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Understanding the tax implications of stock trading

April 6, 2021  • 4 min read

What we'll cover

  • An overview of tax terminology you need to know

  • The differences between short and long-term capital gains taxes

  • Trading strategies that may lower your tax liability and how to manage your trading taxes

Whether you mapped out an investment strategy for months or certain stock news quickly piqued your interest in the market, you might not have given much thought to your taxes. Read on to learn how investment returns can impact your tax return.

Taxes on stocks

Investing in and trading stocks can be a great tool for building wealth. But like the income from your 9 to 5, the money you make is taxable.

Know your tax terminology

Before we dive into tax rate specifics, let’s cover some basic, need-to-know terms.

Cost basis: Amount you originally paid for a security plus commissions, which serves as a baseline for determining gains or losses.

Capital gains: Profit generated by selling a security for more money than you paid for it (or buying a security for less money than received when selling it short).

Capital losses: Loss that occurs when you sell a security for less than you paid for it (or buy a security for more money than received when selling it short).

Dividend: Portion of a company’s earnings paid to eligible stock owners on a per share basis.

Dividend taxes

When you own dividend-paying stocks, you might receive a payment a few times a year. That money is usually taxable, though the rate varies depending whether it’s a qualified or nonqualified (a.k.a. ordinary) dividend.

The tax rate on qualified dividends is 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on your tax bracket. The higher your ordinary income tax, the more taxes you’ll pay. Ordinary dividends are taxed at your normal income tax rate.

If you reinvest dividends through a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP), you have to pay taxes as though you received the cash. If your DRIP allows you to purchase additional shares at a discounted price, you’ll be taxed the difference between the reinvested cash and the fair market value of the stock.

If you receive dividends in the form of additional stock, they’re typically not taxable until you sell the shares.

Capital gains tax rates

Profit made on a stock you owned for a year or less before selling is taxed at the short-term capital gains rate, which is the same as your usual tax bracket.

Returns made on a stock you owned for longer than a year are subject to the long-term capital gains tax rate: 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on your ordinary income.

Image titled short vs. Long-term capital gains taxes depicting how the length of time you hold a stock before selling for a profit can make a big difference. For a single filer with an income of $55,000 per year and $5,000 in capital gains in 2020 would be taxed at 22% ($1,100) for short-term capital gains vs. at 15% ($750) for long-term capital gains. A someone filing married, filing jointly with a joint income of $350,000 and $30,000 in capital gains in 2020 would be taxed at 32% ($9,600) for short-term capital gains and at 15% ($4,500) for long-term capital gains.

Tax rates shown here are for illustrative purposes only.  Actual tax rates may vary based on your personal circumstances.

Stock trading tax considerations

Certain trading strategies may lower your tax liability:

Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting involves selling securities at a loss to lower your capital gains tax liability. The IRS allows you to deduct up to $3,000 in realized losses (or $1,500 if you’re married filing separately) to offset capital gains tax or taxes owed on ordinary income.

Pro Tip: Beware of wash sales. Wash sales occur when you trade or sell a stock for a loss and buy the same security or a “substantially identical” security within 30 days before or after the trade. If you re-buy the security within 30 days, the IRS’s wash-sale rule prevents you from deducting it as a capital loss.

Holding stocks long-term

In general, if you hold a stock for longer than a year, you’ll pay a lower tax rate when you sell: the long-term capital gains rate.

Invest in a tax-optimized portfolio

Certain investment accounts, like our tax-optimized Robo Portfolio, can help you maximize your after-tax contributions through tax-advantaged Exchange Traded Funds, or ETFs .

How to manage your trading taxes more efficiently 

The Maxit Tax Manager is an easy way to monitor the tax implications of your trading as the year progresses.

Sign into your  Ally Invest  account and go to Maxit Tax Manager. Your positions held at Ally Invest should be loaded automatically. If you’ve transferred in any from another brokerage, you’ll need to add the cost basis information.

The Tax Manager offers four accounting methods: FIFO, LIFO, MinTax and Versus Purchase. It defaults to FIFO (first in, first out), but you can specify yours.

Maxit adjusts routinely for options exercise and assignment as well as diverse corporate actions. The service even fills out your Schedule D and D1 automatically at year’s end.

Tax ramifications of trading as a business

Compared to individuals, trading businesses can usually write off greater losses, claim broader business-related expenses related and worry less about wash sale rules.

If you meet the following broad criteria, talk with a tax professional about if you should consider establishing your trading as a business:

  • You seek to profit from daily market movements of securities, not just dividends or capital appreciation

  • Your trading is substantial (338+ trades annually)

  • Your trading activity is conducted with continuity and regularity

Declaring yourself a professional trader isn’t as clear-cut as other forms of self-employment. A tax professional can inform you of the rules that apply to your personal situation.

Handle trading taxes like a pro

Filing taxes can be confusing, especially if you have multiple income streams to account for. So, don’t be afraid to consult a tax professional who can ensure you make decisions that are best for you and your trading activity.

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