Income Tax vs. Capital Gains Tax: What’s the Difference?

Knowing the difference can help you save money at tax time

Income tax is paid on earnings from employment, interest, dividends, royalties, or self-employment, whether it’s in the form of services, money, or property. Capital gains tax is paid on income that derives from the sale or exchange of an asset, such as a stock or property that’s categorized as a capital asset.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. tax system is progressive, with rates ranging from 10% to 37% of a filer’s yearly income. Rates rise as income rises.
  • For tax purposes, short-term capital gains are treated as ordinary income on assets held for one year or less.
  • Long-term capital gains are given preferential tax rates of 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your income level.

Income Tax

Your income tax percentage is variable based on your specific tax bracket, and this is dependent on how much income you make throughout the entire calendar year. Tax brackets also vary depending upon whether you file as an individual or jointly with a spouse. For 2020, federal income tax percentages range from 10% to 37% of a person’s taxable yearly income after deductions.

The U.S. has a progressive tax system. Lower-income individuals are taxed at lower rates than higher-income taxpayers on the presumption that those with higher incomes have a greater ability to pay more.

However, the progressive system is marginal. Segments of income are taxed at different rates. The rates for a single filer in 2020, for example, are as follows:

  • 10% on income up to $9,875
  • 12% on income over $9,875
  • 22% on income over $40,125
  • 24% on income over $85,525
  • 32% on income over $163,300
  • 35% on income over $207,350
  • 37% on income over $518,400

Thresholds are slightly higher for 2021:

  • 10% on income up to $9,950
  • 12% on income over $9,950
  • 22% on income over $40,525
  • 24% on income over $86,375
  • 32% on income over $164,925
  • 35% on income over $209,425
  • 37% on income over $523,600

Capital Gains Tax

Capital gains tax rates depend on how long the seller owned or held the asset. Short-term capital gains, for assets held for less than a year, are taxed at ordinary income rates. However, if you held an asset for more than a year, then more preferential long-term capital gains apply. These rates are 0%, 15%, or 20%—depending on your income level.

For 2020, a single filer pays 0% on long-term capital gains if that person’s income is $40,000 or less. The rate is 15% if the person’s income falls under $441,450 and 20% if it is over that amount.

For 2021, the thresholds are slightly higher: You pay 0% on long-term capital gains if you have income of $40,400 or less; 15% if you have income of $445,850 or less; and 20% if your income is greater than $445,850.

An individual must pay taxes at the short-term capital gains rate, which is the same as the ordinary income tax rate, if an asset is held for one year or less.

How to Calculate a Capital Gain

The amount of a capital gain is arrived at by determining your cost basis in the asset. If you purchase a property for $10,000, for example, and spend $1,000 on improvements, then your basis is $11,000. If you then sold the asset for $20,000, your gain is $9,000 ($20,000 minus $11,000).

Income Tax vs. Capital Gains Tax Example

Joe Taxpayer earned $35,000 in 2020. He pays 10% on the first $9,875 income and 12% on the income that comes after that. His total tax liability is $4,003.

If Joe sells an asset that produced a short-term capital gain of $1,000, then his tax liability rises by another $120 (i.e., 12% x $1,000). However, if Joe waits one year and a day to sell, then he pays 0% on the capital gain.

Advisor Insight

Donald P. Gould
Gould Asset Management, Claremont, Calif.

The IRS separates taxable income into two main categories: “ordinary income” and “realized capital gain.” Ordinary income includes earned wages, rental income, and interest income on loans, CDs, and bonds (except for municipal bonds). A realized capital gain is the money from the sale of a capital asset (stock, real estate) at a price higher than the one you paid for it. If your asset goes up in price but you do not sell it, you have not “realized” your capital gain and therefore owe no tax.

The most important thing to understand is that long-term realized capital gains are subject to a substantially lower tax rate than ordinary income. This means that investors have a big incentive to hold appreciated assets for at least a year and a day, qualifying them as long-term and for the preferential rate.

Article Sources

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  2. Internal Revenue Service. “Topic No. 409 Capital Gains and Losses.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Rev. Proc. 2019-44,” Page 8. Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. “Understanding Taxes.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2021.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. “Rev. Proc. 2019-44,” Pages 6–7. Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. “Rev. Proc. 2020-45,” Pages 6–7. Accessed Jan. 11, 2021.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Rev. Proc. 2020-45." Page 8. Accessed Jan. 11, 2021.

  8. Internal Revenue Service. “Topic No. 703 Basis of Assets.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.