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Terms and Definitions

What are pre-tax deductions?

Updated: June 5, 2024

Pre-tax deductions definition and meaning

Pre-tax deductions are specific amounts withheld from an employee’s gross pay before payroll taxes are calculated. These deductions are typically allocated for various voluntary benefits that the employee opts into, such as group health insurance and flexible spending accounts. Calculating taxes before these withholdings effectively reduces the employee’s gross pay, subsequently increasing their take-home (or net) pay.

More about pre-tax deductions

To fully understand pre-tax deductions, it helps to compare them with after-tax deductions, also known as “post-tax deductions.” After-tax deductions are subtracted from an employee’s pay following the computation of taxes.


Formula for calculating pre-tax deductions:

  • Voluntary Benefit Amount – Gross Pay – Payroll Taxes – Other Deductions = Net Pay


Formula for calculating after-tax deductions:

  • Gross Pay – Payroll Taxes – Voluntary Benefit Amount – Other Deductions = Net Pay


Simply put, pre-tax deductions increase take-home pay, whereas after-tax deductions reduce it. Moreover, if a benefit is neither pre-tax nor tax-advantaged, then it qualifies as an after-tax benefit that is subject to taxation.


While the formula for pre-tax deductions is straightforward, the process can become complex due to the different types of pre-tax deductions and the specific taxes they are exempt from.

Cafeteria plans and other pre-tax benefits

The term “pre-tax” is often linked with cafeteria plans, which are required to meet Section 125 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) to qualify as pre-tax.


Cafeteria plans commonly include:



Employers may also offer additional pre-tax benefits outside of cafeteria plans, as long as they comply with the respective IRC criteria. These can include:


  • Commuter benefits (transit passes, parking, ride-sharing)
  • Education assistance (tuition, fees, expenses for supplies)
  • Health reimbursement accounts (traditional HRA, QSEHRA, ICHRA)


A note about retirement contributions

Tax-favored retirement plans, such as a traditional 401(k), are tax-deferred rather than pre-tax. This means that tax payments on contributions and earnings are postponed until the participant withdraws the funds. This deferral allows the employee to benefit from the “pre-tax effect,” effectively boosting their take-home pay.

Which taxes are pre-tax deductions exempt from?

Employers should not exclude all pre-tax deductions from all payroll taxes automatically. Instead, it’s important to determine which taxes are exempt for the benefit in question. From there, an employer deducts the benefit from the employee’s gross pay to arrive at their taxable wages and then withholds payroll taxes.


Tax implications of different pre-tax benefits

  • Most pre-tax benefits are exempt from federal income tax, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax withholding, plus federal unemployment (FUTA) tax. Social Security and Medicare taxes together are known as FICA taxes.
  • Pre-tax deductions are typically exempt from state income tax withholding, though exceptions may exist. It’s advisable to consult with your state taxation agency for applicable rules. This exemption might also extend to other state and local payroll taxes, but it’s important to verify any exceptions.
  • Group-term life insurance coverage exceeding $50,000 is subject to FICA taxes, but not federal income tax withholding or FUTA tax.
  • Adoption assistance is subject to FICA taxes and FUTA tax, but not federal income tax withholding.
  • If contributions to a pre-tax benefit exceed the legally prescribed limit, only the amount up to the limit is non-taxable. Any excess is considered taxable.


Reporting pre-tax deductions

Pre-tax deductions should not be included in an employee’s W-2 gross wages. However, employers may need to report certain details about pre-tax deductions in other areas of the W-2.


A best practice is to provide a breakdown of pre-tax deductions on each pay stub, helping employees understand the calculation of their net pay. The final pay stub of the year should reconcile with the information on the employee’s W-2.


Benefits of pre-tax benefits

  • Pre-tax benefits are generally more cost-effective for employees than purchasing similar benefits independently using after-tax dollars, often due to employers obtaining lower group rates.
  • These deductions put more money in the employee’s pocket on payday by reducing their taxable wages, which results in a higher net pay.
  • Employers also benefit from tax savings, as they are not required to pay taxes on their contributions to these benefits.

Using pre-tax deductions in a sentence

“I earn around $1,800 biweekly and pay $120 in pre-tax deductions each pay period. This decreases my taxable wages to $1,680, which in turn increases my take-home pay.”

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