If you’re a regular reader, you know that I love Halloween. I bake treats. I play Halloween music. I buy tons of candy (no age limit for trick-or-treat at my house). And I decorate almost every room in the house—our family finds fake spiderwebs throughout the year like most people find pine needles weeks after Christmas.
But here’s what I don’t do: I don’t collect a “candy tax.”
The candy tax is a joke that purports to teach your kids about responsibility by stealing some of their candy levying a “tax” on their trick-or-treat loot. Social media memes suggest that it can be as much as one-third of the sweets “earned” on Halloween. It’s meant to teach a lesson about how government works. Only it’s not remotely comparable to the real thing. There are a few key concepts in the levying of the candy tax that don’t translate into the real world.
Here’s what you need to know.
The United States doesn’t have a flat tax.
That 33% candy tax? That’s a flat tax. We often fall into the trap of assuming that we pay a flat percentage because we match up with a tax bracket on a chart. But in the U.S., we have a progressive tax system. That means that all taxpayers with the same tax filing status pay the same amount of tax on the same amount of taxable income—but it’s not a flat tax.
Here’s what I mean. Take a look at what the brackets for 2024 are projected to be for married taxpayers filing jointly:
(You can get an early look at what brackets should look like for others, like single individuals, in 2024 here.)
You’ll see that if you’re a married taxpayer, you pay the same rate on the first $23,200 of taxable income as I do—10%. And I pay the same rate as Warren Buffett. In fact, all married taxpayers filing jointly pay the same rate on the next $70,000 or so, regardless of their total income. The rate increases as income increases, but the higher tax rates only apply to income above the thresholds.
Here’s an example. If you’re filing jointly and you have taxable income of $80,000, you pay 10% on the first $23,200 plus 12% of the amount over $23,200: ($23,200 x 10%) + (($80,000 – $23,200) x 12%). Your total tax is $9,136 ($2,320 + $6,816).
You might look at the chart and see the 12% tax bracket and assume your tax rate is 12%. But in our example, your actual tax rate is 11.42% ($9,136 tax on $80,000). The same kinds of calculations apply as you run up the brackets, and the numbers get more dramatic as the rates increase. That’s the nature of a progressive tax.
Income is income—unless it isn’t.
For most taxpayers, baskets of income for federal purposes are treated equally. Dollars from wages are taxed at the same rate as dollars from tips. Dollars from interest and dividends are taxed at the same rate as net rental income. We don’t value one more than the other.
But there are exceptions and they matter. We don’t levy the same rates of tax, for example, on dividends as we do qualified dividends. We give you a break on long-term capital gains—but not short-term rates. You can exclude part of the gain from the sale of your personal residence—but not your business property.
What if your little monster was a self-employed scarer instead of a wage earner? Self-employment taxes—at a different rate than income tax—would also apply.
Or what if your little witch sold her own potions instead of litigating bad potion cases as an attorney? That section 199A deduction would make a difference.
When you grab a flat 33% of your kid’s candy haul, you’re not taking into account the idea that the rates can be different—even when otherwise, the brackets would be the same.
Deductions and credits can add up.
Our tax system allows you to reduce taxable income with deductions and tax due with credits. By taking a fixed share of the kitty, you’re not giving your kids that option.
I know—you’re trying to make it as simple as possible. But is it fair? Should the kid wearing a black tee shirt as a costume end up with the same amount of candy as the kid who made their robot costume from scratch? Or should the kid who used more resources get a bigger treat?
As with costumes, deductions are a controversial subject, especially in a post tax-reform world. Most taxpayers no longer claim itemized deductions on a Schedule A, opting to take the larger standard deduction. Here’s what those standard deductions are supposed to look like in 2024:
You shouldn’t assume that more taxpayers claiming a standard deduction means there are no more deductions. Those still exist for millions of taxpayers on Schedule A. In addition, self-employed taxpayers can reduce taxable income on Schedule C by deducting legitimate business expenses before calculating the tax. As in the trick-or-treat world, sometimes, you have to spend money (and perhaps a lot of time and hot glue on costumes) to make money (I mean candy).
Taxpayers who engage in certain kinds of planning—like stashing funds in a retirement account—can also take advantage of tax breaks. Other credits may be available, too, like the earned income tax credit or child tax credit, depending on your circumstances.
If you reach into the trick or treat bag without allowing any KitKat-related deductions or Snickers-related credits, you’re shortchanging your kid.
Trick or treat isn’t actual work (at least for the kids).
I don’t care how cute your kids are—they really don’t “earn” that Halloween candy. At most, from a tax standpoint, candy that lands in their buckets and pillowcases is a gift. Even if it’s not given completely out of “love and affection” (for some, it’s the fear of being egged), it likely meets the IRS criteria for a gift. That simply requires “[a]ny transfer to an individual, either directly or indirectly, where full consideration (measured in money or money’s worth) is not received in return.”
Realistically, there’s not even a hint of consideration for most Halloween candy. Some houses do not require a costume. Others don’t even ask for a knock or a “trick or treat”— they simply leave a bucket of candy on the porch for the taking. The lack of consideration adds to the idea that it’s a gift.
For income tax purposes, a gift doesn’t trigger income tax (gift tax is another issue). It doesn’t matter if it’s a Hershey’s bar, a big fat check, or an entire house—it’s not income, and it’s not taxable to the recipient for income tax purposes.
Timing is everything.
Collecting the candy tax immediately teaches the wrong message. When you swoop in and take a portion of candy, you’ve taught your kids that tax might be due. Taxpayers get that part. But it doesn’t teach the most valuable lesson of all: timing is everything.
Many taxpayers who get into tax trouble do so because they didn’t have the government (or an employer) reaching in immediately and withholding a portion.
Our “pay as you go” system applies generally to wages (assuming you’re an employee and not self-employed) through a system of withholding. That means that the tax is taken out of your check at the employer level—it never actually lands in your pocket. When you file your tax return, you pay any additional tax that you owe, or you’re refunded any extra that had been withheld. To make a candy tax line up with the way that most taxpayers pay tax, the homeowner would keep a portion of the candy and remit it directly, bypassing your child altogether.
Taxpayers who rely on other sources of income—like money earned from self-employment or investment income—pay tax a different way. Since there’s no withholding, taxpayers are required to make estimated tax payments to avoid owing too much at the end of the year. Commonly, however, those payments get skipped, made late, or completely ignored. In many cases, the income many not even get reported.
The IRS reinforced this concept in a recent report on the tax gap—the difference between the amount of taxes owed to the government and what the government actually collects—currently estimated to be $688 billion. The tax gap breaks down into three pieces: non-filing (tax not paid on time by those who do not file on time, $77 billion), underreporting (tax understated on timely filed returns, $542 billion), and underpayment (tax that was reported on time, but not paid on time, $68 billion).
Voluntary compliance rises when income payments are subject to withholding. Expecting taxpayers to send those payments voluntarily has historically resulted in a lower level of compliance. For example, the data from 2014–2016 shows that misreporting of wages subject to employer or third party related reporting and withholding is 1% compared to 55% for non-farm proprietor income subject to little or no information reporting.
The reality is that when it comes to withholding, we don’t miss what we didn’t have to start. It’s not as painful come tax time when the feds already have your tax dollars on deposit. But writing that check after it hits your bank account? That hurts. If you really wanted to teach your kids a lesson, you’d ask them to pay up the week or so after Halloween (of course, then you’d be relegated to collecting boxes of melted Whoppers or imposing liens on future Christmas candies).
The Delicious Bottom Line
That Halloween candy tax? While it may be yummy, it doesn’t teach kids anything.
And I’m not judging you (okay, maybe just a little) if you have a candy tax at your house: I love a good Milky Way as much as the next parent. And I get that this could be an excellent opportunity to talk about financial literacy with your older kids. But your younger kids? Admit it. Like me, if you’re taking the candy, it’s because you want the candy.
There will be plenty of monsters, ghouls, and goblins hitting the sidewalks tonight. As for the IRS, alongside tax professionals like accountants, tax attorneys, CPAs, Enrolled Agents? We have a scary enough reputation without making kids think we’re all out to take their candy (except for Reese’s Peanut Butter cups—we totally want those).