You frequently hear investment professionals suggest “harvesting losses” before the end of the calendar year to save money on taxes. Loss harvesting can be a highly productive strategy, and it pays to understand how it works and when you might not want to take advantage of it.
The opportunity to harvest losses is available in taxable investment accounts – this includes joint or individual accounts — not IRAs, education savings plans, or employer retirement accounts.
You calculate the gain or loss by subtracting the total purchase price for the investment (including any dividends reinvested) from the proceeds you received from selling the investment. For example, if you purchased a mutual fund for $10,000, reinvested $1,000 in dividends over the years you owned it, and then sold it for $13,000, you would have a tax gain of $2,000. If you sold it for $10,500, you would have a tax loss of $500.
When you sell an investment in a taxable account, you owe taxes on any gain and can deduct any losses against your income on your taxes (up to $3,000 per year). Gains or losses from different investment sales offset against each other to produce a “net” gain or loss. For example, if you have $10,000 in losses and $11,000 in gains, you have a $1,000 net gain. If you have net losses greater than $3,000 in a single year, they can be carried forward to offset gains or be deductible in future years.
Harvesting tax losses can help you offset gains from other investments sold in a given year, and it can result in a deduction on your tax return. Think of the value of a $3,000 deduction — if you’re in the 25% tax bracket, it saves you $750 on your taxes; in the 35% tax bracket, it saves $1,050.
So when wouldn’t you want to pursue this strategy?
- If it’s going to take your asset allocation away from your target. Asset allocation is the biggest factor in investment success. You shouldn’t implement a loss harvesting strategy if it can’t be done without maintaining your target asset allocation. You can usually maintain your target allocation while harvesting losses by purchasing other investments in the same asset class at the same time you sell the loser, but you have to understand and comply with the IRS’s specific wash sale rules to be sure you don’t negate your loss.
- If you’re in the 10% or 15% tax bracket this year and next – you can report long-term capital gains (>1 year holding period) up to the top of the 15% bracket and pay 0% in taxes. If you take losses to offset the gains, you would essentially be “giving” the losses away for free.
There are of course many other situations unique to the individual set of circumstances, so it pays to coordinate your strategy with your tax advisor and financial planner to make sure it’s a win for you.