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Updated: March 31, 2023
Processing payroll can seem like a fairly straightforward task when you first start a business. Writing paychecks for a few employees shouldn’t be that hard, right? Why on Earth would you outsource payroll to an accountant or a payroll service?
If you’re reading this article, you might be in the process of learning that running payroll can eat up a lot more time than you may have expected. In fact, our research shows that it takes small business owners around 17 hours a month to run payroll by themselves.
For a lot of small businesses owners, outsourcing payroll can save a lot of time, money, and headaches. So if you’re having a hard time remembering the alphabet soup of FICA, FUTA, and SUTA, if you’re struggling to do all the math right, or if you simply find it difficult to stay organized enough to pay your employees on time, we feel your pain.
DIY payroll can take up a lot of mental bandwidth. And if you get an IRS notice or miss a payday? Well, you might be ready to shout forgetaboutit!
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. A lot of small businesses manage to keep everything straight (and you can always check out our guides to getting set up right and calculating payroll). But if you feel like you might be ready to outsource payroll, here are some signs that it’s something you should explore, as well as some information about choosing the right type of provider.
It’s not uncommon for new business owners to set up shop with a limited knowledge of the actual payroll process, which includes not only paying your employees, but also actions like processing new hire forms, quarterly payroll taxes, FICA taxes, and year-end tax forms for employees (such as W-2s and 1099s).
This lack of knowledge can be costly. In fact, the IRS issued penalties to businesses in the amount of $4.5 billion for late or erroneous payroll tax payments in 2014.
In addition to messing up tax filings, there are a number of payroll errors small businesses often make. Input errors, erroneous pay amounts, and inadequate tracking of details like vacation and sick time are few of the mistakes that can lead to extra work (and unhappy employees). And payroll mistakes aren’t just limited to new businesses. In a survey conducted by Ernst & Young, 54 percent of all business owners said that their current payroll process had room for improvement.
In deciding whether to use an external payroll provider, you should also consider the fact that your time and mental bandwidth are finite resources. Even if you do everything perfectly, running payroll yourself means you’re not as involved with customers and that you don’t spend as much time dedicated to more strategic activities.
To make things simple for you, here are the big red flags that often indicate a small business is ready for outside help.
Many of your employees don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to their personal finances. For example, the Federal Reserve recently found that 40% of US households can’t afford to pay for an unexpected $400 expense.
When you’re late on a pay run, that can mean really messing with the lives of your employees (not to mention the trust you’ve built with them). So if payroll ever slips off your radar — or if bank holidays regularly throw off your timing — you might want to consider a comprehensive payroll service that actively reminds you to get your paychecks out (or does them for you).
Under or overpaying employees is never a good idea, but business owners who are overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork they have to deal with often make mistakes during harried late-night payroll sessions. You’ve got to pay employees on time, but you’ve also got to set the right number of allowances, deduct the right amount, and accurately enter the number of hours worked (among other things). When you get any of the numbers wrong, it means having to correct your previous payroll, and it can also mean your tax filings will include mistakes if you don’t catch them in time. Worst of all, paying employees or contractors too little can cause major friction with your team.
Outsourcing payroll reduces input errors by reducing the number of steps you have to take, and by doing all the math for you. If you still manage to mess things up, corrections are a lot easier to run, or there may even be someone to handle them for you (depending on your provider).
In most states, a typical small business has at least eight separate payroll-related tax filings to make each year: Quarterly filings of IRS Form 941, plus analogous state filings. Getting these filings processed on time is yet another burden that can sneak up on small business owners. And making late filings or late deposits can be costly.
Most payroll services make these filings for you. Note that some will charge an extra fee for these regular filings, so make sure you understand all the costs that are included before you pick a provider. See more tips here.
In addition to the state and federal forms you file on behalf of your company, you also owe employees and contractors wage statements to help them do their annual filings. For the previous year, W-2 forms for employees and 1099 forms for contractors must be delivered by January 31. They also must be filed with the Social Security Administration and the IRS by January 31. Penalties for late W-2 filing start at $50 per form and increase the later they are filed.
Creating your W-2s and 1099s is also a service that most payroll providers handle, typically for an additional fee.
Even the most successful small businesses struggle with cash flow from time to time. Maybe your business has seasonal ebbs and flows, or maybe one-time expenses can throw your operating budget off-kilter. Whatever the issue, a good payroll service can help you manage cash flow in a few ways:
If you offer benefits, you’ll have the added complication of deducting and withholding the contributions employees make.
From time to time, you’re also likely to get notice of a court judgment (like alimony or child support) or tax levy against one of your employees. When that happens, you’ll be responsible for deducting and remitting a portion of their income to the appropriate party each pay period. It’s another little thing most small business owners would rather not deal with.
Whether you’re deducting benefits or wage garnishments, payroll outsourcing services usually make it easy to automate the process. It’ll be one less thing for you to think about (and potentially mess up).
Taking time to run payroll means you have to stop working on something else. If you bill hourly for the amount of time you work or the number of clients you see (like doctors, lawyers, designers, architects, or other professionals might), it means there’s a very real cost to running payroll.
For example, if you make $100 an hour and you spend four hours a month on payroll, you’re essentially giving up $400 in earnings. The math varies depending on what your billing rate is, but it should be easy to do the cost-benefit analysis by looking at how much a payroll service costs.
While payroll can be one of the trickier parts of operating a business, you can use our online payroll calculator to do most of the heavy lifting. In just a few clicks, calculate your employee’s gross pay, net pay, and federal and state withholdings (for any state) without breaking a sweat.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you a decent sense of the sorts of red flags you should be looking for. Bottom line, a good external payroll company should give you more time to do what you do best while minimizing the distractions, expenses, and mistakes that can happen when you do payroll yourself.
There are four potential disadvantages for businesses who choose to use software or a service to manage their payroll:
I’ve been in business for over 15 years and after trying several payroll providers, I highly recommend OnPay. Their platform is simple to use, fairly priced, and the customer service they provide is outstanding.
— Cesar Montalvan, MP Dental Associates DDS PC
There are a number of viable solutions available that can make payroll less of a burden. We can’t definitively say there’s a perfect solution for you (although we’d like to think nobody does payroll software better than us). But in the interest of fairness and impartiality, here are the options most businesses consider when it’s time to seek payroll help:
Increase staffing. Many new business owners, overwhelmed by mounds of paperwork, end up hiring additional staff to handle payroll and related tasks. Whether you staff up internally or hire a part-time bookkeeper on a contract basis, adding headcount can mean adding the bandwidth you need to handle payroll. This is a great choice because it means you’ll have someone new who can potentially help out with other tasks as well. But if you hire someone who’s just learning the ropes, it can wind up meaning more work for you (at least in the interim) as they get up to speed.
Sign up for payroll software. There is a lot of great payroll software on the market. You should be able to find a solution that can do anything from calculating your payroll to paying employees to filing taxes for you. Some software even handles benefits and HR or integrates with your accounting software. Once you enter employees’ and contractors’ wage information each pay period, good outsourced payroll software should do everything else automatically.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that there’s so much payroll software to choose from that it can be hard to find the right one. Higher priced offerings may give you more features and functionality than you need. Lower priced options may have hidden costs or exclude important features like automatic tax filings and payments. Before picking a software provider, check its ratings and reviews to make sure that you’re getting what’s advertised (and that businesses like yours appear to be happy customers). It may also be helpful to use this checklist to compare payroll solutions.
Use a traditional payroll service provider. If you want the human touch, a traditional payroll service could be the way to go. Each pay period you’ll send them all your wage information, then they’ll do all the math, cut the checks, and handle your taxes. Payroll services have the disadvantage of costing a little more than payroll software with similar functionality, but some business owners feel more comfortable with having a go-to person for their payroll needs. As with any payroll-related decision, make sure to check ratings and reviews of any service you’re considering.
Go through your accountant or bookkeeper. Modern accountancies are starting to offer payroll more frequently. Working with your accountant is usually the same concept as using a payroll service: You send them your payroll information before each run and they handle everything else. Sometimes they’ll use payroll software, and sometimes they’ll perform their own calculations. The cost and service level vary dramatically from accountant to accountant.
Every business has its own needs, so don’t feel like there is any right or wrong way to do this. You just have to decide how much time you want to spend on payroll, how much money you want to spend, and how much hand-holding you need. Your goal should be to find the solution that frees you up to do your best work. Whether that means hunkering down with a calculator and a notepad or going with a payroll outsourcing solution, we hope you have the information you need to get on the right path.