Taxes can take a big bite out of your total investment returns, so it's helpful to look for tax-advantaged strategies when building a portfolio. But keep in mind that investment decisions shouldn't be driven solely by tax considerations; other factors to consider include the potential risk, the expected rate of return, and the quality of the investment.
Tax-deferred and tax-free investments
Tax deferral is the process of delaying (but not necessarily eliminating) until a future year the payment of income taxes on income you earn in the current year. For example, the money you put into your traditional 401(k) retirement account isn't taxed until you withdraw it, which might be 30 or 40 years down the road!
Tax deferral can be beneficial because:
Compounding means that your earnings become part of your underlying investment, and they in turn earn interest. In the early years of an investment, the benefit of compounding may not be that significant. But as the years go by, the long-term boost to your total return can be dramatic.
Taxes make a big difference
Let's assume two people have $5,000 to invest every year for a period of 30 years. One person invests in a tax-free account like a Roth 401(k) that earns 6% per year, and the other person invests in a taxable account that also earns 6% each year. Assuming a tax rate of 24%, in 30 years the tax-free account will be worth $395,291, while the taxable account will be
worth $308,155. That's a difference of $87,136.
Tax deferred is not the same as tax free. "Tax deferred" means that the payment of taxes is delayed, while "tax free" means that no income taxes are due at all. For example, with a Roth IRA, after-tax dollars are contributed, but qualified distributions (those satisfying a five-year holding period and made after age 59½ or after becoming disabled) are free from federal income tax.
Tax-advantaged savings vehicles for retirement
One of the best ways to accumulate funds for retirement or any other investment objective is to use tax-advantaged (i.e., tax-deferred or tax-free) savings vehicles when appropriate.
This hypothetical example is for illustrative purposes only, and its results are not representative of any specific investment or mix of investments. Actual results will vary. The taxable account balance assumes that earnings are taxed as ordinary income and does not reflect possible lower maximum tax rates on capital gains and dividends, as well as the tax treatment of investment losses, which would make the taxable investment return more favorable, thereby reducing the difference in performance between the accounts shown. Investment fees and expenses have not been deducted. If they had been, the results would have been lower. You should consider your personal investment horizon and income tax brackets both current and anticipated, when making an investment decision as these may further impact the results of the comparison. This illustration assumes a fixed annual rate of return; the rate of return on your actual investment portfolio will be different, and will vary over time, according to actual market performance. This is particularly true for long-term investments. It is important to note that investments offering the potential for higher rates of return also involve a higher degree of risk to principal.
Tax-advantaged savings vehicles for college
For college, tax-advantaged savings vehicles include:
Note: Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with 529 plans. More information about specific 529 plans is available in each issuer's official statement, which should be read carefully before investing. Also, before investing consider whether your state offers a 529 plan that provides residents with favorable state tax benefits. The availability of tax and other benefits may be conditioned on meeting certain requirements. There is also the risk that the investments may lose money or not perform well enough to cover college costs as anticipated. For withdrawals not used for qualified higher-education expenses, earnings may be subject to taxation as ordinary income and possibly a 10% federal income tax penalty.
Though tax considerations shouldn't be your only investing concern, by putting your money in tax-advantaged savings vehicles and investments when appropriate, you'll keep more money in your own pocket and put less in Uncle Sam's. *Withdrawals prior to age 59½ may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty unless an exception applies.
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