Photo of a small business owner looking at a tablet learning about payroll costs.

Payroll cost: The small business guide

As a small business owner, setting up a payroll system can be a serious challenge if accounting isn’t your strong suit. However, it’s essential to the success of your business. But how do you find a system that’s easy to use without spending too much? Because payroll costs extend beyond just what you’re paying your staff, it’s important to know what you’re likely to pay before making a decision. 

The right choice for your business depends on several factors, such as the size of your company, how you pay your employees, how often you pay them, and the kind of payroll expenses you have. 

This article will take a deeper look at what payroll for small businesses includes and what it costs.

How much does it cost to have someone do your payroll?

Payroll service providers handle your payroll accounting by charging a monthly base fee and additional fees for every employee at your company or every check sent out. Pricing for payroll service packages varies depending on the payroll company you use. 

However, many payroll providers charge between $29-150 in monthly fees plus $2-12 per employee, per pay period.

What is included in payroll costs

The payroll costs you pay go toward covering the labor, automation, and distribution of payroll to your employees. Providers also keep records, withhold taxes, distribute funds to retirement accounts, and sometimes pay the appropriate taxes. 

A provider may charge extra for:

  • Workers comp
  • 401(k)
  • Time tracking
  • Tax penalty protection
  • Automatic check signatures
  • A direct deposit option
  • State and federal tax filing
  • Printing and check delivery
  • Tax form processing

The cost of each add-on may change depending on the number of employees you have, with discounts for companies with more employees.

Factors that impact payroll costs

Many factors can impact how much it costs to run payroll. However, some of the most important parts of the equation can be confusing and may open your business up to liability and even fines if done incorrectly. 

  • The number of employees: Since many payroll providers charge a fee per employee, you increase payroll costs with each additional employee on your team. If you do payroll manually, the more employees you have, the more likely you’ll spend more time calculating payroll.
  • Payroll frequency: Payroll providers typically charge a fee for every employee at your company payroll schedule or for each check sent out. For instance, if there’s a $3 fee per employee every pay period and you pay employees every two weeks, that fee will add up to $6 per month for each employee. But if you choose to pay your employees weekly, that fee jumps to $12 per month. For more information, see the 2024-2025 payroll calendar to be aware of pay frequency.
  • The number of states employees are paid in: State payroll taxes differ, and each state has different tax laws. You could pay more taxes in one state than another. Payroll providers may also charge extra fees to cover employees located in multiple states.
  • Direct deposit costs: Setting up a direct deposit is an additional cost for your business, but most employees will expect it, as it’s a convenient way to get paid.
  • Tax filing: Payroll providers often charge extra fees for performing tasks. These tasks include filing state and federal taxes, FICA taxes for Social Security and Medicare, preparing year-end taxes, and processing tax forms. 
  • End-of-year processing: At the end of the year, a payroll provider can calculate taxes that need to be paid and send out W-2 forms to employees. 
  • Software costs: If your provider has an online system or software that you use to upload and update employee records, the provider will probably charge for using it. These fees also go towards helping it maintain these systems.
  • Subscription costs: Some of the services offered by payroll companies are covered by the cost of your subscription, while others aren’t. Ask the company for clarification on which features are extra.
  • Add-on services: Add-on services can mean anything from printing and mailing physical checks to filing payroll taxes on your behalf. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed thinking about the cost of paying someone else to handle the different parts of your payroll, but the amount of time it can save you and your team might make it a worthwhile investment. Let’s look at some prices for a number of payroll services.

Payroll service options + how much they cost

There are four main methods for running payroll for your company:

  • In-house payroll
  • Using payroll software
  • Outsourced payroll
  • Online payroll services

Each of these options has distinct advantages and disadvantages as well as their own costs that you should think about as you look for ways to make paying an employee more efficient and less costly.

In-house payroll

If you think you’re up to the task, you might try managing payroll yourself. It’s not uncommon for new small business owners to personally handle their company’s payroll. found that more than 40% of small business owners report spending more than 80 hours each year on accounting. 

That’s because owners are trying to get their company off the ground, often on a tight budget with very few employees, if any. On a small scale, payroll isn’t very complicated, but once your business grows, handling payroll yourself becomes much more challenging. As a business owner, you’ll likely want to focus on other aspects of your business instead of spending your time doing payroll.

Performing payroll in-house does give you the most control over the process, but it can also increase the potential for costly mistakes. Even leaning into automation can only take you so far. 

According to ZipRecruiter, hiring an in-house payroll specialist might cost you more than $55,000 a year—the average salary for a payroll specialist. Add in benefits and taxes, and the figure can jump up quickly. 

Payroll software

Automating payroll can help streamline the process and minimize the time you, as a business owner, have to spend managing payroll. The services included in payroll software vary based on the plan or version of software you choose.

Most accounting software offers basic payroll functions, while others offer more advanced features like employee time tracking and tax filing services. The cost of payroll software varies widely depending on the size of your company and the features you’re looking for.

Software can streamline in-house payroll by automating most parts of the process that you’d otherwise have to do manually. Good software is user-friendly and easy to understand, so you can worry less about creating problems that could result in fines. Some payroll software provides an online portal for employees to use to change their direct deposit information, as well as tax information.

Outsourced payroll

Outsourcing payroll is when you hire a bookkeeper or accountant to keep track of company finances and handle the payroll process. Ideally, this person is an organized financial professional who knows their way around tax laws and regulations.

While the cost of a bookkeeper depends on the services you want them to perform and their experience, they can be expensive. In 2023, listed the median annual salary for an accountant to be around $60,000. You wouldn’t be paying that full amount for an outsourced accountant, but depending on your payroll needs, you may pay quite a lot.

The expertise, experience, and familiarity with the payroll process, as well as the laws that govern payroll and taxation, could be big positives. Payroll mistakes are common and expensive – the NFIB estimates that the IRS fines almost a third of small businesses yearly because of payroll errors. If your employees know that there’s a professional making sure they’re paid what they’re owed on time, it could go a long way toward gaining or keeping their trust in you. 

Online payroll services

Since payroll can be tedious and time-consuming, outsourcing payroll to an online payroll service provider is common. An online payroll service provider is a company that handles payments, withholdings, tax filings, and other payroll services for your business.

Depending on your small business’s needs, an online payroll service provider can help you save time and minimize payroll mistakes. It can also be a cost-effective option.

One of the possible downsides to using an online payroll service is that you don’t have as much oversight and flexibility as you would if you were running payroll inside your company. Depending on the service, you may also pay a lot to add new employees or make other changes.

Manage teams and your business with ease

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Tips for reducing payroll costs

infographic about how to save money on payroll costs with tips about doing payroll in-house, getting quotes from providers, re-evaluating needs often, and automating payroll processes.

Manually processing payroll can take a lot of your time. Even if you don’t do it yourself, you’ll have to pay an accountant or a human resources manager to manage it for you. The time they spend processing payroll could go toward completing other important tasks instead. 

But there are ways to reduce the cost of payroll, whether you’re handling it yourself or paying someone else.

Do payroll internally

As a business owner, you’re used to learning new things and making do with what you have. Handling your company’s payroll yourself means you only have to pay for whatever supplies you need, direct deposit fees, or the cost of paper paychecks. 

Taking on payroll yourself can work if you only have a few people on your staff. As your business grows, payroll will take more and more time, so limit how much time you’re willing to spend before you find another option.

Get quotes from multiple providers

Think about a payroll service provider like you would any other vendor. Weigh the cost of in-house vs. outsourcing payroll by comparing it to the benefits it provides, look at reviews, and get quotes from different providers you’re considering. 

Evaluate each quote based on what you need now and in the near future. If you have a lot of employees, consider the cost of outsourcing payroll to a company that offers a flat subscription rate for an unlimited number of employees. If one company’s estimate is significantly lower than the others you receive, read it carefully to see what isn’t included – that can be as important as knowing what you are getting.

By getting quotes, you’ll see the average cost for the services you need and give you an idea of which providers are best equipped to handle your business.

Evaluate your needs often and make changes

Requesting quotes shouldn’t be a one-time deal, either. Whenever you are looking for savings, bringing on (or losing) large groups of employees, or aren’t satisfied with your payroll provider, contact their competitors for a quote. 

If you change your HR software, see if it integrates with different payroll software. Finding ways to connect systems for more seamless work will pay off big.

Automate as much of the process as you can

Automation helps save money and time. Whether you’re doing payroll yourself or working with a payroll provider, look for ways to automate payroll to streamline the process. 

Some payroll software can automatically pull data from HR systems to populate relevant fields. Some software may also feature time-tracking functionality for easier, more accurate payroll. Examine the features of payroll providers and software to determine what you need to up your automation game. 

Next steps for streamlining your payroll process

Managing payroll is a necessary part of running a company. And, believe it or not, payroll accounting doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. 

Tools like payroll software and online payroll services can save valuable time and cut down on payroll costs. So evaluate your business’s needs, do some research, and find the right payroll solution for you.

Payroll cost FAQ

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