This online sales tax calculator solves multiple problems around the tax imposed on the sale of goods and services. It can calculate the gross price based on the net price and the tax rate, or work the other way around as a reverse sales tax calculator. The sales tax system in the United States is somewhat complicated as the rate is different depending on the state and the base of the tax. If you would like to get more insight into this topic, here, you can read about what sales tax is, what is the difference between sales tax and value-added tax, what is its history, how to calculate sales tax and what it looks like in various U.S. states together its economic implications.

Sales tax definition

Sales tax is a consumption-based tax that is indirectly charged on the consumer at the point of final purchase of a good or service. The indirect feature of the tax means that the consumer bears the burden of the tax, however it's collected and transferred to authorities by the seller. The most popular type of sales tax is the retail sales tax which is present on state-level in the United States. Under such a taxation framework, the consumers pay the price of the item plus the amount of the sales tax which is collected by the store at the cash register and printed on the receipt. In the next section, you can get more insight into its concept as we illustrate the difference between the sales tax and value-added tax.

Sales tax vs. value-added tax (VAT)

Sales tax can take several forms: it can be imposed at a single or multiple stages of production or distribution. Besides, it can be levied at the manufacturing level, the wholesale level, or at more than one but less than all levels of production or distribution. Retail sales taxes, which prevail in most of the states in the U.S. and are levied by some of the provinces in Canada, is a single-stage tax. It means that the tax obligation emerges only at the point when the sale takes place. In contrast, the value-added tax (VAT) or at another name, the goods and services tax (GST) is a multi-stage tax imposed on every level of production or distribution chain (from the factory, through wholesalers to retailers). Ultimately, the consumer bears all taxes, since previous participants in the chain deduct the amount of VAT they paid when they made the purchase. It means that each participant in the production chain pays VAT only for the "added value" they create that eventually passed to the final consumer.

In both types of taxes, the tax burden is charged on the final consumer; however, they have a different framework of collection, administration, and effects on the economy. Through a simple example, the below table illustrates the comparison between VAT and retail sales tax. Imagine a lumberjack cutting trees (without cost) who sells the wood (enough for one barrel) to a sawmill owner for $100. The sawmill owner cuts the wood into oak staves and sells it to the cooper for $150. The cooper then makes a barrel that he can sell for $300 to the retailer who eventually sells it to the customer for $350. The total VAT paid is $35 or 10% of the sum of values added at each stage. In the case of retail sales tax with the same 10% rate the paid tax is identical, however, it's assessed only at the point of sale to the customer.

CSV To HTML using codebeautify.org
Stage Product Price Value Added 10 % VAT 10 % Retail Sales Tax
1 log $100 $100 $10
2 stave $150 $50 $5
3 barrel $300 $150 $15
4 barrel $350 $50 $5 $35
Total Tax $35 $35

The two crucial implications of the difference between retail sales tax and VAT is that retail sales tax is more straightforward and applied on a lower scale of goods and services, therefore it demands lower administrative cost charged on the authorities. However, it also means that the tax burden might be more palpable for the ultimate consumer. Moreover, as you will see in the following, the high diversity of sales tax structures over U.S. states can hurt the economy through distorting consumption and investment.

History of the sales tax

The very first taxes in human history were direct taxes, the type of tax that was imposed on individual persons. The most general ones were the corvée, compulsory labor provided to the state in Egypt (around 2600 BC), and the tithe, a form of crops and grains from the landowners invented in Mesopotamia. Sales tax, which belongs to another basic form of taxation, the indirect taxes, was also present in ancient time. Tomb paintings in Egypt, dating back around 2000 BC, portray tax collectors and sales taxes on commodities, such as cooking oil, can be traced to that time (Fox, 2002). In Europe, sales tax appeared firstly during the reign of Julius Caesar around 49 BC-44 BC, when the government of Rome enforced the payment of 1 percent sales tax. Sales tax gradually became widespread over Europe. Spain had a national sales tax from 1342 until the 18th century, with rates of 10 to 15 percent. Also, it was introduced in France where it didn't enjoy much popularity: during the 17th century alone, there were 58 rebellions against it (Burg, 2003). However, in modern times the sales tax in Europe took a declining path, and from the 1960s the dominating consumer-based tax steadily became the value-added tax.

Interestingly, the value-added tax appeared firstly in an academic research study of an American economist T. S. Adams in the United States between 1910 and 1921. However, the U.S. Congress only has taken into consideration the implementation of a federal (nation-wide) sales tax as a source for revenue to finance World War II. Until now, it never passed the conceptual level. Instead, sales taxes are levied and controlled at the state (sub-national) and local (sub-state) levels, where they account for a significant part of state and local revenue.

The use of sales taxes appeared in the U.S in 1821; however, these early taxes were not broad-based. The modern retail sales tax emerged during the Great Depression as a response for a massive fall in state revenues. It became the central pillar of state fiscal system through the second half of 20th century. At the moment, 5 of the 50 US states are without a sales tax: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon.

How to calculate sales tax with our online sales tax calculator

  1. Find out the sales tax rate. In our example, let us make it 4%.
  2. Find out the net price of a product. Let's use 45.
  3. Multiply your net price by 4%, so by 0.04 to find out the tax amount: 45 * 0.04 = 1.8.
  4. Add the tax amount to the net price to find out the gross price: 45 + 1.8 = 46.8.

As you can see, this is precisely the same as how you calculate percent increase... or if you want to find out the pre-tax price while using our calculator, simply input the gross price and the sales tax rate to perform the reverse sales tax calculation!

Besides, it's quite likely that you'll find our markup, margin and margin with sales tax calculators handy as well especially if your job is in any way related to sales.

Sales tax in the United States

As mentioned before, most of the states in the U.S. apply a single-stage retail sales tax with different rates and scopes: there are 46 different sales taxes with distinct exclusions. As Schenk and Oldman (2007) pointed out, the relatively high diversity in the enacted tax law in various states have several economic implications:

  • Businesses conducted nation-wide need to devote substantial resources to comply with many states and local sales taxes. It increases the complexity and administrative costs related to businesses.
  • As most of the services are not subject of sales taxes, the total tax base is shrinking in parallel with the expanding trend of electronic services (for example Amazon or eBay) and spreading sharing economy (for instance Uber or Airbnb).
  • Tax evasion is expanding as the current sales tax system inefficiently tax most cross-border and mail order shopping by consumers.

These issues gain relevance especially if we take into consideration the significant contribution of sales taxes to the state revenues and the current transformation of the economy. It is not surprising then that recent studies have begun to address these problems and examine the possibility of a nation-wide introduced federal VAT or another consumption-based tax which may coexist with the state-level sales tax.

Another alternative direction that achieved stronger political response is the harmonization of the current sales taxes, which is an ongoing challenge: an early stage of sales tax adjustments began in October 2005, with the implementation of a Streamlined Sales Tax. In the frame of this project, each state which joins the agreement must fulfill several conditions aimed at enhancing unification and simplifications of taxation between members. The most crucial requirements are the following:

  • Each participant shall establish a central state administration for all of its state and local sales taxes.
  • Each party must adopt a uniform sales tax definition of key terms and a uniform tax base.
  • A state can have only one general sales tax rate.
  • State authorities shall maintain a comprehensive database together with a central, electronic registration system for all member states.

Today, 24 states have adopted the simplification measures in the Agreement (representing over 31 percent of the population), and more states are moving to accept the simplification measures. For more details and up-to-date information, you may have a look at the official website of Streamlined Sales Tax Project.

Economic implications

Besides the specific nature of the sales tax system having the adverse impact on businesses in the U.S., consumption-based tax, in general, can have multiple economic implications affecting the real Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

  • It may distort saving behavior

Economists, as commonly in a wide range of economic issues, often disagree on the implications of various tax burdens. The discussion on the choice between income tax and consumption tax constitutes one of the heated topics. In the United States, traditionally the personal income taxes play the central role in the federal level, compared to the European countries, where consumption taxes reserve the highest portion of government incomes. There were several attempts to move the US taxation system toward consumption-based taxation as advocates of such a shift argue that it would encourage individuals to save more. The logic behind this debate is that income tax appears on your payslip as a reduction of your salary, thus eventually you have less money that you could devote for savings. On the other hand, a consumption tax emerges only when saving is spent; hence it doesn't alter saving decisions. Since higher savings contribute to higher investment, relying more on consumption tax may favor more for economic growth.

By addressing this concern, American policymakers adjusted the income tax law to compensate for such an adverse effect. Taxpayers can settle a limited amount on a special saving account (for example Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) plans) that is not subject to taxation until they withdraw their money during retirement. In such a case, people who save through these accounts eventually taxed based on their consumption rather than their income.

  • It redistributes income in the economy

Firmly connected to the argument on the issue of saving behavior, tax laws which promote savings also impose more substantial weight on people with lower income. It is so because lower-income families usually can't afford savings and they tend to spend all their income on daily consumption, mostly on food; thus such a system reduces the tax burden on wealthier people and pushes the government to impose a higher tax on the poor. It follows that in states where sales tax rates are high, it may widen the gap between rich and poor, thus increasing inequality in the society. Many states as you will see in the below table apply reduced tax rates on foods to ameliorate such adverse effect and help the poor and support families.

  • It can alter price levels

Implementation or adjustment of sales tax rate affects price level, though its magnitude and lasting effect depend on not only the design of the tax law but also the economic factors and reaction of consumers and sellers to such a change. To see this, let's consider a rise in the sales tax rate in a state. The immediate effect of the change is certainly an increase in price levels of products that are subject of the tax; however, its inflationary effect may be mitigated if the seller doesn't transfer such a cost entirely to the final customer. Such a situation may happen in sectors where the competition is high among sellers, or the consumer demand is more sensitive to price changes. In other words, the full price effect depends largely on the price elasticity of demand. However, even if an altered tax rate brings change in the price level, the duration of the effect is rather short and hardly induce a sustained increase in the inflation rate.

State Business Tax Climate Index

The high diversity of sales tax structure on a state level means that states have difference attractiveness for businesses. There are two key reasons behind it:

  • higher rates and more complex taxation system raise the cost of production,
  • as a response to higher sales tax rates consumers may reduce consumption or move their shopping to states where the tax burden is low.

An optimal sales tax applies to a broad base of goods and services with a low tax rate. Such a tax system can minimize its adverse impact, especially the economic distortion, that occurs when consumers adjust their consumption behavior according to the tax differentials.

The below graph shows the ranking among states according to their State Business Tax Climate Index in 2019 that gives you an overview of how attractive tax systems are over the United States.

Source: Tax Foundation (2018).Ranking Sales Taxes on the 2019 State Business Tax Climate Index.

Sales tax by states in 2019

To demonstrate the diversity of sales taxes in the United States, in the following, you can find more details on the applied sales taxes in U.S. states. Besides, you can check when the different states introduced the sales tax and if there is an exemption or reduced rate on sales of food.

Sales Tax Calculator
State Year of Introduction State Tax Rate State Tax Rate on Food Range of Local/City Tax Rates
Alabama 1937 4.000% 4.000% 0% - 8.5%
Alaska N/A 0.000% 0.000% 0% - 7.85%
Arizona 1933 5.600% 0.000% 0% - 7.3%
Arkansas 1935 6.500% 1.500% 0% - 5.50%
California 1933 7.250% 0.000% 0% - 3%
Colorado 1935 2.900% 0.000% 0% - 8.3%
Connecticut 1947 6.350% 0.000% 0% - 1%
Delaware N/A 0.000% 0.000% 0%
District of Columbia 1949 6.000% 0.000% 0%
Florida 1949 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 2.5%
Georgia 1951 4.000% 0.000% 1% - 5%
Hawaii 1935 4.000% 4.000% 0% - 0.5%
Idaho 1965 6.000% 6.000% 0% - 3%
Illinois 1933 6.250% 1.000% 0% - 4.75%
Indiana 1963 7.000% 0.000% 0%
Iowa 1934 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 2%
Kansas 1937 6.500% 6.500% 0% - 5%
Kentucky 1960 6.000% 0.000% 0%
Louisiana 1942 4.450% 0.000% 0% - 7.75%
Maine 1951 5.500% 0.000% 0%
Maryland 1947 6.000% 0.000% 0%
Massachusetts 1966 6.250% 0.000% 0%
Michigan 1933 6.000% 0.000% 0%
Minnesota 1967 6.875% 0.000% 0% - 2%
Mississippi 1932 7.000% 7.000% 0% - 1%
Missouri 1934 4.225% 1.225% 0.5% - 7.454%
Montana N/A 0.000% 0.000% 0%
Nebraska 1967 5.500% 0.000% 0% - 2%
Nevada 1955 6.850% 0.000% 0% - 1.415%
New Hampshire N/A 0.000% 0.000% 0%
New Jersey 1966 6.625% 0.000% 0%
New Mexico 1934 5.125% 0.000% 0.125% - 7.75%
New York 1965 4.000% 0.000% 0% - 5%
North Carolina 1933 4.750% 0.000% 2% - 3%
North Dakota 1935 5.000% 0.000% 0% - 3%
Ohio 1935 5.750% 0.000% 0% - 2.25%
Oklahoma 1933 4.500% 4.500% 0% - 7%
Oregon N/A 0.000% 0.000% 0%
Pennsylvania 1951 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 2%
Rhode Island 1947 7.000% 0.000% 0%
South Carolina 1951 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 3%
South Dakota 1933 4.500% 4.500% 0% - 8%
Tennessee 1947 7.000% 4.000% 1.5% - 2.75%
Texas 1961 6.250% 0.000% 0% - 2%
Utah 1933 5.950% 3.000% 1% - 7.5%
Vermont 1969 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 1%
Virginia 1966 5.300% 2.500% 1% - 2.7%
Washington 1935 6.500% 0.000% 0.5% - 3.9%
West Virginia 1933 6.000% 0.000% 0% - 1%
Wisconsin 1962 5.000% 0.000% 0% - 1.75%
Wyoming 1935 4.000% 0.000% 0% - 4%

Source: USA.gov, Sales Tax Institute and Mikesell, J.L., Kioko, S.N. (2018). The retail sales tax in a new economy.

Sales tax deduction

Paying sales tax can be a chore, especially if you are about to buy an expensive product, for example, a car. However, there might be a way to reduce your tax burden. There are two ways to gain some tax advantage: either you deduct state and local general sales tax you paid during the year, or you may deduct the state, local and foreign income tax you paid during the year. You can't do both, and also there are some limitations. To decide which way is better for you, as a general rule, compare the amount of sales tax you paid in the year to the amount of the state, local and foreign income tax paid in the year. Then deduct the larger of the two amounts. If you choose to deduct your sales tax, you have two options for the procedure:

  • You may keep all bills and invoices of your actual sales tax expenses, or
  • You can estimate the amount of tax you paid by, for instance, using the IRS's sales tax worksheet and tables.

If you would like to know more details you may visit the official site of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) where you can find all relevant information on this topic.

Mateusz Mucha, Piotr Małek and Tibor Pal - PhD candidate.

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