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Are Your Investments Tax Efficient? 3 Things to Check

Are you a tax-efficient investor? Learn three ways to legally pay fewer taxes on your investments, a lesson that could save you tens of thousands over your lifetime.

Are Your Investments Tax Efficient- 3 Things to CheckIn the investing world, tax efficiency refers to how well your investment portfolio takes advantage of legal ways to avoid or defer paying taxes on your returns. Tax-efficient investing sounds intimidating, but the basics are easier than you might think and important enough for every investor to learn.

Profits you earn from investments are taxed as capital gains. For 2014 and 2015, long-term capital gains — anything held for more than one year — are taxed at 15 percent unless you are in the lowest two tax brackets or the highest tax bracket.  The lowest two tax brackets get their long term gains tax free. The highest tax bracket will pay 20% on their long term capital gains. While short-term capital gains — anything held for less than one year — were taxed at your ordinary income tax rate (28 percent, 35 percent, etc.)

Your goal as a tax-efficient investor is to avoid paying short-term capital gains taxes and to postpone paying any capital gains taxes as long as you can. In addition, certain types of accounts (like IRAs) and investments (such as municipal bonds) allow you to defer paying taxes or avoid them altogether.

Here we’ll look at a couple easy ways to improve your investments’ tax efficiency.

Before diving in, we should note that your annual income plays a big role in whether many of these strategies will be beneficial, so it it’s a good idea to go over them with tax professional to see the true impact on your bottom line.

1. Look out for tax-inefficient mutual funds

If you’re investing in mutual funds, that should be your first stop in optimizing your investments for tax efficiency.

Although mutual funds offer plenty of benefits, they tend to be inefficient when it comes to passing on the tax consequences of their trades to individual investors. Mutual fund dividend payments made by a mutual fund — even if they are reinvested — will still need to be claimed as ordinary income, so a high dividend fund implies higher taxes.

Turnover is another major contributor to a mutual fund’s tax efficiency (or lack thereof). Turnover tells you how long the fund’s management holds onto stocks they buy. The higher the number, the more often the fund trades and the more trading costs are passed onto you. A tool like Morningstar’s free mutual fund information can easily give you a fund’s turnover rate.

To improve your tax efficiency, consider replacing high-turnover mutual funds with an equivalent exchange-traded fund (ETF).

2. Reevaluate a Roth IRA vs. a traditional IRA

Next, you’ll want to look at how IRAs and Roth IRAs compare and ensure you’re using the right one.

With a traditional IRA, money is invested before taxes, thus deferring taxes until you withdraw at age 59 ½. With a Roth IRA you pay taxes upfront. allowing you to withdraw money tax-free in retirement.

If you earn a lot now but expect your income to drop substantially in retirement, the traditional IRA may be the better route for you. I’ve covered this subject in more detail earlier and you can go to Bankrate.com to play around with the numbers and see which option is best for you.

3. Consider tax-advantaged investments

Certain investments come with preferential tax treatments.

Municipal bonds, for example, are used for funding of public projects like roads and schools. As a result, they provide income that’s free of federal taxes (and, in some cases, state and local taxes, too).

Treasury bonds are another example of an investment that’s tax-free at the federal level. Treasuries yield lower amounts than fully-taxable equivalents like corporate bonds, but Treasuries actually net you more after taxes.

Let’s take a look at an example to help illustrate how this works. The equation used to determine a comparable taxed investment versus a tax-free one is:

  • Taxed Comparable = Tax Free Comparable / (1-Tax Rate).

If an investor’s tax bracket is 35 percent, and he can invest his money tax-free at 5 percent, then the amount he needs to make from a taxable investment is:

  • 7.7 percent [7.7 percent = 5 percent / (1-35 percent)].

Now, what happens if taxes are raised to 45 percent instead of 35 percent? In this case, the investor would need to make 9.1 percent in order to make the same amount of money as the tax-free one at 5 percent.

You don’t need to plan your entire portfolio around the potential tax consequences of being profitable, but you should remain cognizant of how each year will look. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to sell investments that may be locked into long term strategies just to pay the taxes due. There’s no faster way to become disillusioned with investing. Just being aware of what you own can go a long way toward your financial success.

Do you have any additional tips or questions about making a tax-friendly investment?

Need 1-on-1 advice? Learn how to find pre-screened financial advisor in your area here.

Published or updated on December 13, 2013

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About Daniel Cross

Daniel Cross has been in the industry as an investment writer and financial advisor since 2005. He holds the Chartered Financial Consultant designation (ChFC) as well as Series 7 and Series 66 licenses, and has embarked on the arduous journey of obtaining the coveted CFA designation. Daniel lives in Florida with his wife, daughter, and pet Tortoise ironically named Turbo.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Mark says:

    Nice article Daniel, but I believe there are a few errors in this article. I’m doing a lot of research on municipal bonds, as I feel they might finally make sense for me due to where I am in my career.

    “Mutual fund dividend payments made by a mutual fund — even if they are reinvested — will still need to be claimed as ordinary income, so a high dividend fund implies higher taxes.” From my understanding, the dividends from mutual funds are made up of qualified and ordinary dividends. The ordinary dividends (could be non-US or due to position held for under 60 days) are taxed at ordinary income, but the qualified dividends are taxed at a lower rate (15% for most people). Similarly, when a capital gain is distributed it is made up of short and long term gains/losses. Some of the capital gains will be taxed at ordinary and others at a special tax rate.

    “Treasury bonds are another example of an investment that’s tax-free at the federal level.” You’re right that Municipal Bonds could be tax free at the federal, state, and local level; however, treasuries are taxable at the federal level but NOT at a state/local level.


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