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What is a Sales Tax? How to Calculate?

Sales Tax
Read Time: 7 min

Sales tax is a tax levied by the government on selling specific goods and services. It’s a form of consumption tax, meaning the burden falls on the end user who purchases the taxable items. Regardless of their size, businesses need to have a clear understanding of sales tax, as it directly impacts their financial calculations and reporting. They must comprehend the concept of sales tax to ensure accurate economic calculations and reporting.

Table of Contents 

Sales Tax: Definition

A sales tax is a transaction-based tax applied at the point of sale, typically expressed as a percentage of the total purchase price. Businesses registered to collect sales tax act as intermediaries, collecting the tax from the customer and remitting it to the relevant tax authority. The specific rate and taxable items can vary depending on the jurisdiction (state, county, or city) where the sale occurs.

Here’s a breakdown of the critical aspects of a sales tax:

  • Tax Base: The total price of the taxable good or service.

  • Tax Rate: A percentage of the tax base applied to determine the amount of tax owed. Rates can be flat (a single rate) or vary depending on the product category (tiered rates).

  • Tax Incidence: The ultimate party who bears the economic burden of the tax. In the case of sales tax, this is typically the consumer who pays the tax at checkout.

Understanding these components is essential for businesses to accurately calculate and collect sales tax.

How to Calculate Sales Tax in the USA

Calculating sales tax in the USA involves a few key steps:

  1. Identify the Taxable Items: Not all goods and services are subject to sales tax. Certain exemptions may exist for essential items like groceries or prescription drugs. Enterprises must remain informed about the tax laws applicable in their locality.

  1. Determine the Tax Rate: Sales tax rates can vary by location. A state may have a base sales tax rate, with additional rates imposed by counties or cities. Businesses operating across multiple locations will need to factor in these variations.

  1. Apply the Tax Rate: Once you’ve identified the taxable items and applicable tax rate, multiply the rate by the taxable sales amount to determine the sales tax owed.

Here’s a formula to illustrate the calculation:

Sales Tax = Tax Rate (%) x Taxable Sales Amount

For example, if a customer purchases a shirt for $20 (taxable amount) in a location with a combined state and local sales tax rate of 8%, the sales tax would be:

Sales Tax = 8% x $20 = $1.60

The final price paid by the customer would be $20 (shirt price) + $1.60 (sales tax) = $21.60

Important Note: Sales tax calculations can become more complex for businesses that offer discounts and coupons or handle shipping and handling charges. It’s crucial to consult with a tax professional or refer to specific tax guidelines for these scenarios.

Examples of Sales Tax

Here are some real-world examples to illustrate how sales tax applies:

  • Buying Clothes: In a state with a 6% sales tax, a customer purchasing a pair of jeans for $50 would pay $50 x 6% = $3 in sales tax, bringing the total cost to $53.

  • Grocery Shopping: While groceries are often exempt from sales tax in some states, prepared foods or beverages sold within a grocery store might be taxable.

  • Restaurant Dining: Restaurant meals typically incur sales tax, with the exact rate depending on the location.

  • Services: While traditionally associated with goods, some states or localities might levy sales tax on specific services, such as haircuts or gym memberships.

It’s essential for businesses to maintain accurate records of taxable sales and collected sales tax to ensure compliance with tax regulations.

Understanding Nexus: When to Collect Sales Tax

Nexus refers to a business’s connection with a state that creates a legal obligation to collect and remit sales tax. An online presence or website doesn’t necessarily establish a nexus, but various activities can trigger it. Here’s a breakdown of some common ways nexus can be established:

  • Physical Presence: A physical location, such as a store, warehouse, or office within a state, automatically creates a nexus.

  • Employee Presence: Employing individuals within a state, even if they work remotely, can establish a nexus.

  • Solicitation Activities: Actively soliciting sales within a state, such as attending trade shows or running targeted advertising campaigns, might trigger nexus.

  • Inventory Storage: Storing inventory within a state, even through a fulfillment center, could create a nexus.

  • Affiliate Marketing: Utilizing affiliate marketing programs that generate sales within a state might establish a nexus.

The specific laws and thresholds for establishing nexus vary by state. Businesses operating across multiple states or engaging in the abovementioned activities should consult a tax professional to determine their nexus obligations. Not collecting and submitting sales tax when necessary can incur substantial fees and accrued interest.

Sales Tax

Sales Tax vs. VAT: Key Differences

Sales tax and VAT (Value Added Tax) are both consumption taxes, but they have some key distinctions:

  • Tax Point: Sales tax is levied at the final point of sale to the consumer. On the other hand, VAT is applied at each stage of production and distribution, with businesses essentially acting as tax collectors and remitting the difference between the VAT they collect on sales and the VAT they pay on their purchases.

  • Tax Base: Sales tax typically applies to the final selling price of a good or service. At every production stage, Value Added Tax (VAT) is generally used for the added value, which can be the disparity between the cost of raw materials and the price at which the final product is sold.

  • Inclusiveness: Sales tax is usually added to the advertised price, so the consumer’s final price reflects the tax amount. VAT might be included in the advertised price or displayed separately at checkout.

Here’s a table summarizing the key differences:

FeatureSales TaxVAT
Tax Point Final Point of SaleEach Stage of Production and Distribution 
Tax baseFinal Selling PriceValue Added at Each stage 
Inclusiveness Often Added to Advertised PriceMay or May Not Be Included in the Advertised Price 

VAT is generally considered a more complex tax system than sales tax.

Sales Tax vs. Excise Tax: Distinguishing Features

Sales and excise taxes are indirect taxes levied on specific goods or services. However, they differ in their scope and application:

  • Target: Sales tax applies to a broad range of goods and services. Excise taxes target specific products or activities, often associated with negative externalities (social costs) like cigarettes, alcohol, or gasoline.

  • Tax Base: Sales tax is based on the total selling price. Excise taxes are typically levied as a flat fee per unit (e.g., per gallon of gasoline) or a percentage of the wholesale price.

  • Purpose: Sales tax is primarily revenue-generating for state and local governments. Excise taxes can serve revenue-generating and regulatory purposes (e.g., discouraging consumption of certain products).

The table below highlights the key differences:

FeatureSales TaxExcise Tax
TargetBroad Range of Goods and ServicesSpecific Goods or Activities 
Tax BaseTotal Selling PriceFlat Fee or Percentage of Wholesale Price
PurposeRevenue Generation Revenue Generation and Regulation

Sales Tax vs. Use Tax: Key Differences 

Sales tax and use tax are closely linked and often work in tandem to ensure fairness in the tax system:

  • Sales Tax: As discussed earlier, the seller collects the sales tax during the point of sale and submits it to the appropriate tax authority.

  • Use Tax: Use tax applies to purchases made from out-of-state vendors where no sales tax was collected at the time of purchase. The consumer is responsible for remitting the use tax directly to their state tax agency.

Use tax helps level the playing field for businesses in a state that collects sales tax, preventing consumers from avoiding the tax by purchasing from out-of-state vendors. Many states have a “use tax threshold,” meaning consumers must only file a use tax return if their out-of-state purchases exceed a certain amount in a given year.

Sales Tax Rates by State in the USA 

Sales tax rates in the USA vary considerably by state and can even be further compounded by local jurisdictions like counties and cities. This can create a complex landscape for businesses operating across multiple locations. Here’s a breakdown of the average combined state and local sales tax rates for the ten states with the highest and lowest rates:

RankStateAverage Combined Rate
1 (Highest)Louisiana9.56%
2 (Highest)Tennessee9.55%
3 (Highest)Arkansas9.45%
4 (Highest)Washington9.38%
5 (Highest)Alabama9.29%
—- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- 
50 (Lowest)Alaska1.82%
49 (Lowest)Hawaii4.50%
48 (Lowest)Wyoming5.44%
47 (Lowest)Maine5.50%
46 (Lowest)Wisconsin5.70%

Important Note: These are average combined rates. The actual rate a business needs to collect will depend on the sale’s specific location (state, county, and city).

Additionally, some states have specific sales tax rules or exemptions. Let’s look into a few examples:

  • Texas: Texas has a single-rate statewide sales tax of 6.25%. However, localities can add local option sales taxes to the state rate.

  • Florida: The state of Florida charges a sales tax rate of 6% on all purchases made within its boundaries. However, some counties and cities levy additional local option sales taxes. Furthermore, Florida exempts certain items from sales tax, such as groceries and prescription drugs.

  • New York: New York has a complex sales tax system with a varying statewide rate and additional local taxes levied by counties and cities. For instance, New York City has a combined sales tax rate exceeding 8%.

Sales Tax-Free States in the USA

There are currently five states in the USA that do not levy a statewide sales tax:

  • Alaska
  • Delaware
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Oregon

Even in these states, local jurisdictions might still impose sales taxes. Businesses operating in these states should research any applicable local sales tax rules.

Sales Tax


Sales tax is a crucial aspect of the tax system in the USA. Understanding how to calculate sales tax, the varying rates across states and localities, and the concept of nexus is essential for businesses to ensure compliance and avoid penalties. This blog has provided a foundational understanding of sales tax. Companies should consult tax professionals for specific guidance based on their unique circumstances and locations.