5 Situations to Consider Tax-Loss Harvesting

In order to reduce the amount you'll owe during tax season, you can explore selling investments that have lost value from what you paid for them.
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Tax-loss harvesting is the method of selling investments at a loss in order to reduce the amount of money you'll owe for income taxes. To help you sort this out, we've explained some key terms and outlined five instances of when you might consider this.

What is tax-loss harvesting?

Taxpayers can often use this strategy to lower their tax burden by selling their investments at a loss. Generally, those losses can then offset any capital gains from selling securities. They usually can also offset up to $3,000 in other income.

For instance, if you’re going to have to recognize $5,000 in capital gains in an investment account, you might sell other investments that would similarly generate a recognized loss of $5,000. In doing this, you can cut your capital gain — which can lower your tax burden.

One thing to note is that tax-loss harvesting only works on taxable investments. Many retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k) accounts, are tax-deferred therefore not allowing you to offset taxable gains. Therefore, you cannot use this strategy with these accounts.

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What is the wash sale rule?

You might be thinking that you can sell investments at a loss at the end of the year and buy them back at the beginning of the following year when they might be rebounding. But, in order to prevent a pattern of selling and buying back to avoid capital gains taxes, the IRS has instituted the wash sale rule.

A wash sale is when a person sells an investment at a loss and buys or acquires "substantially identical stock or securities" within 30 days prior to or after the sale. The wash sale rule also applies to any substantially identical stocks or securities purchased by your spouse or a company you own.

What are long-term and short-term capital gains?

Generally, the IRS taxes capital gains (money you've made on investments) at two different rates:

  • Long-term capital gains are typically taxed at a lower rate. These are investments that you've owned for more than one year.
  • Short-term capital gains are taxed at the same rate as your earned income. This means they are often taxed at a much higher rate than long-term gains. Typically, these are investments that you've held for one year or less.

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5 situations for considering tax-loss harvesting

1. You have investments subject to capital gains tax

This strategy doesn’t work for tax-deferred retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 529s, and IRAs. However, if you have other types of investment accounts that are subject to capital gains taxes, then you might consider this approach to reduce your tax liability.

2. You can defer until retirement

You’re able to use tax-deferred retirement plans to postpone paying taxes until you reach retirement. This, combined with a diverse portfolio and tax-loss harvesting can potentially help minimize your tax obligations.

For example, let's say that you have a mutual fund that gains every year for the next 10 years prior to your retirement. During those 10 years, you can use tax-loss harvesting on other investments in your portfolio and allow your overall investment funds to grow at a faster rate. This is because the tax money hasn't been withdrawn from the portfolio to pay taxes every year.

Since you are waiting until you are retired to start paying the taxes on those gains, you might be paying taxes in a lower tax bracket than when you were working, too. You might not be able get out of paying taxes on those gains altogether, but you might delay and lower the amount of taxes you pay by using this strategy.

3. Your tax bracket is changing

If you are currently in a lower tax bracket and have reason to believe that you will be in a higher tax bracket in years to come, then you might want to consider alternative strategies instead. By deferring your taxes on capital gains, you may end up paying taxes on those gains at a higher rate once you're in a higher tax bracket.

  • If you know your income will be lower in the coming years, this method can be a great way for you to pay capital gains taxes at a lower rate.
  • You can even implement tax gain harvesting by selling investments at a gain when the tax rate is very low or even zero and then buying back the investment. This can reset your cost basis in the investment to the higher amount.
  • Also, there is not a wash sale rule for selling at a gain. You can sell and immediately buy the investment back.

4. You invest in individual stocks

If your investments are in individual stocks or exchange-traded funds (ETFs), tax-loss harvesting can be much easier for the average taxpayer to employ. If your investments are mostly in mutual funds, it will likely be much more difficult.

5. You had a bad investment year

Even if you don't have investment gains that you're trying to minimize, you can usually use your losses to offset other income and lower your taxes. Remember, investing is usually a long-term endeavor and takes some patience. But, if you had a particularly sour year in the market, or if you have a stock you really want to sell, then you can use your capital loss to offset other taxable income.

  • Usually, you can claim up to $3,000 per year (or $1,500 per person if married and filing separately).
  • If you lost more than the $3,000 limit, you can carryover the excess amount to offset capital gains or other income on future tax returns.

If you're looking for ways to offset capital gains or lower your tax burden, then this may be a beneficial strategy. Just remember to weigh the pros and cons of deferring your capital gains to a later time.