Employees pay Class 1 National Insurance contributions. Minimising employees' Class 1 NI contributions directly benefits the employee. It also benefits the employer, by making it easier to recruit and retain employees
Class 1 National Insurance for employees
As an employee, you are liable for 'primary' Class 1 National Insurance contributions. Your employer pays 'secondary' Class 1 National Insurance contributions. Both types of Class 1 NI are collected through the PAYE system operated by the employer.
Employees' Class 1 NI contributions are charged at 12% on earnings between the primary threshold of £166 per week and the upper earnings limit of £962 per week in 2019/20 (£162 and £892 for 2018/19) and at 2% on earnings above that.
The single-tier state pension came into force in 2016. As a result of the abolition of the state second pension, it is no longer possible to 'opt out'. The Class 1 NI contributions rebate has been removed and all employees, with few exceptions, are liable to the same rate of Class 1 NICs on earnings above the primary threshold.
Class 1 NI: special cases
Directors pay Class 1 NI contributions on their employment earnings at the same rates as other employees. But rather than using weekly or monthly earnings, Class 1 NI contributions are based on annual earnings. This means that directors who have fluctuating earnings will pay the same amount of Class 1 NI contributions as they would if their earnings were spread evenly through the year.
If you have more than one job, you can end up paying more Class 1 NI than is due, as the 12% rate could be charged on too large an amount of your total earnings from all your jobs. You can apply to have some Class 1 NI deferred if this is likely to apply or reclaim the excess after the tax year end.
If you are both employed and self-employed, then it is possible to end up paying more in employee's Class 1 and self-employed Class 2 NI contributions than the total annual limit payable. Again, some contributions can be deferred or reclaimed.
Class 1 NI contributions are payable on almost all cash payments an employee receives. Cash tips received directly from a customer, or where the employer has no influence over how tips are shared out, are exempt from NI (but are still taxable). Compulsory service charges are not exempt.
Minimising Class 1 National Insurance
Employees' Class 1 NI contributions are payable on any cash payments, including bonuses and other incentive payments. But Class 1 NI is not generally payable on benefits unless they are either cash or cash-like (for example, vouchers that can be exchanged for cash). So employee benefits such as childcare vouchers can be a useful way of reducing Class 1 NI contributions payable (and in some cases tax as well).
The most significant benefit can be employers' pension contributions. If an employer contributes directly to the employee's pension scheme, no Class 1 NI contributions are payable by either employer or employee. A properly arranged salary sacrifice scheme - where employees accept a lower salary but receive higher pension contributions - offers significant Class 1 NI savings.
If you own your own company, you may be able to make substantial Class 1 NI savings by taking dividends rather than salary. Dividends can only be paid out of distributable profits (so not if the company has accumulated losses) following proper procedures, and cannot be paid selectively only to chosen shareholders. Dividend income over the current allowance of £2,000 (unchanged since April 2018) will be subject to tax but this is a signifiant reduction from the previous tax-free allowance of £5,000.
The 'IR35' rules on personal services companies, and rules on managed services companies, have made it difficult to take advantage of this if you are providing personal services through a company (for example, as an IT contractor). In these cases, the rules broadly ensure that the tax and NI treatment of any payment - including dividends - is the same as for employment income.