Skip to main content

Everyone wants to pay less taxes, right?

We're all investing for specific goals. What we want to achieve varies from one investor to another, but we can likely all agree we want more of our returns going toward our goals—and less to the IRS.

Not sure where to start? Consider these questions:

  • Which investments should I choose?
  • Where should I hold my investments?
  • When should I sell shares?
  • How can I make the most of my charitable giving?
  • What order should I withdraw in?

View a few quick tips to get you heading down a more tax-efficient path. Or dive deeper with 6 of my favorite strategies for lowering investment taxes.

Snapshot of key strategies

Play Video

1. Consider tax‑efficient funds

In picking investments for your portfolio, there are a number of factors to think about. When it comes to your nonretirement accounts, two crucial considerations are investment return and tax efficiency.

Your ultimate goal for your portolio should be to maximize after-tax return. Choosing investments with built-in tax efficiencies, such as index funds—mutual funds and ETFs (exchange-traded funds)—is one way you can minimize returns lost to taxes.

ETFs offer an additional tax advantage. The way transactions are settled allows the ETF to potentially avoid triggering capital gains.

Because ETFs offer the best of both worlds—low costs and tax efficiency—I often use them as a foundation for some clients' portfolios.

Note: Index mutual funds track a benchmark, so their goal is to match the benchmark's performance. If you're looking to outperform a benchmark, these investments may not be what you're looking for.

2. Weigh using funds managed for tax savings

Some of the clients that I work with may be looking for special tax-saving strategies. When I build those clients' portfolios, I might choose funds that are managed to add an extra layer of tax efficiency.

If a client prefers to invest in active funds, I can include tax-managed stock funds in their portfolio. These funds use strategies designed to lower the tax burden for investors compared with other stock funds.* Because of this extra layer of tax management, however, tax-managed funds are also usually more expensive than comparable stock funds.

For those clients in higher tax brackets, we may consider investing in tax-exempt bond funds, which pay lower interest rates but maximize after-tax returns.**

When I work with my clients, I build tactics for tax‑efficient asset location into their custom financial plan, so they're able to keep more of their returns.

3. Divide assets among accounts

Picking tax‑efficient investments is one method to maximize after-tax returns, but you also want to choose the right types of accounts to hold your investments.

At the highest level, asset location is a way to minimize taxes by dividing your assets among taxable and nontaxable accounts. So you put investments that aren't tax‑efficient in accounts where you can defer taxes, and you hold tax‑efficient investments in taxable accounts.

When I work with my clients, I build tactics for tax‑efficient asset location into their custom financial plan, so they're able to keep more of their returns.

Taking advantage of tax‑efficient asset location

Asset location is a way to minimize taxes by dividing your assets among different types of accounts. Here's what that could look like:

Taxable accounts should hold tax‑efficient assets like:

  • Index mutual funds
  • Index ETFs
  • Tax-exempt bonds
  • Stocks

Nontaxable accounts should hold less tax‑efficient assets like:

  • Actively managed mutual funds
  • Taxable bonds

Ready to start getting better control of your taxes?

Our advisors are here to help you.

4. Look for opportunities to offset gains

As an investor, you're only taxed on net capital gains—the amount you gained minus any investment losses—so any realized losses can help lower your tax bill. Therefore, if you know you're going to have realized gains, it may make sense to look for opportunities to realize losses to offset them.

For example, if you have shares of funds or stocks that have lost value since you purchased them, you may want to consider selling them.

This intentional selling of investments at a loss to lower taxes is known as tax-loss harvesting.***

If you have a year when your capital losses are greater than your capital gains, you can use up to $3,000 of net losses a year to offset ordinary income on your federal income taxes. You can also "carry forward" losses to future tax years. As with any tax-related topic, tax-loss harvesting has rules and restrictions you should be aware of before using this method. A Vanguard advisor may be able to help you.

5. Optimize your withdrawal order

When you start taking money out of your portfolio, make sure your withdrawal strategy factors in taxes.

Once you start drawing down from your nonretirement accounts, think about taking all distributions from those accounts in cash, rather than reinvesting them, so you don't end up paying taxes twice. A strategy like this is one way I make sure my clients are keeping as much money in their pockets as possible.

How can I optimize my withdrawals?

This chart helps answer the question: How can I optimize my withdrawals? The first step for most investors is to take RMDs (if you're required to do so). After that you would withdraw from taxable accounts—nonretirement accounts and joint or individual brokerage accounts. To decide which accounts to withdraw from next you'll need to answer this question: Do you expect your future tax rate to be higher? If your answer is yes, you'll want to withdraw next from tax-deferred accounts, such as traditional IRAs and 401(k)s, and then last from your tax-free accounts—Roth IRAs and 401(k)s. If your answer is no, meaning you expect your future tax rate to be lower, you would reverse that order, withdrawing from tax-free accounts and then from tax-deferred accounts.

Note: This chart is meant to provide general guidance. You should discuss your individual situation with your tax advisor.

6. Make the most of your giving

If philanthropy is part of your “money purpose,” you can give in a way that can help lower your taxes.

Consider these strategies to make the most of your giving:

  • Itemize cash donations on your return to take advantage of tax deductions, up to certain limits.
  • Gift appreciated securities, such as mutual funds, ETFs, or individual stocks to minimize future capital gains. (Not all charities can accept donations of investments, so I often advise my clients to donate through a donor-advised fund, which makes it easy.)
  • Donate up to $100,000 annually from your IRA directly to a qualified charity through a qualified charitable distribution. (As long as certain rules are met, such as you're at least 70½ when making the gift, and the check is payable directly to the qualified charity, the distribution isn't reported as taxable income.)

*It is possible that the funds will not meet their objective of being tax‑efficient.

**Although the income from municipal bonds held by a fund is exempt from federal tax, you may owe taxes on any capital gains realized through the fund's trading or through your own redemption of shares. For some investors, a portion of the fund's income may be subject to state and local taxes, as well as to the federal Alternative Minimum Tax.

***Tax-loss harvesting involves certain risks, including, among others, the risk that the new investment could perform worse than the original investment, that transaction costs could offset the tax, and that the tax write-off could be disallowed. There may also be unintended tax implications. We recommend you consult a tax advisor before taking action.

Jessica McBride portrait

Jessica McBride

Jessica is a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) professional and a Certified Trust and Financial Advisor with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services®. She joined Vanguard in 2005 and has provided financial planning and investment advice to clients since 2013. Her areas of interest include building client relationships, cash-flow management, retirement, and tax and estate planning. She earned a B.A. from Ramapo College of New Jersey and an M.B.A from the University of Phoenix.

When Jessica's not working with clients on their retirement goals or estate plan, she's spending time with her husband and son. She also enjoys strength training and attending the theater.

Want to build tax-smart strategies into your plan?

Working with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services gives you anytime access to advisors who are fiduciaries—always acting in your best interests. You'll also receive a custom financial plan with built-in strategies to help minimize your tax burden.

Learn about advice

Your goals are our goals.

We're by your side to help you feel confident about your future.

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

When taking withdrawals from an IRA before age 59½, you may have to pay ordinary income tax plus a 10% federal penalty tax.

We recommend that you consult a tax or financial advisor about your individual situation.

Advice services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc., a registered investment advisor, or by Vanguard National Trust Company, a federally chartered, limited-purpose trust company.

The services provided to clients who elect to receive ongoing advice will vary based upon the amount of assets in a portfolio. Please review the Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Brochure for important details about the service, including its asset-based service levels and fee breakpoints.

Research our investment professionals with FINRA's BrokerCheck.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and Certified Financial Planner™ in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.