Every investment has costs. Of all the expenses, however, taxes can sting the most and take the biggest bite out of your returns. The good news is that tax-efficient investing can minimize your tax burden and maximize your bottom line—whether you want to save for retirement or generate cash.

Key Takeaways

  • The higher your tax bracket, the more important tax-efficient investing becomes.
  • In general, tax-efficient investments should be made in taxable accounts.
  • Investments that aren't tax-efficient are better off in tax-deferred or tax-exempt accounts.

Why Is Tax-Efficient Investing Important?

In 2019 the Schwab Center for Financial Research evaluated the long-term impact of taxes and other expenses on investment returns. While investment selection and asset allocation are the most important factors that affect returns, the study found that minimizing taxes also has a significant effect.

There are two reasons for this. One is that you lose the money you pay in taxes. The other is that you lose the growth that money could have generated if it were still invested. Your after-tax returns matter more than your pre-tax returns. It's those after-tax dollars, after all, that you'll be spending—now and in retirement. If you want to maximize your returns and keep more of your money, tax-efficient investing is a must.

Investment Accounts

Tax-efficient investing involves choosing the right investments and the right accounts to hold those investments. There are two main types of investment accounts:

  1. Taxable accounts
  2. Tax-advantaged accounts

Taxable accounts

A brokerage account is an example of a taxable account. These accounts don’t have any tax benefits, but they offer fewer restrictions and more flexibility than tax-advantaged accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. Unlike an IRA or a 401(k), with a brokerage account you can withdraw your money at any time, for any reason, with no tax or penalty.

If you hold investments in the account for at least a year, you'll pay the more favorable long-term capital gains rate—0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your tax bracket. If you hold an investment for less than a year, it will be subject to short-term capital gains, which can be as high as 37%.

Tax-advantaged accounts

Tax-advantaged accounts are generally either tax-deferred or tax-exempt. Tax-deferred accounts, such as traditional IRAs and 401(k) plans, provide an upfront tax break. You may be able to deduct your contributions to these plans, which provides an immediate tax benefit. You pay taxes when you withdraw your money in retirement—so the tax is "deferred."

Tax-exempt accounts, including Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, work differently. Contributions to these plans are made with after-tax dollars, so you don't receive the same upfront tax break that you do with traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. However, your investments grow tax-free and qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free as well. That's why these accounts are considered "tax-exempt."

Tax-Efficient Investing Strategies

Tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s have annual contribution limits. For 2020, you can contribute a total of $6,000 to your IRAs, or $7,000 if you're age 50 or older (because of a $1,000 "catch-up" contribution). With 401(k)s, you can contribute up to $19,500, or $26,000 if you're age 50 or older. The combined employee/employer contribution can't exceed $57,000 ($63,500 with the catch-up contribution).

Because of the tax benefits, it would be ideal if you could hold all your investments in tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s. But due to the annual contribution limits—and the lack of flexibility (non-qualified withdrawals trigger taxes and penalties)—that's not practical for every investor.

A good way to maximize tax efficiency is to put your investments in the "right" account. In general, investments that lose less of their returns to taxes are better suited for taxable accounts. Conversely, investments that tend to lose more of their returns to taxes are good candidates for tax-advantaged accounts.

Tax-Efficient Investments

Most investors know that if you sell an investment, you might owe taxes on any gains. But you could also be on the hook if your investment distributes its earnings as capital gains or dividends—whether you sell the investment or not.

By nature, some investments are more tax-efficient than others. Among stock funds, for example, tax-managed funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) tend to be more tax-efficient because they trigger fewer capital gains. Actively managed funds, on the other hand, tend to buy and sell securities more often, so they have the potential to generate more capital gains distributions (and more taxes for you).

Bonds are another example. Municipal bonds are very tax-efficient because the interest income isn't taxable at the federal level—and it's often tax-exempt at the state and local level, too (munis are sometimes called "triple free" because of this). These bonds are good candidates for taxable accounts because they're already tax efficient.

Treasury bonds and Series I bonds (savings bonds) are also tax-efficient because they're exempt from state and local income taxes. But corporate bonds don't have any tax-free provisions—and, as such, are better off in tax-advantaged accounts.

Investments that distribute high levels of short-term capital gains are better off in a tax-advantaged account.

Here's a rundown of where tax-conscious investors might put their money:

Taxable Accounts (e.g., brokerage accounts) Tax-Advantaged Accounts (e.g., IRAs and 401(k)s)
Individual stocks you plan to hold for at least a year Individual stocks you plan to hold for less than a year
Tax-managed stock funds, index funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), low-turnover stock funds Actively managed stock funds that generate substantial short-term capital gains
Qualified dividend-paying stocks and mutual funds  Taxable bond funds, inflation protected bonds, zero-coupon bonds, and high-yield bond funds
Series I bonds, municipal bond funds Real estate investment trusts (REITs)

Many investors have both taxable and tax-advantaged accounts so they can enjoy the benefits each account type offers. Of course, if all your investment money is in just one type of account, be sure to focus on investment selection and asset allocation.

The Bottom Line

One of the core principles of investing—whether it's to save for retirement or to generate cash—is to minimize taxes. A good strategy to minimize taxes is to hold tax-efficient investments in taxable accounts and less tax-efficient investments in tax-advantaged accounts. That should give your accounts the best opportunity to grow over time.

Of course, even if it's better to keep an investment in a tax-advantaged account, there may be instances when you need to prioritize some other factor over taxes. A corporate bond, for example, may be better suited for your IRA, but you may decide to hold it in your brokerage account to maintain liquidity. Moreover, since tax-advantaged accounts have strict contribution limits, you may have to hold certain investments in taxable accounts, even if they'd be better off in your IRA or 401(k).

Always consult with a qualified investment planner, financial advisor, or tax specialist who can help you choose the best tax strategy for your situation and goals.