Adding It Up: How Much Tax Does A Taxpayer Pay? When it comes to taxes in the U.S., it's the income tax -- and the annual April 15 deadline for filing returns -- that gets most of our attention. But that's only part of the picture -- there are property taxes and sales taxes, even taxes built into every cell phone bill. So how much do we pay? One couple in Connecticut opens their books to find out.
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Adding It Up: How Much Tax Does A Taxpayer Pay?

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Adding It Up: How Much Tax Does A Taxpayer Pay?

Adding It Up: How Much Tax Does A Taxpayer Pay?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When we think taxes, we think income taxes. But there's more.

NPR's Tamara Keith calculates one family's total tax burden.

TAMARA KEITH: Harlan Milkove and his wife Tess met their freshman year of college. Now they're both 26. Both work as engineers. They own a home in Stratford, Connecticut and they have an eight-month-old son named Ethan.

(Soundbite of crying baby)


KEITH: And they were kind enough to let me invade their financial privacy in the name of documenting just how much of their income goes to taxes. Before we sit down with our calculators and spreadsheets, Harlan Milkove takes me out to gather some data at a nearby gas station.

(Soundbite of gas station)

KEITH: Twelve and a half gallons later...

(Soundbite of machine)

KEITH: So what does it tell us?

Mr. MILKOVE: It says $44.91, and they don't break out the taxes from that.

KEITH: Connecticut residents pay 60.3 cents per gallon in state and federal gas taxes. So for the Milkoves, who use about 1,200 gallons a year, that adds up to just over $700.

Mr. MILKOVE: This looks scary but it's very organized. Some of it's just tax folders and then we just have a bunch of receipts.

KEITH: Milkove spreads tax returns, receipts and various bills on the dining room table. His wife Tess flees to the living room. We tally up state and federal income tax, Social Security and Medicare taxes, using data from their 2009 returns.

These taxes, taken out of their paychecks each month, account for more than three-quarters of the Milkoves' tax burden. Property tax on their home comes in at just under $5,000. And in Connecticut they also have to pay property tax on their two cars.

Mr. MILKOVE: Car taxes due is $433.84, and Tess's is 395.52. It's like an extra car payment for each car, comes out pretty close.

KEITH: Milkove is one of those people who carefully tracks just about every dollar spent.

Mr. MILKOVE: So we've got some retail items here and major expenses, like restaurants, groceries.

KEITH: And those are all taxed at a six percent sales tax.

Mr. MILKOVE: With the exception of groceries, so I guess we can exclude that one.

KEITH: The grand sales tax total for the year is $400. They also pay about $65 a year in alcohol excise taxes. They don't smoke - but if they did, they'd be taxed more than $4 a pack.

The Milkoves are going on a couple of short vacations, so we add in hotel and rental car taxes and about $85 worth of taxes on two round-trip plane tickets. Then we dig into their phone bills and find yet more taxes.

Mr. MILKOVE: There's a public safety communications surcharge, county sales tax, state telecom excise tax...

KEITH: Both the cell phone and home phone bills are about 20 percent tax. Milkove is annoyed.

Mr. MILKOVE: That's kind of disgusting.

KEITH: But an entire year's worth of telecom taxes don't even add up to one percent of the family's tax total. Gerald Pranty, an economist at the Washington-based Tax Foundation, says it's the little taxes that are often the most annoying.

Mr. GERALD PRANTY (Economist, Tax Foundation): People get very frustrated at taxes that are relatively small compared to big taxes. I mean if you look at this list, everything is chump change compared to his federal income tax.

KEITH: Pranty is looking at the list of taxes Milkove and I came up with.

Mr. PRANTY: Taxes he's bearing directly, this is a pretty comprehensive list.

KEITH: But he says there are other taxes that people pay indirectly. When the Tax Foundation looks at this larger picture, it finds the average American pays 28 percent of their income in taxes - though that varies widely depending on income. So how much are the Milkoves paying?

Mr. MILKOVE: So that was 40, 80...

KEITH: Just over 24 percent. When we're all done, Harlan Milkove seems more tired than anything else.

Mr. MILKOVE: Yeah, it's not fun. I wouldn't recommend it.

KEITH: To see a chart breaking down all the Milkoves' tax expenses, visit

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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