Since the Jobs & Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (JGTRRA), investors have been given a tremendous tax break thanks to changes in tax rates on long-term capital gains and dividends. Here we take a look at how to continue to take advantage of these rates and reduce taxes on investment income as much as possible. Congress extended the rates under JGTRRA through 2012, via the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010, and finally, investors received a break with the 2017 Trump-era tax cuts known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

(For more see the Tutorial: Personal Income Tax Guide)

The Tax Changes

In 2018, the federal income tax rates for individuals stood at 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%. But, here's a quick look at how your dividends, short-term capital gains, and long-term capital gains will be taxed on your stock, bonds and mutual funds (depending on your tax bracket):

As you can see from the chart below, short-term capital gains will receive the least-favorable tax treatment and should be avoided in most cases. It is important to note that the reduced tax rate for dividends applies only to qualified dividends. That is, the reduced rate does not apply unless the dividend is received on a security held for at least 60 days during the 121-day period beginning 60 days before the ex-dividend date.

Stocks, Bonds, Mutual Funds Income $0-$38,600 Income $38,601-$425,800 Income $425,800 and higher
Qualified Dividends 0% 15% 20%
Short-Term Capital Gains ordinary tax bracket ordinary tax bracket ordinary tax bracket
Long-Term Capital Gains 0% 15% 20%

Reporting Your Gains and Losses

The Form 1099-DIV breaks down the ordinary and qualified dividends for you for tax purposes. However, you still need to keep track of your original cost basis on securities that you purchased as you must report your short-term and long-term gains for the year, which is done on Schedule D-Capital Gains and Losses.

When computing the result of your capital gains, the short-term gains and losses are first netted, and then long-term gains and losses are netted as well. You can then net the two results together to compute your overall result. Be cautious of the wash-sale rule which could disallow a loss if you bought or sold shares of the same security within 30 days before or after the sale

Using Tax Lots to Your Advantage

Your choice of cost basis method can have a significant effect on the computation of capital gains and losses when you sell shares. For mutual fund shares, there are three common ways to identify the cost basis of the shares that you are selling: FIFO (first-in, first out), average-cost method and specific-share method. For stocks, you could use FIFO, LIFO (last in, first out) or specific shares.

(For background reading on FIFO and LIFO, see Inventory Valuation For Investors.)

Most people choose to use the FIFO method because it is functional with most software packages, and it's convenient for tracking cost basis. But here we are going to take a look at how the specific-shares method (selecting specific tax lots) can help you minimize your gains versus using one of the two standard FIFO or LIFO methods.

Suppose, for example, over a two-year period, you made the following purchases of XYZ stock (you are in the 32% tax bracket):

Tax Lot # Cost Per Share Shares Purchased Current Price Per Shares Gain
1 $50 800 two years ago $75 $25
2 $58 500 nine months ago $75 $17
3 $70 400 six months ago $75 $5

Now, suppose that you need to sell 800 shares of XYZ and you want to minimize your tax consequence:

Under the FIFO Method Tax Result Taxes Due
Sell 800 shares of tax lot #1 long-term gain of $20,000 $3,000 ($20,000 x 15%)
User Specific-Shares Method Tax Result Taxes Due
Sell 400 shares of tax lot #3 short-term gain of $2,000 $640 ($2,000 x 32%)
Sell 400 shares of tax lot #1 long-term gain of $10,000 $1,500 ($10,000 x 15%)

                                                                                                                                                                   Total $2,140

Under the FIFO method, you would sell the first 800 shares that you purchased two years ago, resulting in a long-term gain of $20,000, with a tax bill of $3,000. On the other hand, if you choose to sell a specific tax lot instead, you can sell your most expensive shares first (even though they are short term) and still have a lower tax bill of $2,140.

Strategies for Tax Minimization

  1. Track securities by tax lot. If you keep accurate accounting (cost basis info) of all your purchases, you can sell your highest cost positions first.
  2. Avoid short-term gains. In many cases, it's best to sell your long-term positions first, however; check your tax lots - it sometimes makes sense to sell the newer position for a lower capital gain.
  3. Avoid high-turnover funds and stocks. High turnover in your portfolio will generate commissions, transaction costs, and higher tax liabilities. If you're going to do a lot of trading, make sure that every buy and sell decision is worth it from a tax perspective.
  4. Use tax-managed funds. These managers invest in the same stocks as other funds, but the managers seek to minimize the year-end distributions of gains by less buying and selling within the fund.
  5. Sell your losers. Harvest your losses on your positions to use the loss to offset gains, don't be afraid to generate losses that carry forward for future years. (For tips on how to do this, see Tax Loss Harvesting: Reducing Investment Losses.)

    The Bottom Line

    As you have seen, there are many different methods of determining your gain or loss on the sale of a particular security. Although first-in, first-out might be the easiest method to calculate and track, it might not always be the most tax advantageous. If you do take advantage of the specific-shares method, make sure you receive a written confirmation from your broker or custodian acknowledging your selling instructions. You must determine the method that works best for you and stick with it.