How to Collect, Report, and Pay Sales Tax for Your Small Business

How to Collect, Report, and Pay Sales Tax for Your Small Business

If you're running a business that sells taxable products or services in a state that requires sales tax, it's essential to understand your responsibilities. You'll need to create a reliable process for collecting sales tax from your customers, paying it to the state, and regularly filing sales tax returns. This ensures your business stays compliant with state tax laws and avoids any potential legal issues.

#1. Introduction

Sales tax is a tax imposed on the sale of goods and services. It is typically a percentage of the purchase price and is added to the final cost of the product or service. The rate of sales tax varies by location, with different states and localities having their own rates.

The importance of collecting and reporting sales tax correctly.

In the United States, it is not a federal tax, but rather a state and local tax. Sales tax revenue is used to fund various government programs and services such as education, transportation, and healthcare.

Because local governments depend upon these taxes to fund various services, it is important to collect and report sales tax properly. The rate of sales tax varies by location, with different states and localities having their own rates.

When selling goods or merchandise, the location for local tax purposes is the retail outlet from which delivery is made

The consequences of mishandling sales tax.

When you make a mistake on your taxes, it might catch the attention of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In such cases, the IRS will typically send you a notice pointing out the error and instructing you to amend your return. This notice will include a specific deadline by which you need to respond or correct the mistake.

It's important not to panic if you receive such a notice. Mistakes can happen, and the IRS provides a straightforward process for correcting them. You'll need to fill out the appropriate tax form, which is usually an amended return, and submit it by the deadline indicated in the IRS notice. Timely addressing these corrections is crucial to avoid further complications or potential penalties. Remember, the key is to respond promptly and accurately to any notices from the IRS regarding errors in your tax filing.

If you fail to follow the sales tax laws, you may be subject to civil or criminal penalties: Reference Sales and Use Tax Penalties

#2. Understanding Sales Tax Basics

Sales taxes are considered “trust taxes” where the seller collects the tax from the customer and remits the collected tax to the appropriate taxing jurisdiction. There are different types of sales taxes imposed by the states. Some states are Seller Privilege Tax states while others are Consumer Tax states.

Business owners are responsible for collecting sales tax regardless of the type of business entity.

All, but five states impose sales tax, but the rules about what is taxable, the amount of tax, and the way it is collected differ from one state to the next so it's important to check with the state agency responsible for collecting taxes to understand your responsibilities.

5 States with No Tax

In the United States, there are a few states where no state-level sales tax is charged. As of my last update in April 2023, these states are:

  • Alaska - While there's no state-level sales tax, some local jurisdictions in Alaska impose their own sales taxes.
  • Delaware - Known as a "tax-free" state for shopping, as it has no sales tax.
  • Montana - No sales tax at the state level, but some localities may have their own sales taxes.
  • New Hampshire - No state sales tax, making it an attractive shopping destination.
  • Oregon - Another state with no state sales tax, benefiting consumers and businesses alike.

It's important to note that while these states do not have a state-level sales tax, some specific products or services may still be subject to other forms of tax, and local jurisdictions within these states may have their own tax laws and regulations.

Why are there different sales tax rates in different states?

States rely on sales tax to fund budget items like roads and schools, so they have a vested interest in making sure that merchants in a state are collecting the right amount of sales tax from buyers in the state. With all these different states, rules, and laws come to a veritable cornucopia of sales tax rates.

#3. Determining If You Need to Collect Sales Tax

In determining whether your business needs to collect sales tax, understanding the concept of 'Economic nexus' is key.

States that adopt this standard usually set specific thresholds, often defined as either $100,000 in annual sales or 200 separate sales transactions - whichever your business reaches first. However, these figures can vary from state to state, so it's essential to verify the specific requirements for each state where you operate.

Economic nexus obligations are triggered once a business exceeds a certain level of sales, measured either by transaction quantity, total dollar amounts, or both.

Additionally, there's the concept of 'Physical presence nexus', which applies when your business has a tangible connection to a state or taxing jurisdiction. A common example of this is having an office location within the state. Understanding both economic and physical presence nexus will help you determine your sales tax collection responsibilities accurately.

What Types of Products are Taxable?

When determining what products are taxable, small business owners should consult their state's tax agency. The name of this agency can vary; it might be the Department of Revenue, Department of Finance, State Board of Equalization, Department of Taxation, Department of Treasury, or the Office of the Comptroller, depending on the state.

Here's a breakdown of general categories of taxable products, with examples relevant to small businesses:

  • Personal Property: This category includes items like clothing, furniture, appliances, and computers. For instance, if you own an electronics store, you'd need to collect sales tax on the sale of computers.
  • Household Items: Taxable items in this category include cleaning supplies, tools, equipment, and paper products. A small business selling home improvement goods should apply sales tax to these items.
  • Food and Beverages in Restaurants and Bars: Unlike grocery store items, food and beverages sold in restaurants and bars are typically taxable. For example, if you run a cafe, sales tax should be added to the price of the meals and drinks you serve.
  • Utilities: Services like gas, electricity, and phone service are often subject to sales tax. A small business providing any of these services should include sales tax in their billing.
  • Hotel Room Stays: Small businesses in the hospitality industry, like boutique hotels, need to collect sales tax on the cost of room stays.

It's important to note the nuances in tax laws. While general grocery items may not be taxed, specific items like candy, soda, and alcoholic beverages could be taxable, even when sold in a grocery store. Additionally, prepared foods like sandwiches at a convenience store are often taxable. In contrast, prescription drugs are usually exempt from sales tax, but over-the-counter medicines, such as aspirin, are typically taxable.

What Types of Services are Taxable?

In general, most retail goods are taxable, but taxable services are more narrowly defined by most states.

Here are some common categories of taxable services, along with examples that could help small business owners understand what might apply to them:

  • Services Related to Personal Property: This includes services like equipment repair or installation. For example, if you run a business that installs home theaters, the installation service would likely be subject to sales tax.
  • Services Related to Real Property: Services involving buildings and land, such as landscaping and painting, fall into this category. If you own a landscaping business, the services you provide would typically be taxable.
  • Digital and Information Services: This category covers services like subscriptions to online journals, access to databases, and stock reports. If your business offers a subscription-based online database, this service would likely be subject to sales tax.
  • Business Services: Services such as credit reporting are often taxable. For instance, if your company provides credit reporting services to other businesses, these services would usually be taxable.
  • Personal Services: This includes services provided by businesses like tanning salons, hair salons, and pet grooming. So, if you operate a hair salon, the hair-cutting and styling services you offer would be subject to sales tax.
  • Recreation and Entertainment Services: Services in this category, such as concerts, sporting events, and amusement parks, are typically taxable. For example, if you run a business that organizes local sporting events, the tickets sold for these events would generally include sales tax.

#4. How much Sales Tax Should you Charge?

Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon don't have a sales tax, and all but Alaska don't have local sales taxes either. The remaining 45 states, and the District of Columbia, all charge sales tax, and of those states, 38 also have local sales taxes. Each state sets its own sales tax rate, and when there are also local sales taxes the amount is added in.

Calculating the correct sales tax to charge depends on several factors, and here are some examples to illustrate:

  • State Sales Tax Rate: If your business is in Texas, and the state sales tax rate is 6.25%, that's your starting point. Reference
  • Local Sales Taxes: In New York City, for instance, you would add the state tax (4%) to the city's tax (4.5%) and the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District surcharge (0.375%) for a total of 8.875%. Reference
  • Nexus Considerations: If you run an online store based in Florida but make substantial sales to customers in California, you might need to charge California's sales tax rates to those customers. Reference
  • Product and Customer Type: In Pennsylvania, most clothing is generally exempt from sales tax. So, if you sell clothing, you wouldn't charge sales tax to your customers in this state. Reference
  • Remote Sales: If you're in Illinois but sell a product online to a customer in Nevada, you need to apply Nevada's sales tax rate, assuming you have a nexus there.
  • Regular Updates: Sales tax rates can change, so if a new rate is announced in Colorado, where your business is located, you need to adjust the sales tax you charge accordingly.
  • Software Assistance: Using tax collection software can help automate these calculations, especially if your business operates in multiple states or has a large volume of transactions.

Remember, the specific rate to charge depends on your business location, where your customers are, the type of product or service you're selling, and the current state and local tax rates. Regularly consulting with a tax professional or using updated tax software can greatly assist in maintaining accuracy.

#5. Steps for Collecting Sales Tax

Once you have determined whether the products or services you sell are taxable, the states where you will need to collect sales tax, and the amount of tax, follow these steps:

  • Register with Taxing Agencies: Before you start collecting sales tax, you must register with the appropriate taxing agency in each state where you conduct business. This registration is necessary for any state where your business has a nexus, which could be due to physical presence, economic activity, or other criteria set by the state.
  • Provide Necessary Information: During registration, you'll typically need to provide your Federal Tax Identification Number (EIN) and the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes for your products or services. The NAICS codes are standardized classifications used to identify the nature of your business. (see examples)

Track and Record Collected Taxes: After you have received your sales tax permit, you can begin collecting sales tax from customers. Accurately track and record the sales tax you collect. Your invoices or receipts should clearly list the sales tax as a separate item from the purchase price. The method of tracking can vary depending on whether you are in an origin-based or destination-based tax state and whether you conduct online sales. can easily record your sales receipt

  • Remit Taxes According to Schedule: Each state has its own schedule and requirements for remitting collected sales taxes. This can vary from monthly to quarterly or annually. Additionally, some states may require a breakdown of taxes collected by locality, especially if local taxes are involved.

#6. Recording Sales Tax Transactions

Recording sales tax collected from customers and reporting sales tax paid to the government involves specific journal entries in your accounting records.
Here's an example to illustrate how this is typically done:

Example Scenario:
Imagine you own a furniture store. In a particular transaction, a customer buys a sofa set priced at $1,000. The sales tax rate in your area is 7%.

Journal Entry for Collected Sales Tax.

  • Recording the Sale and Sales Tax Collected:
    • When you sell the sofa set, you collect both the sales price and the sales tax.
    • The sales tax here would be $1,000 x 7% = $70.
    • So, the total amount collected from the customer is $1,000 (sofa set) + $70 (sales tax) = $1,070.
  • Journal Entry:
    • Debit Cash (or Accounts Receivable if the customer pays on credit) $1,070
    • Credit Sales Revenue $1,000
    • Credit Sales Tax Payable $70
  • Explanation:
    This entry records the increase in cash (or accounts receivable) by $1,070. Out of this, $1,000 is recognized as revenue from the sale of the sofa set, and $70 is recorded as a liability under "Sales Tax Payable", as this amount needs to be remitted to the government.

Remitting the Sales Tax to the Government:

Suppose, over a month, your furniture store collects a total of $5,000 in sales tax.

  • Prepare to Remit the Collected Tax: At the end of the tax collection period (in this case, a month), the store must prepare to pay the collected sales tax to the government. The $5,000 collected is recorded in the store’s books as a liability because it is money owed to the government.
  • Journal Entry for Payment: The journal entry to record the remittance of sales tax is as follows:
    • Debit Sales Tax Payable $5,000
    • Credit Cash $5,000
  • Explanation of the Entry:
    • Debit Sales Tax Payable: This decreases the liability account (Sales Tax Payable) by $5,000, reflecting that the store is fulfilling its obligation to pay the sales tax.
    • Credit Cash: This reduces the store’s cash by $5,000, showing the actual payment of money to the government.

This example demonstrates how a furniture store would handle accounting for sales tax collection and payment, ensuring accurate financial records and compliance with tax obligations.

#7. Conclusion

In conclusion, our exploration into collecting, reporting, and paying sales tax for small businesses highlights the importance of accurate and compliant financial practices. Focusing on understanding the need to collect sales tax, accurately recording these amounts, and timely remitting them to the relevant authorities.

For small business owners, managing these tasks can be streamlined and simplified with the aid of, a Bookkeeping AI with advanced accounting software features. offers the dual benefits of automated bookkeeping and sophisticated accounting functionalities, easing the burden of sales tax management. This tool ensures precision in tracking sales taxes collected from customers, thereby supporting small businesses in maintaining compliance and financial accuracy.

Overall, with tools like, small business owners can navigate the complexities of sales tax more efficiently, allowing them to focus on growing their businesses while ensuring adherence to tax regulations by tracking sales taxes collected easily.

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