Tax tables are used to calculate the tax you owe based on your filing status and taxable income. They’re published by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and by each state that collects an income tax.
Tax tables can change somewhat from year to year, so taxpayers should always be sure that they’re using the correct ones for the year in question. Fortunately, the IRS makes that relatively easy and provides numerous sources for these tables.
U.S. Federal Income Tax Tables
The most basic tax table issued by the IRS delineates tax brackets. They’re based on your filing status, and the amount of taxable income you earned in the tax year after you claim various deductions. This table shows you the applicable tax rates for ranges of income based on your filing status—your tax bracket. They show breakpoint income levels above and below which different tax rates will apply.
For example, the 22% tax bracket spans incomes from $40,526 to $86,375 in 2021 for taxpayers who claim the single filing status. The span changes to $54,201 to $86,350 for those who qualify for the head-of-household status. It increases again to $81,051 to $172,750 for married taxpayers who file joint returns.
The more complex tax tables will tell you exactly the tax you owe for your total amount of taxable income. Still others will calculate capital gains tax, or the earned income tax credit you might qualify for.
The federal tax tables are embedded in many popular tax preparation software packages, which can make your tax preparation job much easier.
Where Can I Find Federal Tax Tables?
The IRS provides a much more comprehensive table along with some very helpful instructions for using them on pages 3 through 15 of its publication “Tax Year 2020—1040 and 1040-SR Tax and Earned Income Credit Tables.”
It’s also available in the instructions for Form 1040. These resources are far more detailed than the table that simply breaks down the spans of income that apply to each tax-bracket percentage.
How to Read the 1040 Tax Tables
First, you'll need to know what your "taxable income" is. You can find this on Line 15 of your Form 1040.
Next, scroll down through the tax tables found in the IRS publication mentioned above to find your taxable income in the two far left columns. Incomes are grouped in ranges of $25 at very low income levels, and increase to ranges of $50 at incomes of $3,000 or more. The tables detail income ranges all the way up to $100,000. Separate tax computation worksheets are provided if your taxable income is more than $100,000.
The next four columns to the right of these income ranges tell you your total tax—not just the percentage rate for each span of your income—depending on your filing status: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household.
For example, if your income is $51,500, then you would go to this portion of the 2020 IRS tax tables pictured below to find your salary range in the middle column, then look across to the right in the same column to determine the amount of tax owed based on your filing status.
The tables contained in the “1040 and 1040-SR Tax and Earned Income Credit Tables” guide conveniently group income spans by $1,000 increments with their own separate headings, making them easier to find.
As another illustration, if your total taxable income for the year was $38,885, you would scroll down to the line showing the $38,850 and $38,900 range. Moving to the columns to the right, you would see that you’d owe:
- $4,468 of this in taxes if you’re a single filer
- $4,270 if you’re married and filing a joint return
- $4,468 if you’re married filing a separate return
- $4,383 if you’re filing as head of household
What to Do If You Need Help With the 1040 Tax Tables
The IRS provides multiple free resources on its website if you need help preparing your tax return or have questions about a tax issue. These resources include publications, forms, instructions, non-English language assistance, and even live help, in some cases. Tax preparation options include Free File, the VITA program, and the TCE program.
Tax Preparation Help
Free File is a partnership between the IRS and several tax software providers that will prepare your tax return for free if your income was $72,000 or less in 2020. You won’t have to worry about nailing down your tax on a table because the software program will figure everything out for you.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help to people who generally made $57,000 or less as of tax year 2020—the return you’ll file in 2021—as well as persons with disabilities, and limited-English-speaking taxpayers who need help preparing their tax returns.
The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help for taxpayers who are 60 years of age and older. TCE volunteers specialize in answering questions about pensions and retirement-related issues relevant to seniors.