Two tractors are harvesting wheat in a field.

Offsetting gains through tax-loss harvesting

Even in the storm clouds of investment losses, there's a silver lining.
5 minute read

Points to know

  • You're only taxed on net capital gains, so any realized losses can lower your tax bill.
  • The "tax-loss harvesting" strategy requires a little extra work on your part.

Facing hefty capital gains? Here's a potential solution

When you pay taxes on your realized capital gains for the year, you'll only consider your net gains—the amount you gained minus any investment losses you realized.

This means that if you know you're going to have some realized gains, it may be a good idea to see whether you have any opportunities to realize losses to offset them.

For instance, if you need to rebalance your accounts, you could choose to sell shares of funds or stocks that have lost value since you purchased them.

This method of intentionally selling investments at a loss in order to lower taxes is known as "tax-loss harvesting."*

If your losses are greater than your gains

A year when your realized losses outweigh your gains is never fun, but you'll make up for a little of the pain at tax time. Up to $3,000 in net losses can be used to offset your ordinary income (including income from dividends or interest).

Note that you can also "carry forward" losses to future tax years.

Watch out for the "wash sale rule"

The IRS won't allow you to sell an investment at a loss and then immediately repurchase it (known as a "wash sale") and still claim the loss.

If you buy the same investment or any investment the IRS considers "substantially identical" within 30 days before or after you sold at a loss, the loss will be disallowed. If you need guidance on whether an investment would be considered substantially identical, consult a tax advisor.


Want to keep tax-loss harvesting as an option?

To use tax-loss harvesting as a strategy, you must identify specific lots of shares to sell. And since your investment company reports information on your gains and losses on covered securities to the IRS,** it's important that everyone's on the same page about which shares are being sold.

This means you'll need to use the "specific identification" cost basis method when you sell shares. It's more work for you, but results in greater flexibility to offset taxes.

Find out more about the "specific identification" cost basis method

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*Tax-loss harvesting involves certain risks, including, among others, the risk that the new investment could have higher costs than the original investment and could introduce portfolio tracking error into your accounts. There may also be unintended tax implications. We recommend that you carefully review the terms of the consent and consult a tax advisor before taking action. 

**Information about shares purchased before certain dates won't be reported. Learn more about covered & noncovered shares

Neither Vanguard nor its financial advisors provide tax and/or legal advice. This information is general and educational in nature and should not be considered tax and/or legal advice. We recommend you consult a tax and/or legal adviser about your individual situation.

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

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The services provided to clients will vary based upon the service selected, including management, fees, eligibility, and access to an advisor. Find VAI's Form CRS and each program's advisory brochure here for an overview.

VAI and VNTC are subsidiaries of The Vanguard Group, Inc., and affiliates of Vanguard Marketing Corporation. Neither VAI, VNTC, nor its affiliates guarantee profits or protection from losses.