• Pros

    Excellent user interface. Employee self-onboarding. Automates some payrolls. Can cancel payroll. Calculates and pays payroll taxes automatically. Integrates with multiple accounting sites. Benefits administration. Free trial. Inexpensive.

  • Cons

    No weekend support. Can't pay with prepaid debit cards. Fewer reports than competitors. Reports must be downloaded for viewing.

  • Bottom Line

    Gusto offers a solid set of payroll features, an unusually well-designed user interface, and impressive innovation and automation, all at a good price.

Editors' Choice

Gusto and payroll are two words that aren't usually used in the same sentence. Gusto evokes a zest for life; payroll, not so much, at least from an accountant's perspective. Gusto ($39 per month, plus $6 per employee) may not exactly make doing payroll feel like sky diving, but it certainly improves the experience. With a friendly price tag, a simple and attractive interface, and all the payroll tools small to midsized businesses (SMBs) need, Gusto (formerly ZenPayroll) is one of the best cloud-based payroll solutions we've seen. To make it even more attractive, Gusto contains built-in, SMB-oriented benefits administration (BA). Plus, the company is continuously working hard to flesh out all its services. For example, last year it introduced a way for small businesses to easily purchase and configure new benefits plans for employees that can be handled entirely online. And you can track their success not just via the software's management console, but also directly from your employees through Gusto's Employee Happiness Surveys.

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Simplified Setup

Setting up a payroll application is not overly complicated, but 100 percent accuracy here is critical. Your first payroll run will not be correct if you've made even a small error.

Like its competitors, Gusto walks you through this task, prompting you on what's needed, and supporting you with detailed help files and demos. You first add your company's name and address, then enter the preliminary information for each employee's record. You can provide all the necessary information here or click a button to send employees an email that lets them finish the process themselves. This optional employee self-onboarding is not typical of cloud-based payroll, but it will save time for the administrator.

Gusto calculates and submits your payroll filings and taxes, but you have to supply some information first, like your legal name, Employee Identification Number (EIN), business type, federal deposit schedule, and the form you use when you file income taxes. Next, you supply any data needed for your state(s), like the State Unemployment Insurance Rate (SUI). The site will then help you create and test a link to your bank account, select a payroll schedule (which determines how often payroll is run and when), and fill in vacation and sick time policy information. All competitors require this information, but they may ask for it at different points in setup, and in different ways.


Switching from an existing payroll method or application to a new one at any time other than the first of the year can be a monster data entry job. You need to have the last pay stub for each quarter of the previous year, plus all pay stubs for current quarter. Gusto simplifies this through its exceptionally friendly user interface and by offering free assistance from company payroll specialists. Everyone reviewed here offers such support, and they all request similar information from you, standard payroll data requirements. Note, however, that Gusto does not offer weekend or chat support, as Intuit Online Payroll does.

Gusto needs more information before you can run your first payroll. You'll need to assign a company signatory (an officer of the company) and enter unpaid tax liabilities. There may also be additional setup for benefits administration, and additional deductions and garnishments, as well as recurring reimbursements (travel expenses, phone charges, and so on) are supported.

Once all of these are established, you will need to enter specific information to each employee record. You can, of course, add employee and benefits records, and edit other settings as needed later on. Again, these are standard elements of small business payroll that every application supports. The difference lies in their execution, and Gusto's is excellent.

Benefits Administration

Gusto already integrated some benefits functionality with its payroll software, but the company rolled out a new all-in-one HR service earlier this year to double down on benefits administration (BA) combined with 401k management, document management, and an employee directory. Integrated with payroll, the service is currently focused on medical, dental, vision, life insurance, and disability coverage.

The benefits service, which the company has dubbed the "health benefits advisor," is based on recommendations, with an automated algorithm that recommends the personalized health plans for an employer's budget based on their current payroll data, location, number of employees, and average salary. Benefit administrators can select a tier that fits their company's budget, and then set more granular policy conditions such as contribution level and discount or Premium plan levels. The recommendation algorithm scores plans based on price quotes and carrier quality. Gusto ranks plans by using its customized score that considers not only price quotes but the quality of the carrier and cost of the service.

Gusto--Health Benefits

Gusto's benefits portal also offers solid self-service functionality, which allows employees to choose their own health plans, add dependents, and schedule plan changes based on upcoming life events, without involving the company's HR department. The most unique benefits features on the platform is lifetime employee accounts, which allow employees to access account information even after leaving or being terminated from their current company.

Gusto's benefits service is compliant with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). One major drawback is that the benefits capabilities are currently only available in ten states: California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Washington. The platform also doesn't include the kind of benefits reporting and expanded benefits options such as stock options that you'll find in BA software such as Editors' Choice Zenefits. However, it's not lacking for any core functionality, particularly when combined with Gusto's payroll services.

No Extra Screens

Depending on how many employees you have, the benefits you offer, and how much historical data you have to enter, all of this setup work can take anywhere from about 45 minutes to several hours, assuming that you have all of the necessary information ready to go when you begin. Gusto includes a checklist of the forms and numbers and other data you should assemble ahead of time.

Gusto--Workers Compensation

Your dashboard is the best place to go once you've completed setup. It displays three types of information that apply to your specific situation. There's a to-do list, which will suggest that you might want to complete other areas of setup, such as turning on charitable donation matching and inviting your accountant or other team members to access the site. The Reminders box usually tells you when you need to have completed the upcoming payroll. Upcoming employee birthdays are listed, too. SurePayroll is better at this overview; its more-mature dashboard is more customizable, interactive, and informative.

Completing your payroll data should only take a few minutes. Gusto displays an employee list that includes the annual salary or hourly rate for each. You enter any regular and overtime hours, and then any additional pay items necessary: commission, bonus, reimbursement, and other earnings (such as paycheck tips, cash tips, or correction payment). You can also toggle between direct deposit and paper checks here, and you can write a personal note if you wish. This step is handled equally well by Gusto's competitors, though Gusto saves you a few seconds by displaying the additional pay options in the employee window rather than using a drop-down list, like SurePayroll does. A few seconds may not sound like much, but it adds up.

Completing the Run

You have the option to save your data and continue later if you're unsure of anything, or you can continue on to the next screen, where you'll enter any vacation or sick days taken during the current pay period. If you need to write or print any checks, you'll see them listed on the next screen. The final screen provides a summary of the payroll you just completed. You can see the total for employee direct deposits and checks, as well as the amount of employee and employer payroll taxes due from this run. All the services I've reviewed handles this process exceptionally well, minimizing the number of pages you must visit to enter the details of the payroll run, and clearly stating how much money is about to be removed from your bank account.

No other cloud-based payroll service I've reviewed automatically submits your payroll taxes for you at a cost this low. They all calculate and pay the taxes, but subscription fees vary. Intuit requires you to handle the actual payments yourself, though you can file them electronically. Intuit offers automatic payroll tax filing in its Full Service level, for $99 per month (currently $79 for six months), plus $2 per employee. And it only creates W-2s at the end of the year, not 1099s. Gusto supports both W-2s and 1099s (contractors are paid in a separate area on the site).

Gusto--Run Payroll

Your payroll run is complete now, but it's not too late to cancel it and start over if you need to. This is usually not an option with competitors, though Paychex Flex gives you 15 minutes before it submits the payroll. Gusto's AutoPilot feature is also unusual. If you have only salaried employees who use direct deposit (or hourly workers with default hours per pay period), and you've already run the desired payroll once, Gusto will just handle it for you. Other sites make you log in to the application and go through the payroll steps even if the current payroll is exactly the same as the previous one.

The final step is importing your payroll data into an accounting application, if you use one. Gusto facilitates integration with some of the most popular invoicing and accounting solutions, including Editors' Choices QuickBooks Online and FreshBooks. Paychex Flex and SurePayroll offer more—and more-varied—options, however.

Exceptional Look and Feel

Payroll is a complex set of data and tasks. It requires as much simplicity in terms of user interface and navigation as developers can manage. Small businesspeople are already struggling with the concepts, and they don't need to fight with their application, too. Every payroll service I've reviewed this year does a good job of simplifying this onerous process. Gusto stands out in the crowd, though. Not once in the review process did I wonder how to get to a particular screen. And given the service's visual appeal, it is almost a pleasure to use.

Gusto--Employee Directory

The same goes for Gusto's worker portals. When you log in as an employee, you see an abbreviated version of the employer site. Your personal details are there, some of which can be edited, as well as official forms you've filled out and your year-to-date payroll statistics. All of your pay stubs are there, accessible by opening PDF files. Only Paychex Flex provides a worker portal that's as good.

Reports are Gusto's Achilles' Heel. It offers fewer of them, with less customization, than Intuit Enhanced Payroll, for example. And it doesn't just display the report you've requested: You have to download it as a PDF or CSV file.

Capable, Usable, and Affordable

Gusto has steep competition in this group of cloud-based payroll sites, some of which have been household names for years. These other companies have developed very mature, easy-to-use payroll solutions that do almost everything that Gusto does, and sometimes a little more. They're actually all pretty evenly matched when it comes to the mechanics of payroll processing, though Gusto's expanded benefits administration is a huge boon to its overall value as a combined payroll and HR platform. No one does what it does as well as it does for such a reasonable price as Editors' Choice Gusto.

Gusto--Time Off

Kathy Yakal By Kathy Yakal

Kathy Yakal has been annoying computer magazine editors since 1983, when she got her first technology writing job because she tagged along with her ex-husband on a job interview. She started freelancing and specializing in financial applications when PCs became financial tools for consumers and small businesses (after a stint at a high-end accounting software company). She’s written for numerous publications over the years, and about the only one that’s survived her besides PC Magazine (where she started writing in 1993) is Barron’s. When she… More »

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See More + Rob Marvin By Rob Marvin Assistant Editor, Business

Rob Marvin is the Assistant Editor of PCMag's Business section. He covers startups, business and venture capital, and writes features, news, and trend stories on all manner of emerging technologies. Beats include: blockchain, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, augmented reality, enterprise IoT, legal cannabis tech, social media, the mobile app economy, digital commerce and payments, cloud, Big Data, low code development, containers and microservices, deep linking, M&A, SEO, virtual assistants and voice AI, chatbots, and enterprise software in general. Rob was previously an editor at SD… More »

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