How to Invest in a Taxable Account

I recently wrote about how to invest in a Roth IRA and in your employer’s retirement plan. But what about a plain old taxable account? Here are some options to consider:

Use it for short term goals. One of the advantages of a taxable account is that you don’t need to worry about any tax penalties on withdrawals. For that reason, it probably makes the most sense to use a taxable account for goals other than retirement and education like an emergency fund, a vacation, or a down payment on a car or home. In that case, you don’t want to take risk so cash is king. To maximize the interest you earn, you can search for high-yielding rewards checking accounts, online savings accounts, and CDs on sites like Deposit Accounts and Bankrate.

Keep it simple for retirement. Just like in a 401(k) or IRA, you can simplify your retirement investing as much as possible with a target date fund that’s fully diversified and automatically becomes more conservative as you get closer to the target retirement date. There are a couple of differences in a taxable account though. The bad news is that you’ll be paying taxes on it each year so you want a fund that doesn’t trade as often. The good news is that you’re not limited to the options in an employer’s plan so you can choose target date funds with low turnover (how often the fund trades and hence generates taxes) like ones composed of passive index funds.

Invest more conservatively for early retirement. If you plan to retire early, a taxable account can be used for income until you’re no longer subject to penalties in your other retirement accounts or to generate less taxable income so you can qualify for bigger subsidies if you plan to purchase health insurance through the Affordable Care Act before qualifying for Medicare at age 65. In either case, you’ll want to invest more conservatively than with your other investments since this money will be used first and possibly depleted over a relatively short period of time. Consider a conservative balanced fund or make your own conservative mix using US savings bonds (which are tax-deferred and don’t fluctuate in value like other bonds do) or tax-free municipal bonds instead of taxable bonds if you’re in a high tax bracket.

Make your overall retirement portfolio more tax-efficient. You can also use a taxable account to complement your other retirement accounts by holding those investments that are most tax-efficient, meaning they lose the least percentage of earnings to taxes. Your best bets here are stocks and stock funds since the gains are taxed at a capital gains rate that’s lower than your ordinary income tax rate as long as you hold them for more than a year. In addition, the volatility of stocks can also be your friend since you can use losses to offset other taxes (as long as you don’t repurchase the same or an identical investment 30 days before or after you sell it). When you pass away, there’s also no tax on the stocks’ gain over your lifetime when your heirs sell them.

In particular, consider individual stocks (which give you the most control over taxes) and stock funds with low turnover like index funds and tax-managed funds. Foreign stocks and funds in taxable accounts are also eligible for a foreign tax credit for any taxes paid to foreign governments. That’s not available when they’re in tax-sheltered accounts so you may want to prioritize them in taxable accounts over US stocks.

For retirement, you’ll probably want to max out any tax-advantaged accounts you’re eligible for first. But if you’re fortunate enough to still have extra savings, there are ways to make the best use of a taxable account. Like all financial decisions, it all depends on your individual situation and goals.

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