Is Your Paycheck Smaller Than It Should Be? Look for These 5 Mistakes

money mistakes
Jinx! under Creative Commons

As I was sitting in an HR class listening to my professor explain the difference between exempt and non-exempt employees, it hit me:

I was being screwed over by my company. Big time.

When hourly employees worked more than 40 hours a week and should have earned overtime, the company treated them as salaried — so they didn’t get the extra pay.

On the flip side, when someone had a doctor’s appointment and had to leave early, the company only paid them for the actual hours they worked.

This is illegal, and the higher-ups knew it. They were taking advantage of their employees’ lack of knowledge.

Unlucky for them, I was getting my degree in human resources. They had messed with the wrong employee!

I contacted the Department of Labor to file a complaint.

While my coworkers and I eventually received back pay for all the overtime hours we worked, the damage had already been done. Many of us quit, knowing we couldn’t work for an employer that could deliberately do that to its employees.

5 Money Mistakes That Could Affect Your Paycheck

Most companies don’t willingly deceive their employees. But mistakes do happen.

I know because I’ve worked in HR for more than 10 years. Human error is inevitable.

You work hard for your money and it’s important to understand where it’s going. Here are five items to watch out for:

1. Exempt vs. Non-Exempt

An exempt employee is paid a salary, which doesn’t fluctuate.

Let’s say you work 50 hours in a week. Those 10 hours over 40 don’t matter; you receive the same amount of pay as if you worked 40 hours.

Conversely, if you work 35 hours, you still get paid as if you worked 40.

A non-exempt employee is eligible for overtime for any time they worked over 40 hours in a week.

Overtime is paid at time and half, so if you normally earn $10 per hour, you would earn $15 per each hour worked over 40 hours in a week. Conversely, if you only worked 35 hours in a week, you’ll only be paid for those 35 hours, unless you used vacation or sick time.

If you’re not sure which category you fall into, ask your HR department for clarification.

I’d recommend scheduling a short face-to-face meeting to address any questions, then following up with a short email summary of the outcome. This way you have proof in case you ever need it.

2. Overtime Pay

Many companies have automated timekeeping systems, and employees believe their pay is being calculated correctly.

For the most part, it is — but not always.

I once worked for an employer whose system calculated overtime incorrectly; we had to manually override it with the right information.

Another company I worked for had employees write down their overtime on a sheet of paper — talk about room for error! Sometimes we couldn’t decipher the handwriting, and occasionally the sheet went missing altogether.

If your numbers don’t seem to add up, stop by your HR or payroll department. They can walk you through the calculation.

One employee would come in every payday and ask me to go over her paycheck with her. While this may seem a little extreme, I sat down with her each time until she was satisfied everything was calculated properly.

Diligent employees catch errors.

3. Benefits Changes

Once a year during open enrollment, most companies change certain aspects of their benefit plans.

Rate changes, plan changes, election changes… there’s a lot of change going on, which means more chance for error.

Always check your first pay stub after open enrollment. Make sure your plan, number of dependents and rates are all correct.

4. Raises

During my first year in HR, I had to calculate and import raises for my company. I messed up — badly — and gave 400 people the wrong raise.

I thought for sure I’d be fired.

Out of those 400 people, only about 25 noticed the error and came to HR. That means 375 people didn’t notice they’d received the wrong amount of money.

Don’t be one of those 375 people!

Make sure to get your salary change in writing and check that your first “new” paycheck accurately reflects the change.

As for me, I felt awful. By the next payroll, though, I’d resolved all the issues and, thankfully, wasn’t fired. (My takeaway: I never touched payroll again.)

5. Tax Exemptions

All of us complete a W-4 form when we start a job.  

Based on the number of exemptions you choose, the W-4 impacts the amount of tax taken out of each paycheck. If you take fewer exemptions, more money will come out of each check; when you take more exemptions, less tax comes off the top.

Don’t look at this form as a static document — you should revise it as needed.

When you first fill out your W-4, you’re at a certain point in your life. Six months or a year later, things may have changed.

Life happens: People get married, have children, get divorced and their children grow up. All these events may affect your taxes.

You can make changes at any time to a W4, and I suggest reviewing it at least once a year. I do so at tax time; I’m already looking at all my tax-related documents, so I might as well make sure everything is updated correctly.

While many companies try to do everything properly, mistakes can happen. Make sure you’re knowledgeable about where your hard-earned money is going — so you can keep more of it in your pocket.

Your Turn: Have any of these money mistakes affected your paycheck?

Laura Niebauer Palmer is a coupon-aholic who works in HR and just started her own blog at She enjoys finding creative and fun ways to make and save money, including mystery shopping and being a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune”!