Even the slickest financial professionals lose money in the market, but for savvy investors, a strategy called tax-loss harvesting can turn losses into wins — or at least into smaller losses. The tax code lets you leverage your investment losses to reduce your taxable income and lower the amount of money you owe the IRS.
Tax-loss harvesting — the strategic selling of losing investments for tax purposes — can save you a bundle, but only if you do it right. Keep reading to learn how you might be able to use tax-loss harvesting to put your own bad bets to work for you.
What Is Tax-Loss Harvesting?
Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy — perfectly legal when done right — that lets investors offset their capital gains taxes by intentionally selling an investment for a loss. It’s only possible with taxable brokerage accounts, not 401ks, IRAs, and other tax-deferred accounts.
First, the basics:
- Capital gains occur when you sell a security like a stock or ETF for more than what you paid
- Capital losses occur when you sell a security for less than what you paid
- Nothing is ever gained or lost until you sell, so when you do sell, you’re either “harvesting” losses or gains on the security you purchased
Depending on your income, you’ll pay either a 0%, 15%, or 20% tax on long-term capital gains, with most people falling into the first two categories. Short-term capital gains are taxed as regular income.
If you anticipate a capital gains tax bill, you might be able to lower that bill and actually save money in the long run by intentionally harvesting losses on other securities. When done right, the capital losses you harvest can offset the capital gains taxes you owe.
How Does Tax-Loss Harvesting Work?
Tax-loss harvesting lets investors lower their tax bills by purposely incurring capital losses to use as credits against capital gains.
- You buy ETF X for $10,000 and ETF Y for $10,000.
- If after a few years, ETF X is worth $13,000 and ETF Y is worth $7,000, then the first one gained $3,000 and the second one lost $3,000 in the same time period. The losses offset the gains and you owe $0 in taxes.
- If, on the other hand, ETF X jumps to $13,000 but ETF Y falls to $5,000, then you’ve gained $3,000 but lost $5,000 for a net loss of $2,000.
- Now, not only do you owe nothing on the $3,000 you gained, but you can also reduce your taxable income by $2,000.
As you can see, tax-loss harvesting can be a very effective strategy — but this example was a simplification for demonstration. There are risks, it’s not a good strategy in all situations, and there are a whole lot of complex variables to consider. Here are the top 10.
1. You Should Estimate Your Tax Liability First
Before you start selling any investments, you should first estimate what your tax scenario actually looks like for the year. To estimate your capital gains and losses for each stock, subtract your basis from your sale proceeds. Your basis is the amount that you paid for the stock and your sales proceeds are what you received when you sold the stock. For example, if you paid $1,500 and then sold shares and received $1,700, your gain is $200.
2. Not All Income Is Taxed Equally
The IRS assesses different types of income at different income tax rates. For example, the maximum tax rate on ordinary income, including short-term capital gains, is 37 percent, whereas the maximum capital gains tax rate on long-term capital gains is 20 percent.
So, if you only have long-term capital gains this year, and you anticipate generating significant short-term capital gains next year, it might be worth waiting to harvest your losses so they offset the short-term capital gains next year.
Good To Know
Long-term capital gains taxes are generally much lower than taxes paid on short-term capital gains. That means that you’ll almost always keep more of your earnings if you resist selling your investments and harvesting gains or losses for at least one year. That’s good news — conventional wisdom says that buy-and-hold strategies are your best bet, anyway.
3. Long-Term Capital Gains Require Satisfying a Holding Period
In general, to receive the more favorable tax treatment for long-term capital gains, you must have owned the stock for more than one year. If you owned the stock for one year or less, any gains are characterized as short-term capital gains.
However, dividends are treated differently: If you hold the stock for at least 60 days during the 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date and ends 60 days after the ex-dividend date, your dividend counts as long-term capital gains.
4. You Must Offset Gains in a Specific Order
The IRS sets rules for the order in which you must use your capital losses to offset your other income.
First, you use any long-term losses to offset any long-term capital gains and use any short-term capital losses to offset short-term capital gains. Then, if you have excess losses remaining, you can use them to offset capital gains of the opposite type. For example, if you have more short-term losses than short-term gains, you can use the excess to offset long-term gains.
Finally, if you have more capital losses than gains, you can use those excess losses to offset ordinary income — to an extent.
5. Capital Losses Have Limits
Though tax-loss harvesting can provide valuable benefits, they aren’t unlimited. Each year, your losses are limited to offsetting your capital gain income for the year, plus an additional $3,000 against other income. However, if you’re married filing separately, the limit for offsetting other income is $1,500.
For example, say you’re single and you have $4,000 of capital gains. The maximum capital losses you can benefit from in the current year are $4,000 to $7,000 to offset your gains plus $3,000 to offset other income. You can carry forward any excess losses to use in future years.
6. Wash Sale Rule Limits Repurchases
The IRS doesn’t allow you to simply sell an investment one day to claim the loss and then buy it back the next day. The IRS disallows any losses resulting from sales if you do any of the following within 30 days of the sale:
- Buy substantially identical stocks or securities
- Acquire substantially identical stocks or securities in a taxable trade
- Acquire a contract to buy substantially identical stocks or securities
- Acquire substantially identical stocks or securities in an IRA or Roth IRA
For example, if you sell 100 shares of Apple stock today and then buy 100 shares a week later, even though you aren’t buying back the same 100 shares, you’re still covered by the wash sale rules.
7. Reinvestment in Similar Funds or Companies Is Allowed
The wash sales rules don’t apply, however, if you reinvest the money from the sale in funds or companies that would fulfill a similar role in your portfolio. For example, if you have losses in a technology mutual fund, you could sell your shares in that mutual fund and use the proceeds to purchase a mutual fund with a similar investing philosophy. That way, your portfolio remains on track, and you get to claim your tax losses to reduce your tax liability.
8. Use Form 1040 for Your Tax Return
Technically, there’s not a separate tax return form just for trades you made for tax harvesting purposes — the trades are reported with all of your other capital gains and losses on Schedule D. However, you will need to use Form 1040 to file your taxes because you’re ineligible to use Form 1040EZ or Form 1040A.
9. You Should Avoid Tax-Loss Harvesting in Retirement Accounts
Even if you take an active role in managing the investments in your retirement accounts, tax-loss harvesting doesn’t apply to retirement accounts, like 401ks or IRAs. That’s because the money in these accounts, unlike an investment account, grows tax-deferred — meaning you don’t pay taxes on the gains or losses that you realize from selling investments in the account. For example, if your IRA owns McDonald’s stock that you purchased for $4,000 and then you sell for $5,000, that $1,000 gain isn’t taxed when you sell it. So, it doesn’t make sense for you to try to offset gains with losses.
10. Tax-Loss Harvesting Shouldn’t Drive Your Investments
Tax-loss harvesting is merely an income tax tactic that can help you with tax-efficient investing — not a substitute for financial planning. While it can save you money, don’t lose sight of your overall investing goals or jeopardize your financial plan for the sake of smaller, short-term tax savings.
Michael Keenan contributed to the reporting for this article.
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- Charles Schwab. 2021. "A Primer on Wash Sales."
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