How to pay yourself as a business owner

Business owners have full control over their salaries - kind of. We explain how to pay yourself based on business structure, tax requirements, and profit calculations.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Deciding how much to pay yourself as a business owner is a tricky process. With the stresses of running a company, there’s a temptation to reward your efforts with a big payday. But this would directly eat into your profits, overheads, and – if you’ve a team working under you – your wider employee payroll.

The books must stay balanced. Often, entrepreneurs will pay themselves the bare minimum; instead keeping their hard-earned pennies in the till to strengthen cash flow.

If revenue is high enough for a raise, there are still legal requirements to consider. Self-employed workers have almost full control over their profits, but partners or company directors need to adhere to stricter reporting and tax regulations.

This guide will help you to work out when you can afford to take a salary, how much it should be, and how to stay compliant when doing your own payroll.

How to pay yourself as a sole trader

Registering as a sole trader is the simplest method for paying your salary. In this structure, the business owner is the business, which means they can simply pay themselves by taking a share of the profits. Of course, there are tax implications for this, which we’ll explain below.

Classed as “business drawings”, this is different from earning a salary. In effect, you’ll be able to withdraw from your profits at any time (although naturally, the amount you can take will depend on business performance).

Sole traders who store their earnings in a personal account won’t even need to take money out. However, it’s advisable to keep funds in a specialist business bank account and transfer them to your individual bank card each month, as this makes managing finances easier.

Tax considerations

Business drawings are not taxed as individual withdrawals. Instead, they count towards overall business profits. At the end of the year, the owner will pay tax on the total earned through their self-assessment tax return (after non-personal expenses have been removed).

Sole traders should set aside a percentage of their drawings to cover end-of-year tax costs. These are based on income, not corporation, tax rates which start at zero and finish at 45%.

With great pay power comes great responsibility. Sole traders and partners (see section below) are liable for their personal tax bill, and any incorrect figures it includes. Ensure you keep a full record of your organisation’s profits and losses if HMRC comes knocking, including:

  • Business expenses
  • Sales and income figures
  • VAT records (if your taxable turnover is higher than £85,000 a year)

How to pay yourself as a partner

Business partners also tend to use business drawings to pay themselves. Each partner takes out an agreed percentage share of the profits on a pre-arranged, routine basis (eg. X% per fortnight). Partners can either:

  • Agree set amounts based on individual responsibilities and commitments
  • In lieu of an agreement, split all profits equally, regardless of contribution

Tax considerations

As with sole traders, all business drawings for partnerships are taxed collectively at payroll year-end as part of the organisation’s Final Payment Submission (FPS), not per instalment. The partners are taxed on the share of the profits they’re allocated at this stage.

One partner must also nominate themselves to keep records of any profits drawn for the taxman. All partners are responsible for this information being correct.

Read more: How is payroll calculated?

How to pay yourself as a limited company

In a limited company, entrepreneurs are classed as employees who are separate to the business. Unlike sole traders, they cannot take money out as business drawings. Instead, they must pay themselves a regular salary.

While more confusing to set up, there are some advantages. Chiefly, a salary is a regular payment, whereas drawings are taken at the sole trader or partner’s will. This can help owners to better budget for their personal and business costs.

In order to pay yourself as an employee, you’ll need to register as an employer with HMRC. If the wage is less than £533 per month, business owners can skip this step as it is below the Lower Earnings Limit (LEL). HMRC will then send over a PAYE activation code for setup.

Tax considerations

Once payroll is set up, income tax and National Insurance contributions (NICs) will be deducted from payslips, which are submitted to HMRC via the pay as you earn (PAYE) system. Payroll software is the easiest way to automate this process.

All tax payments are deducted automatically by HMRC and in advance of the Final Payment Submission (FPS). That means entrepreneurs aren’t landed with a hefty tax bill at the end of the financial year.

Limited company owners should be aware that salaries are taxed as income. Salaries are business expenses, so they’ll reduce your overall profits and the amount of Corporation Tax you’ll pay. But a higher salary means a higher tax bracket, and therefore less take-home pay.

Paying yourself in dividends

Some company owners choose to pay themselves dividends to stay below the tax threshold. For example, if they pay themselves the tax-free Personal Allowance of £12,570 per year and make up the rest in dividends, as these are taxed at a low rate of 8.75%.

HMRC has rules to prevent excessive use of dividends to avoid taxes. Because of this, dividends can only be agreed by all directors during a formalised meeting. Payroll service experts can also offer bespoke advice on compliance.

Could umbrella payroll work for you?

Umbrella payroll exists to provide an option for contractors working short-term assignments to do so under a PAYE framework, whilst retaining the flexibility that a self-employed person has. Head here for our comprehensive guide.

How much should I pay myself?

How much is too much when you’re setting your own salary? There’s no right answer to this question. After all, no two cash forecasts are the same, and the right amount for one entrepreneur could bankrupt another.

There are some facts that might impact your salary choice. Sole traders who pay themselves below the Personal Allowance threshold of £12,570 per year can avoid Income Tax charges (although this could impact your eligibility for the state pension).

Limited company owners registered as an employee also won’t have to pay NICs if their salary is under the Lower Earnings Threshold (currently £1,048 a month).

However, these are both very low amounts and could leave you in a spot of bother if you need a bigger take-home one month.

As mentioned, topping up pay with dividends is one solution for company owners. Another is to take a bonus during a period of business stability. While still taxed as income, these can be taken from profits at any time for greater flexibility.

Budgeting for pay as an employer

Two other considerations when deciding how much to pay yourself are your business and personal budgets.

Business budget

Whatever amount you deduct from your profits, ensure that enough is left over to cover:

Personal budget 

A common mistake made by business owners is to forgo paying themselves any wage. But no one can (or indeed should) work for free. Don’t sacrifice your financial wellbeing for a small uplift in business performance.

Instead, tot up the amount you normally spend each month to support yourself and your family, and balance that with your average business bill. Think about areas like:

  • Pension contributions
  • Mortgage or rent payments
  • Household energy bills
  • Holiday savings

When/can I increase my salary?

It can take months – or, for startups, years – for new businesses to start turning a profit. In the interim, most entrepreneurs will pay themselves the bare minimum. But once profits are consistent, and your household bills are covered, you can begin considering a salary raise.

It’s crucial to increase your salary or business drawings incrementally, rather than slapping another zero onto your payslip.

Industry benchmarking is a common technique for evaluating employee salaries. And this is perfectly relevant for directors too. You can estimate competitor salaries by looking at their company’s sector turnover data. Or, simply asking fellow business owners in your network.

Be cautious to leave yourself a buffer. Breaking even is a vital milestone for businesses, but it shouldn’t be your main goal. Healthy growth means increasing profits year-on-year.

Best practice dictates that firms should keep enough cash in an emergency fund to cover business expenses for three to six months. This is important to have in case of another pandemic or Brexit scenario. It also protects the company if you have to take sick leave.

The temptation of being your boss is to award yourself a big windfall when the business starts to do well. Where possible, keep it in the bank. Staying conservative on pay will fatten up the rainy day fund, ensuring you keep earning now, and in future.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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