To quote Margaret Mitchell: “Death, taxes, and childbirth…there’s never a convenient time for any of them.”
And because taxes are so inconvenient, it seems like people go out of their way to spend as little time thinking about them as possible. Unfortunately, that means ignoring some elements of their portfolio that could be costing them money. These are three of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to taxes and investments:
1) Mutual fund inefficiency
Most people understand capital gains and the tax bill that you can create for yourself when you sell stock in an after-tax account. If you bought a share of stock for $20, then sell it 10 years later after it’s grown to $50, you’re going to be taxed on that $30 gain.
But most people seem to forget about the tax implications of mutual funds. If you own shares of a mutual fund, and you hold those shares for that same 10-year period without selling, you’re still going to incur a tax bill every year.
Because within that mutual fund, there are stocks or bonds constantly being bought and sold by the fund managers. And every time they sell something, you’re going to have to pay your share of the taxes on those gains that were created.
The thing I hate about this is the lack of control that you, the individual investor, have over the situation. If you own stocks, you can take the tax implications into account whenever you choose to buy or sell. If you’re going to create a gain that’s bigger than you want, you either don’t make the sale, or you sell something else at a loss to offset the gain. You’re in control.
But you don’t have that same control with the mutual fund. You can hold onto those fund shares indefinitely, but still be taxed every year.
Does that mean that you should never, ever own mutual funds in an after-tax account? No. But it does mean that you need to be aware of the tax inefficiencies and lack of control that you’ll experience. Most of the time, there’s a better way to invest those dollars.
2) Conservatively-invested Roth IRAs
With the majority of my clients, I like to have Roth IRAs invested aggressively. In most cases, their Roth is the most aggressive piece of their entire portfolio.
Let’s think about the whole point of a Roth IRA. The point is for you to contribute after-tax dollars, then let those dollars grow tax-free.
So if you invest $50,000 in your Roth (let’s say $5000/yr for 10 years) and then it grows to $150,000 before you get around to needing it, that’s $100,000 of growth that you don’t have to pay any taxes on. That’s a sweet deal.
But way too often, I’ll see people with a Roth that they opened years ago at the bank or credit union. They’ve faithfully contributed to it every year. Let’s assume that they contributed that same $5,000/yr that we just referenced earlier. But because it’s sitting in a bank product earning 1%, it hasn’t really grown. So instead of turning $50,000 into a tax-free $150,000, we’ve turned it into a tax-free $57,000.
Not too impressive.
And not the best use of this fantastic vehicle that allows us to grow our money on a tax-free basis. Generally speaking, Roth IRAs should be invested with a long timeline, which is going to mean higher risk, but higher growth potential in the long run.
3) Municipal bonds in an IRA
Municipal bonds often go by a different name. They’re often called “tax-free bonds.” That’s because the interest income is immune from federal taxes.
So why would anyone invest in those stinky old corporate bonds where you have to pay taxes on the interest income? Well, the municipalities issuing bonds know that you’re not being taxed on their interest, so they know that they can get away with paying a lower interest rate.
So if you were comparing a corporate bond (let’s say Coca-Cola) and a municipal bond (let’s say Des Moines, Iowa), you’d have to take the tax-implications into consideration.
Let’s say the Coca-Cola bond pays 4%. If that’s the case, then there’s a good chance that the Des Moines bond pays 3%.
If you’re in a 25% tax bracket, these two bonds are essentially equivalent for you.
The Coke bond pays 4%, but you’re going to lose 25% of that to taxes. So, that’s a net income of 3%.
The Des Moines bond pays 3%, but it’s tax-free. Net income of 3%.
So, it’s a wash.
But the problem is that I sometimes see people with municipal bonds inside of an IRA. That doesn’t make much sense. You’re accepting a lower interest rate in order to get something with a tax-free status, but then you parked the investment in an IRA where all of the interest is tax-deferred anyway. So you just cost yourself an extra 1% return for no reason.
So take a look at your account statements. If you have mutual funds in an after-tax account, money market funds in a Roth IRA, or municipal bonds in a traditional IRA, you should probably ask yourself why. If there’s not a good reason, it’s probably something worth fixing.