $15.

Hauer recommends taking time to contemplate your options before spending money in anticipation of extra cash not yet received.

"We start spending money in our head long before we have it," she said. "If we know — or even just think — we're getting a bonus, we tend to be less careful with our purchases and financial choices."

Rate Taxable Income Bracket
10%0 to $19,050
12%$19,050 to $77,400
22%$77,400 to $165,000
24%$165,000 to $315,000
32%$315,000 to $400,000
35%$400,000 to $600,000
37%$600,000 and up

First things first: If you work at one of the companies awarding bonuses, check with your human resources department about your eligibility.

Then, here are some wise ways — albeit not as exciting as a shopping spree — to use the surprise bonus.

Pay down debt

Consumer credit card debt stands at $808 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The average interest rate on credit cards is 16.75 percent, according to

"The absolutely best thing you can do with any extra money is pay down credit card debt," Hauer said. "It doesn't sound fun, but it's the wisest thing you can do financially."

Invest it

If you don't have credit card debt, you could put it in your retirement savings (i.e., your individual retirement account) or a child's 529 college savings plan. Depending on other elements of your tax situation, those contributions could be deductible. You have until tax day (April 17) to make a 2017 contribution to your IRA.

If we know — or even just think — we're getting a bonus, we tend to be less careful with our purchases and financial choices.
Kathryn Hauer

Donate it

If you are charitably inclined, you could donate your bonus to a charitable organization and get a deduction for it.

Basically, to get a tax break for the donation, you must itemize. While the tax bill retains the deduction for charitable giving, fewer taxpayers will end up using it because their deductions will not exceed the new, nearly doubled standard deduction of $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly.

Do repairs

If you've been putting off a repair — say, to a car or a household appliance — consider using the extra money to fix the issue. Some minor problems can snowball into major headaches and become necessary expenses.

"When the bigger problem does hit, you might have already spent the money and have to put the cost on a credit card," Hauer said.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the supplemental withholding rate.)

More from Personal Finance:

See your new tax withholding rates
How to get your taxes done for free
Many Americans don't have a plan to pay off their debts