Sales Tax 101

How Sales Tax Applies to Discounts, Coupons & Promotions

by Ned Lenhart

Sales tax on discounts, coupons and promotions

With few exceptions, sales tax applies to the gross receipts received or gross selling price received from the sale of products or taxable services. The specific definition will vary by state but, for example, Georgia sales tax law defines the term “sales price” to be the selling price of the product less any “ discounts, including cash, term, or coupons that are not reimbursed by a third party that are allowed by a seller and taken by a purchaser on a sale.”

In layman’s terms, that means if the original price of something you sell was $100, but you offer a 50% discount, then the taxable price is $50.

Discounts-Percent and Dollar

Because discounts are generally offered directly by the retailer and reduce the amount of the sales price and the cash received by the retailer, the sales tax applies to the price after the discount is applied. For example, your normal selling price is $30 but you are offering a 5 percent discount for first time customers. The tax base is $28.50. The same holds true if you are offering a dollar discount rather than a percentage discount. The normal price is $30.00 but you are offering a $5.00 discount for returning customers. Your tax base (prior to any taxable shipping) is $25.00.

If, however, the discount is sponsored by the manufacturer or the distributor and you will be reimbursed by either of these parties for offering the discount, the sales tax base is the full sales price and not the reduced sales price. As noted below with manufacturer’s coupons, because the tax base is the amount of receipts you receive for selling the product, the states generally don’t distinguish whether the payment comes from the customer or by some third party.   As noted above in the Georgia definition, coupons that are reimbursed by a third-party are NOT treated as a sales price adjustment. This rule is pretty uniform across the country.

Coupons: Merchant and Manufacturers

Sales price reductions arising from the use of coupons or coupon codes are treated in the same way that discounts are. We normally refer to these as “store” or “manufacturer’s” coupons. Store coupons are price reductions offered directly by the retailer and are not reimbursed by the manufacturer or distributor. These reductions in the selling price also reduce the amount subject to sales tax.

Manufacturer coupons or promotions, which reimburse the retailer for the discount provided, are not used to reduce the sales tax base. Because the retailer is compensated and receives payment from a third party the amount subject to sales tax is the full sales price of the product.

With any rule, there are certainly exceptions. For example, Texas treats “store” and “manufacturer” coupons in the same way. Following is an excerpt from Texas Rule 3.301:

“When coupons or certificates are accepted by retailers as a part of the selling price of any taxable item, the value of the coupon or certificate is excludable from the tax as a cash discount, regardless of whether the retailer is reimbursed for the amount represented by the coupon or certificate.” 

Sales tax can never be simple, can it?

Special Promotions

The application of sales tax to special promotions is more complicated. By “special promotions” I’m referring to “Buy One/Get one free,” “Buy one/get one at reduced price,” “Two for the prices of one,” “Buy item ‘X’ and get item ‘Z’ for free,” etc. The list of options and special promotions that can be offered is extensive and the comments below should be used only as general guidance. As with other elements of sales tax, the rules will vary by state.

Buy-one/Get-one Free

When it comes to the application of sales tax to promotions, any time the states see the word “free” they think use tax. The state of Texas offers the following example of how it applies sales tax to this type of promotion:

A retailer advertises pants as “buy one, get one free.” The first pair of pants is priced at $120; the second pair of pants is free. Tax is due on $120. Having advertised that the second pair is free, the store cannot ring up each pair of pants for $60 in order for the items to qualify for the exemption. However, if the retailer advertises and sells the pants for 50% off, selling each pair of $120 pants for $60, each pair of pants qualifies for the exemption. Note: When a retailer gives an item away free of charge, the retailer owes sales or use tax on the purchase price the retailer paid for the item. (Texas Policy Letter Ruling No. 9907570R)

Economically, a “buy one/get one free” transaction is the same as “buy two and get 50% off the total.” However, the sales tax treatment is quite different.

Because the retailer does not receive compensation for the “free” item offered, it is deemed the consumer of the product given away. While the Texas comment does not specifically state the situs of the use tax due, I would suggest that use tax is due in the state where the property is withdrawn from inventory and not in the state where the property is shipped.

The above rule is offered only as an example and not as the uniform multistate rule. However, the Texas rule is widely adopted by states and has been the subject of many audits of retailers. This has been an issue in the bedding industry which often makes offers such as “buy a mattress and get the springs free.” Many have changed to “buy a mattress and springs set and get 50% discount off the total.”   Same economics but different sales tax treatment.

Two for the Price of One!

In a “two for the price of one” transaction, the retailer is compensated for both items since the word “free” is not included in the promotions. Because the retailer is compensated for the products sold the tax base is the gross receipts received from the sale of both products. In this scenario, no use tax is due since the retailer receives compensation for both items.

Rebates

When products are sold with a rebate and the rebate is paid directly to the customer by the manufacturer, the sales tax base is normally the full sales price of the product. Because the product is sold for the full retail price the retailer is compensated fully by the customer and the sales tax applies to the amount received. Because the rebate paid to the customer after the sale occurs, there is no sales tax impact caused by the rebate. Instant rebates applied at the point-of-sale are normally treated like manufacturers coupons and are taxed according to the state rules for those.

Conclusion

The rules on how sales tax applies to coupons, discounts, promotions, and rebates can get complicated and can vary widely by state. Sales discounts advertised as “percent off” or “dollar off” seem to have the most consistent treatment across the states with sales tax. When retailers start using unique and special promotions careful research should be pursued to determine what the sales tax rules are in the states where the retailer is registered for sales tax. The misapplication of sale tax to special promotions is a major audit issue for many retailers.

  • Thanks Ned, now i got a clear idea about discount coupons and the bond between sales tax and promo codes, you unpacked the information very beautifully which would be very useful for my business. Thank you

  • Laura L

    So I have a membership for an essential oil company, and with that you get the title of distributor and a 24% discount on products. However I have noticed that I get charged tax on the retail price. They claim the reason for this is that is so I can resell them at retail price then not pay taxes on them. However I don’t sell them and most people don’t. can that do that?

    • Hi Laura,

      I can’t help you with this specific question. You may want to ask them about their sales tax policy and if it seems fishy to you contact your state’s department of revenue or a vetted sales tax expert: http://www.taxjar.com/sales-tax-accountant-directory/. I’m sorry I can’t help further.

  • jen

    I’ve been all over the internet trying to figure this out…. I own a photography company, a private school is asking for a donation for a fundraiser. I don’t know how I should word it, gift certificate, coupon, with a dollar amount, without, etc. I don’t want someone coming to me five years from now asking to redeem it after my prices have increased, etc. Can you at least point me in the right direction if you can’t answer this question? Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Jen, I’m really sorry that we can’t help (we’re more sales tax focused) but I do suggest asking an accountant. You can find one in your area or here’s a list of vetted sales tax experts who also serve as accountants. http://www.taxjar.com/sales-tax-accountant-directory/ I hope this helps!

  • lala land

    I recently made hotel reservation during cyber Monday sale on a major internet travel booking site. I am wondering if the tax for the hotel reservation should be calculated based on the discounted price I actually paid, or full price before discount. I live in Massachusetts.

  • Samantha

    My work is doing a Christmas sale, where we’re selling $20 promotional cards for $10 until the end of the year. I say promotional card because it offers various one-time discounts, and a 10% off coupon every time you come in. The card is programmed in our pcs for $10, then automatically charges .92 for tax when one is purchased. It’s been causing an uproar, so we’ve just been giving back the .92 to anyone who complains.. (We’ve only had the promotion for a week now) Someone left our boss a message tonight, hopefully he gets back to us and fixes the problem sooner than later.question is, is it incorrect to be charging tax on the cards? We live in Missouri, if that makes a difference. Thanks!

    • Hi Samantha,

      That sounds like a headache! I’d contact the Missouri department of revenue. As you can see from this post, some states require that you charge sales tax pre-discount and some don’t. Your state will be the final arbiter and the ones who can help you out. If you need help, here’s a list of vetted sales tax CPAs: http://www.taxjar.com/sales-tax-accountant-directory/

  • sandyc215

    I use my Amazon credit card for business purchases, and the points I accumulate to “buy” personal items. So, these items are free to me. Sales tax is not charged on any items because our account is registered as business-for-resale. Do I owe sales (use) tax on the personal items? (state of Georgia)

    • Hi Sandy,

      That’s an interesting one we haven’t come across. I would bet that the state of Georgia will say you should pay use tax on your Georgia state tax return. That said, almost no one actually does that because it’s difficult to enforce. In these cases, we recommend calling up your department of revenue and asking anonymously. You can find their best number here: http://taxjar.wpengine.com/state-sales-tax-phone-numbers/ Good luck and keep us posted!

  • !Jennifer L. Hall

    If I am selling a product to a customer in WA and the product is $5.80 BUT I am giving them a $3.00 of so the total is now $2.80 based on above I would charge taxes on the $2.80 NOT the $5.80 correct, or is this different in WA, as you were using GA for the example

  • !Jennifer L. Hall

    If I am selling a product to a customer in WA and the product is $5.80 BUT I am giving them a $3.00 of so the total is now $2.80 based on above I would charge taxes on the $2.80 NOT the $5.80 correct, or is this different in WA, as you were using GA for the example

  • Katina Johnson

    Hi! Quick question: if a grocer hands you a coupon for FREE food at their store, are you on the hook for paying the sales tax on the FREE items? State of TN here, and having trouble finding statutes one way or the other.

    • Hi Katina,

      I asked the author of this article, Ned Lenhart (a CPA) to comment and here’s what he said: “The grocery store has to pay use tax on the cost of the food that is involved with the ‘free meal’. No tax needs to be charged or paid by the consumer.” I hope this helps!

    • Hi Katina,

      I asked the author of this article, Ned Lenhart (a CPA) to comment and here’s what he said: “The grocery store has to pay use tax on the cost of the food that is involved with the ‘free meal’. No tax needs to be charged or paid by the consumer.” I hope this helps!

  • Katina Johnson

    Hi! Quick question: if a grocer hands you a coupon for FREE food at their store, are you on the hook for paying the sales tax on the FREE items? State of TN here, and having trouble finding statutes one way or the other.

  • Stephanie M.

    We are religious item retailers but from time to time we give away products to those who can’t afford them. We simply ring up the item as $0, but this, of course removes any tax. Is it ok for us to be doing this since we aren’t selling it, but giving it away? If not, what would be the proper way to handle this? Generally the items are less then $5-15. Does some sort of use tax apply and if so, how do we figure that? We are in SC. Thank you for your help!

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