HMRC salary sacrifice: how to give employees more financial flexibility

Patrick Whatman

Published on July 26, 2023


Companies always want new and better ways to meet employee needs and keep their teams happy. Big ticket items like paid time off, salary increases, and employee ownership are usually at the top of the list.

But there are lesser-known advantages that suit some employees perfectly, and don't cost the company a thing. HMRC's salary sacrifice scheme lets workers divert a portion of their pre-tax income towards a non-cash benefit. This decreases take-home pay and reduces the tax they owe.

At the end of the day, it means more money in the pockets of your employees. Or in another sense, it lets them use their pre-tax earnings more optimally.

It can be used to help finance an electric vehicle, increase a pension contribution, or even pay for childcare services. And again, it's tax free. Let's explore the concept and mechanics more fully.

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What is salary sacrifice?

Salary sacrifice arrangements refer to an employee’s decision to give up a proportion of their salary in exchange for a non-cash benefit (usually of similar value). The non-cash benefit can exist in the form of vouchers for services, such as childcare or increased pension contributions.

The scheme provides employees with an income tax advantage, and employers get national insurance savings since gross pay is decreased. Moreover, the employee builds up a greater pension pot without having to increase their contributions.

For example, an employee chooses to reduce their salary from £350 to £300 per week, and receive a £50 childcare voucher. The childcare voucher is tax-free (up to £55 per week), paid for with pre-tax income. The employee also pays less income tax overall, and the employer will owe less in national insurance contributions.

This is usually advantageous, but may have to be adapted when certain lifestyle changes occur in the employees’ lives, such as:

  • Marriage or divorce

  • Maternity leave for themselves or their partner

  • Partner redundancy

It’s the employee’s choice, and they must always agree to the salary sacrifice schemes before any contracts are changed. Plus, the contract must spell out exactly what cash and non-cash benefits the employee will receive. This means that even if multiple changes happen across a short span of time, there is true transparency for both parties.

HMRC salary sacrifice rules

There are a number of rules and exemptions associated with the UK’s salary sacrifice scheme. In particular, pension-related benefits receive special exemptions, but all other non-cash benefits typically hold reporting requirements.

The first thing to note is that HMRC does not require a declaration or pre-approval of the salary sacrifice conditions that you have with your team. They are concerned with getting the right level of national insurance and other taxes paid when it comes to the end of the tax year.

Secondly, HMRC calculates the value of the non-cash benefits through the benefits-in-kind rules. Since 2017, these vouchers have been valued higher than the cash exchanged for them. Unfortunately, this reduces the scale of the benefit.

Since these changes came into force, only a small number of salary sacrifice benefits are now exempt from tax. These include:

  • Employer-provided childcare vouchers (up to £55 per week)

  • Cycle to work scheme (bicycle and bike-riding safety equipment)

  • Ultra-low emission vehicles

  • Employer pension contributions and advisors

  • Continued professional development courses

Other non-cash benefits, such as wellness stipends or home office vouchers, are not subject to pre-tax exemptions. Where other expense categories have their own tax advantages, such as employment allowance or meal allowance, they are not included in this scheme.

Examples of salary sacrifice

There are a large number of benefit-in-kind schemes that employees can benefit from with the salary sacrifice. Two of the most popular examples include:

  • Electric vehicles

  • Pension scheme contributions

Electric vehicles

For some people, salary sacrifice is the cheapest way to own an electric car. Also known as the EV salary sacrifice, the program allows workers to make payments towards an electric car from their gross pay, before tax is deducted.

Because this is a benefit in kind, your employee is not taxed on the portion of salary given up. This means that the full effect of the benefit is felt, which isn't exactly true where an employee uses their post-tax income.

Fortunately, EV salary sacrifice also includes the likes of road tax, car insurance and breakdown cover. The car is to be used for private trips - as it’s not a company car. Since there’s no petrol costs either, your employees don’t have to worry about tracking mileage for work-related travel.

It works by essentially having your company ‘rent’ a new car from a leasing company, which you then pay back over time through salary sacrifice contributions. Of course, the cost of the car is deducted from the employee's salary, which leads to lower overall payments for both income tax and national insurance.

Buying an electric car this way can reduce the overall burden on the employee by approximately 50%.

Pension contributions

Alternatively, the salary sacrifice scheme can be used to increase the pension pot without increasing an individual’s contributions. Those who opt in receive lower take-home pay and have their employer pay the difference into their pension pot.

This decreases the tax that both employee and employer owe, as the actual salary of the worker goes down.

One thing to note: those who typically claim tax relief from pension contributions may no longer be eligible to make this claim, since they have already been taxed on a lower salary amount.

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There's obviously a lot to love in the salary sacrifice scheme. Employees get more from their income, and companies have lower national insurance obligations.

But most employees don't know about it, so it's vital to educate and excite your teams before setting up any kind of permanent scheme. Hopefully this article helps.

For more information about HMRC's rules and guidelines, take a look at these other recent articles: