Guide to Sales Tax

By Timothy Moore · March 07, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Guide to Sales Tax

Taxes are inescapable: You likely have income taxes withheld from every paycheck; if you’re a homeowner, you pay your property taxes; and yes, when you tap your card at the register, you pay that additional sales tax.

You may wonder why you have to fork over that extra bit of your hard-earned cash. This guide will help with that. Read on to learn:

•   What is sales tax?

•   How does it work?

•   What are the different kinds of sales tax?

•   How much is sales tax on average and in each state?

•   What are the pros and cons of sales tax?

What Is a Sales Tax?

Sales tax is a form of revenue for state and local governments. States and localities levy sales taxes on certain purchases of goods and services. For every eligible purchase you make, you’ll pay a sales tax — a percentage of the sale price.

State and local governments use the revenue generated from sales taxes to fund their budget. That means your tax dollars could pay for things like libraries, law enforcement, parks, infrastructure, and schools.

States and localities can charge separate sales taxes, though they don’t always do this. Five states currently do not charge sales taxes: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Of those five, only one state (Alaska) has cities/counties that charge local sales taxes. States without sales taxes may generate revenue from other types of taxes, like income taxes and property taxes.

How Does Sales Tax Work?

Now that you know what sales tax is, consider this: How does sales tax work? As a consumer in the United States, prices on items in the store typically don’t display the sales tax. You’ll either need to do the math in your head (or using your phone) or wait until you get to the register to see how much you’ll owe in sales tax. When shopping online, e-commerce sites usually tabulate sales tax near the end of the transaction as well.

When you pay for the item (or service), the merchant (or service provider) collects the sales tax owed. Your job as a consumer is finished — but the business must then submit the taxes to the state and local governments. That means it’s on the business, not you, to keep records of sales taxes.

PRO TIP: Although you don’t submit the sales taxes to the government yourself, you may want to keep track of sales taxes paid throughout the year. Why? If you’re itemizing deductions when preparing your tax return, you can take the SALT deduction (sales and local taxes). You can choose to deduct your state and local income taxes or your state and local sales taxes, whichever delivers a bigger tax benefit.

Deductions can help to lower your taxable income and reduce your tax burden. Working with an accountant or using tax software can help you make sure you capture all appropriate deductions.

Types of Sales Tax

While you may be accustomed to thinking of sales tax as a single entity, there are actually three different kinds that you might encounter.

•   General sales tax: This is the amount added to everyday purchases, such as a new suitcase or some beach reads come summer. When most people wonder, “What are sales taxes?” this is likely the kind of surcharge that pops into their head.

•   Excise tax: You may also hear this referred to as “sin tax,” and it’s imposed on cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling, among other goods, activities, and services. These taxes are applied when the government may consider something potentially harmful.

•   Value-added tax (VAT): This is a tax that is imposed at various stages of production when an item or service is created. In the U.S., this tax isn’t levied separately; it’s rolled into the cost of a product. However, you may hear VAT referred to when you travel overseas, where this tax may be added onto the price of goods or services.

What Is the Average Sales Tax Percentage in the US?

The average sales tax percentage in the United States is 6.55% — but this number may not be what you find where you live. To calculate this number, we used 2022 data from the Tax Foundation, but these data points are subject to change as states and cities update their tax code.

In addition, this number represents a combination of the state sales tax and the average local sales tax rate for each state. Though it’s a good representation of local sales tax in a state, it may not be an actual tax rate being charged anywhere.

Here’s a table, based on that same data set, showcasing state sales tax rates, average local sales tax rates per state, and combined sales tax rates for each state and Washington, D.C.


State Sales Tax Rate

Average Local Sales Tax Rate

Combined Sales Tax Rate

New Hampshire0.00%0.00%0.00%
New Jersey6.625%-0.03%5.595%
New Mexico5.125%2.71%7.835%
New York4.00%4.52%8.52%
North Carolina4.75%2.23%6.98%
North Dakota5.00%1.96%6.96%
Rhode Island7.00%0.00%7.00%
South Carolina6.00%1.44%7.44%
South Dakota4.50%1.90%6.40%
Washington, D.C.6.00%0.00%6.00%
West Virginia6.00%0.52%6.52%

Again, this table has a lot of caveats: The latest data comes from early 2022. Tax rates are subject to change, and the data has a lot of fine print, which you can find on the Tax Foundation website.

Recommended: Best States to Retire in for Tax Purposes

Why Are Sales Taxes Different in Every State?

Sales taxes are levied at the state and local levels. Because each state is permitted to form its own tax code, sales taxes can vary depending on which state you live in or visit.

In many states, cities and counties can also leverage their own sales taxes.

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How Is Sales Tax Calculated?

To see how sales tax is calculated, let’s look at an example. Suppose you want to buy a new shirt for $20. The combined (state and local) sales tax rate is 7.5%. At the register, you’d pay $21.50. The store keeps its $20, and the $1.50 (7.5% of the sale price) goes to the government.

Here’s that math broken down:

Sale Price

Total Sales Tax Rate

Sales Tax Calculation

$20 x 0.075 = $1.50
Total Price

$20 + $1.50 = $21.50

What Kinds of Items Are Taxed?

Almost all goods and services have sales taxes, though there are exceptions. For example:

•   States commonly do not charge sales tax on prescription drugs.

•   Most states don’t charge sales tax on food purchases, either. Those that do may offer a reduced tax amount on food.

•   Though it varies by state, some services — especially digital services — may currently be exempt from sales taxes.

In addition, certain items may have an excise tax, which is different from the typical sales tax rate. Common excise tax goods include alcohol, tobacco, and gasoline.

Worth noting: Many states have sales tax exemptions for Rx and OTC drugs, textbooks, and other items. States may also have sales tax holidays, when certain goods are sold tax-free (such as school supplies during the back-to-school season).

Recommended: Tax-Friendly States for Pensions and Social Security Income

Pros and Cons of Sales Tax

So what are the pros and cons of sales tax? Let’s break them down:

•   Pro: They’re easy to calculate. Compared to income taxes (from estimating tax withholdings to filing a tax return), the process of paying and collecting sales taxes is easy. It’s a flat rate, after all.

•   Con: It puts a heavier tax burden on low-income taxpayers. Income taxes in the U.S. are a progressive system: The more you make, the more you pay. Opponents of higher sales taxes — especially in states without income taxes — argue that this disproportionally puts the burden on low-income earners, since the sales tax rate is the same no matter how much money you have.

•   Pro: Sales tax provides revenue for your state and city. Sales taxes fund things like the fire department, parks, and road construction.

•   Con: Sales taxes take more money out of your pocket. If you already pay income and property taxes, shelling out more money to the government in addition to what you pay when you file your tax return might feel painful.

The Takeaway

Sales taxes are a common way for states and municipalities to generate revenue to fund programs and departments that serve the public. In most states, you pay a sales tax every time you purchase goods and services, though there are exceptions.

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Do all states have sales tax?

All but five states currently have sales taxes. The five states without sales tax include Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. In Alaska, however, local municipalities can charge a sales tax.

Are states with zero sales tax cheaper?

States with zero sales taxes may seem cheaper on the surface, but to get a full picture, it’s important to look at the state’s income taxes, property taxes, and overall cost of living. For example, Oregon has no sales tax, but it has the fourth-highest income tax rate.

What is the purpose of sales tax?

States and localities rely on sales taxes to fund services for the public. This might include supporting police and fire departments, parks and recreation, libraries, schools, and infrastructure.

Photo credit: iStock/pixdeluxe

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