A beginner’s guide to salary sacrificing your house, superannuation and car

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Whenever I hear someone talking about salary sacrificing I get confused.

But it also leaves me wondering if I’m missing out on a good opportunity. We all want to make the most of our income and prepare for the future, right?

It turns out whether you’re saving for retirement, your first house or buying a new car, salary sacrificing can help.

What is salary sacrificing and how does it work?

Salary sacrificing is basically a way to minimise your tax bill. It involves using your pre-tax salary to buy goods or services that you’d normally buy with your after-tax pay.

Because in the eyes of the tax department you’re earning less when you’re salary sacrificing, they tax you less.Facing money shameEven though personal finance issues are the top cause of stress amongst Australians, it’s something we almost never talk about. Why?Read more

The rules are complicated but there are two big things to keep in mind when starting out.

  1. 1.What you can salary sacrifice depends on your employer, but it’s commonly used for superannuation, electronic devices (like laptops and phones) and cars. Whether you can take advantage of it at all depends on your workplace. Many small businesses don’t offer salary sacrificing services, says Jarrod Rogers, a certified public accountant based in Melbourne. 
  2. 2.Salary sacrificing arrangements must be made in advance. You can’t package money you’ve already been paid. There is an exception for superannuation, which we’ll get to shortly.

See, that wasn’t too hard! Now we can get to the money-saving part.

Why you need advice, and where to get it

  • There are pros and cons to salary sacrificing, and you need to consider your particular circumstances, says Laura Higgins, senior executive leader at ASIC. 
  • A great place to start your research is ASIC’s MoneySmart website, which has resources on salary packagingand salary sacrificing for superannuation.
  • Next, try to find people in your network who have experience with salary sacrificing. It might be friends, family or colleagues. Get advice from a range of sources if possible. 
  • You can tailored advice from a financial advisor, and some employers and super funds provide advice, too.

Source: Laura Higgins, ASIC

How to use salary sacrificing to boost superannuation or buy a house

If you’re looking to buy your first home or want to boost your retirement savings, salary sacrificing into super can be a great option, says Mr Rogers.

What’s attractive about this strategy is that superannuation contributions are taxed at 15 per cent, which is much less than the 32.5 per cent paid by someone on earning an average wage in Australia.

It’s especially good for first home buyers, who can withdraw up to $30,000 in voluntary super contributions, as well as the amount’s earnings, to put towards their first home.

It works like this. Imagine you earn $80,000 and decide to salary sacrifice $10,000 to super. You would pay $1,500 in tax on that $10,000 in super compared to $3,450 you would have to pay otherwise — a saving of $1,950. 

There are some caveats:

  • If you don’t end up using the money for your first home, you will have to pay a special tax to access the money, or wait until you have retired.
  • Salary sacrificing reduces the minimum amount of superannuation your employer is obliged to pay you, because your after-tax income is reduced. Some employers make arrangements so their employees are not left out of pocket, so make sure to check.
A smiling woman hugs a man while holding a keys on a keyring with a wooden house.
IMAGESalary sacrificing to superannuation can help you save a deposit for your first home.(Unsplash: Rawpixel)

Super is now a bit more flexible than it has been in the past. You don’t even need to tell your employer: you can simply make a personal contribution (which is as easy as paying a bill) and claim the deduction at tax time.

If you’re doing that, it’s important to notify your super fund that you’re claiming the deduction, Mr Rogers says.Got kids? Time to revisit your superSuperannuation is an important part of you and your family’s financial future — and taking steps to improve your retirement savings may be easier than you think.Read more

If it’s more convenient, you could also ask your payroll department to put a little extra to superannuation each time you’re paid.

There are a couple of important things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about salary sacrificing into super:

  • The limit for super contributions with a tax break is $25,000 per year. Keep in mind this is total: it includes any contributions you already get from your employer.
  • The First Home Saver Super Scheme has strict rules about how much money can be withdrawn and what the money can be used for. It also takes some time to withdraw the money, which has caught some people out.

The pros and cons of salary packaging a car

Cars and running costs are another popular way to make use of salary sacrificing.

The most common arrangement is what’s called a novated lease. It works like this: you lease a car, and your employer takes the repayments and running costs out of your pre-tax income.Tempted to try life without a car? It’s possible with these alternativesRelying on a car to get us around feels part of everyday life for most Australians — but it doesn’t need to be. This is how people living in the inner city and regional areas managed to ditch the car or or minimise their day-to-day use.Read more

If you’re planning on buying a new car using finance, novated leasing makes good sense, especially if you’re on the top tax bracket, says Mr Rogers.

But many people make the mistake of focusing on the tax deduction rather than the total cost. Remember, it doesn’t make sense to spend $30,000 on a car you wouldn’t normally buy just to save $10,000 or so in tax, Mr Rogers says.

“If you pay for an expensive car through a pre-tax novated lease, you’re still buying an expensive car,” he adds. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that you have to pay a lump sum to keep the car at the end of a novated lease. (The flip side is that you pay less upfront.) It’s something that trips a lot of people up, says financial advisor Amir Salehi.

“Most people forget to budget … [which means] they have to either sell the car because they can’t afford to pay the lump sum or get into a contract to lease another car even if it’s not in their best interest,” he says.

An illustration shows a house and money being watered in a depiction of salary sacrificing.
IMAGEWhether you’re buying your first house, saving for retirement or buying a new car, salary sacrificing can come in handy.(ABC Life: Luke Tribe)

You can salary package laptops and phones — but be careful to follow the rules

Depending on your job and your employer, you might also be able to pay for a laptop, phone or other electronic device out of your pre-tax income.The 7 steps that helped one single mother take control of her financesWith bills piling up, and more spending on the horizon, 41-year-old Laura finds herself in a financial hole. As a single mum with little support, how can she pull herself out?Read more

There are a few rules to keep in mind:

  • The device needs to be portable. You can’t package a desktop computer, but laptops and phones are fine, Mr Rogers says.
  • The device needs to be used mostly for business purposes (at least 51 per cent of the time).
  • Not all employers will allow you to package a phone or laptop.

If you’re unsure if you’re eligible, the first port of call should be your employer, says Mr Salehi.

If you work in public health or for a charity, there’s extra perks

Workers in public health, not-for-profits or charitable organisations often have great salary packaging benefits.Want to get on top of your finances?There’s plenty about how to navigate money problems and the world of finance on ABC Life’s Money page.Read more

In many cases, employees can even package things like your rent, mortgage payments and credit card expenses using their pre-tax income.

“It is another way the Government tries to make sure we have good people and talent working in the public sector,” Mr Salehi says.

If you work in one of these industries, make the effort to fill out the paperwork and claim the maximum amount (which varies depending on the job). 

Salary sacrificing is a useful tool that can help you reach your financial goals. But don’t let the tax breaks trick you into buying something you don’t need: you’ll be worse off no matter much tax you’re saving.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect that salary sacrificing can reduce an employer’s minimum superannuation contribution.

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