Claiming Exemptions—the W-4 for Dummies

w4 for dummies


I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how many exemptions to claim on the W-4 (Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate) form that you give to your employer.  People look at the whole 2 page form and get intimidated.  For most people—you should just ignore the rest and concentrate on the little part at the bottom of page one.  That’s the part in this screen shot up above.   It will make your life a whole lot easier.


First, some questions:


I claimed the wrong number of exemptions on my W-4 and now its tax time and I’m going to claim a different number of exemptions.  Will I get in trouble for this?

No you won’t.  Your employer doesn’t report you to the IRS for not claiming the right amount of allowances.  The worst that will happen is that you owe a lot at tax time or get a big refund.  (Actually I don’t think of getting a big refund as being a bad thing.  Probably shouldn’t call it a “worst case scenario.”)  Neither of those things are crimes.  It’s possible that the IRS could inform your employer to increase your withholding if the withholding on your W2 is not enough to cover your tax liability.  I have never seen that happen to anyone—but the IRS is allowed to do that if they think it’s necessary.


I don’t want any tax taken out of my paycheck.  Can I just claim EXEMPT?


No you can’t.  Exempt is only for people who will have no tax liability at all.  You might have gotten a refund last year, but it doesn’t mean you have no tax liability.  Generally, someone with no tax liability makes less than $5,950 for the entire year.    For most people, claiming EXEMPT is a really bad idea.


Okay, so what should I claim? Good question.  Here’s my suggestion list.  See what category fits your best.


You are a student, either in high school or in college.  You’re not married and you don’t have kids.  Your parents are allowed to claim you on their tax return (you’re under 24 years old.)  SINGLE, ZERO ALLOWANCES

You’ve got a job, only one job, you’re living on your own, and you’re single.  SINGLE, ONE ALLOWANCE

Now if you have a child, add another allowance for each child.  For example, let’s say you’re single with 2 kids, you’d claim single 3 allowances; one allowance for you and one for each of the children.


Single like above but you’re working two different jobs, SINGLE, ZERO ALLOWANCES – because the two jobs kick you into a higher tax bracket than the withholding would show.


You’re married and only one person works:  MARRIED, TWO ALLOWANCES

You’re married and you both work—you’ll each have your own W-4 and they will be different


Spouse #1 with higher paying job—claim MARRIED and all the allowances for the family



Now this is a pretty simplified guide, but it’s much easier to understand than what is on the form.  I also find that people are less likely to get into tax trouble with my rules than when you follow the allowances worksheet.


If you want a really good, accurate calculator to figure your proper withholding, the IRS has one on their website.  The problem is, as I’m posting this—the calculator is down.    You can use this guide for now and you can always tweak your withholding later when it’s back up.  Here’s the link:

624 thoughts on “Claiming Exemptions—the W-4 for Dummies

  1. Hi Chris,
    With your incomes almost even that’s always the hardest. I don’t think it matters which one of you claims 6 and which one of you claims zero. But I would think that one of you would claim zero. I’d go to the IRS withholding calculator and see where you stand right now to see if you’re headed towards a refund or not.

  2. Hi William,
    I think the best thing for you to do is run your numbers through a payroll calculator. See how many additional exemptions you’ll need to claim to make the numbers work – and then figure if you’ll be withholding enough to cover your taxes. Here’s a free online payroll calculator that I found. You’ll want to make it match your current paycheck first, then you can start playing with the numbers.
    I suggest, that unless you’re pretty good with this kind of thing, that you might want to go see a tax professional and do a planning session. It’s probably worth the money.

  3. Hi Tamiya,
    If you claimed three that’s fine. It should just give you a bigger refund. If you need a little more take home pay instead, you can always go back and adjust your W4.

  4. Hi Ellen,
    Yes, you can have your husband withhold more to cover the tax generated by your income. That’s perfectly fine. Although, if you adjust his W4 to do some catch up tax for 2016 – you’ll want to adjust again in January so you’re not over-withholding for the whole year of 2017.

  5. Hi Julisa,
    When you say he works – is he the father of your children? That’s really important. If he is not the father of your children, then you should read this:

    Assuming that he is the father of your children, and you are a stay at home mom with no income, then most likely it would be better for him to claim the kids on taxes as you would get no benefit for them at all. He could even claim you as a dependent if you have no income and you’ve lived together for the entire 12 months of the year.

    If you have any income at all, then you’ll want to run the numbers because it could go either way depending upon how much you actually made.

  6. My W4 personal allowances worksheet states that I should claim 3 allowances – I am married, I have only one job, but my spouse is currently not working. I was previously claiming 0 allowances but, as we’ve just purchased a home, I would like to reduce my tax refund and take more home each pay period. Everything I read (including your post) recommends that I claim 2 allowances – which is most beneficial and ensures I don’t owe taxes at the end of the year?

  7. hi,im starting to work , in my first job in usa, im from argentina, married in usa, im stressed!!! how i must fill the form w4?? i never worked here before. I have a daugther , and i dont know how to fill the page 2. help!!

  8. Hello, I think that I just realized that I claimed 3 on my W4. I’m afraid that I will owe money. I am depending on my refund. I’m single, a mother of one. I always got a decent refund back before but I think that was because I claimed lower than 3. I can’t believe I made that mistake.

  9. Hi Jan,

    My question “should” be rather simple but would like your guidance. I’m married with two kids (1 year old and a 3 year old) both of which are in daycare. My wife and I both work (I make about $137k and she makes about $60k), We have always filed as “Married Filing Jointly”. What should my allowances be (as the higher earner) and what should hers be as well? I’ve read things about the higher earner should take a majority of the allowances and I’ve read other things where she should just have 2 allowances (one for herself and one for one of our kids). Currently I have 1 Federal Allowance and 0 state and she had 1 Federal and 1 State. As I do our taxes in Turbo Tax, what typically happens is we’ll owe some to the Feds and we’ll get a refund on the state. The state refund is usually enough to cover the Fed, with a little bit left over.

    One other question I’ve just thought of, would there ever been a good “scenario” to file Married/Filing Separately for tax reasons (like if one spouse earns significantly more than the other)? I’ve worked out the paperwork through TurboTax before, but its never been in our favor.


  10. Hi Jan,
    I work f/t, I claimed 0 W-4. I just started a p/t job should I claim 0 on this W4 as well? I am single with 1 child under 18.
    Thank you.

  11. Hi Mony,
    Bienvenido a Los Estados Unidos. Since you are married, I’m guessing that your husband is also working. I would fill out your W4 as married with zero exemptions. That’s a good starting point. After a few months, like maybe in March or April, you can take your husband’s pay stub and your pay stub and run them through the payroll calculator to make sure that you’re on track. It will be early enough in the year to make adjustments if you need to. But you’ll have enough payroll experience that the numbers should be pretty standard. Good luck at your new job.

  12. Hi Susan,
    A quick way to check is to go the the IRS withholding calculator. It’s almost like doing your tax return and it will give you a good clue as to whether you’ll get a refund or not. My guess is that you’re going to be just fine.

  13. Hi Jermaine,
    At this point in your life, it’s unlikely that married filing separately would be a good choice for you. Usually, you’re better off filing together. But, things change. For example: one spouse has a lot of medical expenses that may be deductible if you file separately. In Missouri, sometimes it makes sense for older couples to file separately with certain types of pensions if the federal hit isn’t too bad. But there aren’t a lot of scenarios where filing separately helps your tax situation.
    As far as your withholding goes, it sounds like you’re doing just fine the way you are. If you prefer to get a federal refund, then one of you could reduce your allowances by 1. But if you’re happy with the way things are – like my dad always said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

  14. Hi Lori,
    As a single person with a child under the age of 18 – normally I’d say you could probably claim at least 3 exemptions. But it get’s a little weird with 2 jobs. But, I’m still thinking, since you’ve claimed 0 exemptions for your full-time job, you would probably be okay claiming 3 on the part-time one.

  15. My daughter is 17 she just started a part-time job she’s in high school I think we can claim her this year on our taxes what does she file on her W4? Also she will be turning 18 at the end of January.

  16. Hi Jan!
    I’m single, no kids, full time job and just started a part time job on weekends and was wondering if I should claim 0 or 1 on my w-4 form. I do not want to owe anything at the end of the year. what’s your best recommendation for filing?
    thank you!

  17. Hi Misty,
    your daughter might be able to get away with claiming “exempt” but just to be safe, it’s probably a good idea to claim single with zero exemptions. That way, if she winds up earning a lot of money over the summer she’ll be covered for her taxes. If you’re pretty sure that she’ll make less than $6,000 next year, then keep her at “exempt”.

  18. Hi Sacha,
    Since you already have another job, I’d claim single with zero exemptions on the weekend one. If this part-time job is going to last for a long time, you might want to take a look at your pay stubs next February and just run them through the IRS withholding calculator. Just to be safe.

  19. Hi Jan,
    I am married with 2 kids. Ive worked 1 part time job all year, and now got hired for a second part time job starting 2017. Ive claimed 2 for my first job and have received a large refund every year, which we like. My spouse doesn’t work so i would be the only one claiming something. I didn’t even think about what to claim on this new job. Do the numbers you claim add up from each job? The IRS calculator says that i shouldn’t do anything different, but there is no option for the second job issue. Should I claim 2 as well on this new job? Since I’ve claimed 2 on my original job would that be viewed as 4 now or still just 2? Im just trying to keep our refund around the same and not claim too much, but at the same time, not having too much taken out month to month.

  20. Hi Chris,
    I would claim zero on the second job. Without having all the information, that would make the most sense to me. One problem I have with the IRS withholding calculator is that if you don’t already have a pay stub in your hand you don’t have the numbers to plug in and that can be frustrating.

    Here’s the thing to know about the second job. Whatever you make in your main job- that’s basically your base pay. We basically apply all of your deductions and exemptions to that paycheck. So you’ve got a wife, 2 kids, yourself, your married, etc. So any deductions we think go against that paycheck. Am I making sense so far?

    Now that second job is income over and above your main job So–all of your deductions have already been used up because they want with the income on the first job. So, for the second job–technically, that money should be taxed at a higher rate (because you used all your deductions already.) That’s why I recommend claiming zero exemptions on the second job. Usually, for a second job, I recommend claiming married (but withhold at the higher single rate) with zero exemptions. Since you usually receive a large refund, you may be able to still claim married withhold the higher single withholding – but it could reduce your refund. It’s hard to say without the actual numbers.

    I’d start with married – zero exemptions. Keep it that way at least through January. Then run the numbers through the IRS withholding calculator again just to check. There’s a screen on the second page that asks how many jobs you have. It’s preset to 1 and kind of easy to skip over. Once you put in 2, then you’ll get two boxes for the two paychecks. That should help get you to where you want to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *