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What's Tax Loss Harvesting?

Andrew Goldman

Andrew Goldman has been writing for over 20 years and investing for the past 10 years. He currently writes about personal finance and investing for Wealthsimple. Andrew's past work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Magazine and Wired. Television appearances include NBC's Today show as well as Fox News. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Arts (English) from the University of Texas. He and his wife Robin live in Westport, Connecticut with their two boys and a Bedlington terrier. In his spare time, he hosts “The Originals" podcast.

Tax-loss harvesting is one of those tricky concepts that might seems insane at first but could end up saving you a ton of money.

What is tax loss harvesting?

The idea of tax loss harvesting is to purposely sell investments that have gone down in value so that you lose money. The reason? To save money on taxes! You might be wondering why you’d do that. After all, an investment that had decreased in value might rebound, but since you sold it—you’re going to miss out. It’s important to remember that tax-loss harvesting is a two-step process. The first step is to sell losing investments. The second step is to buy a similar investment. That second step makes it likely that if the market for the old investment goes back up, you’ll still reap the rewards with your new investment.

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Tax loss harvesting example

If you invested $5,000 in an energy stock last year but today it's worth $4,000. Fret not, you can sell the investment, buy another and claim the $1,000 loss against any capital gains you make. There's one caveat though. Rather than invest in the exact same energy stock, you might have to invest in an energy ETF.

When you practice tax loss harvesting, you can't sell and buy the exact same investment. That's cheating! Buying a different investment in the same sector is one way of having some skin in the game. There are other workarounds too, but they're better done algorithimicly by a computer. So if you've never heard of automated investing that conveniently comes with tax loss harvesting, now might be a good time to check it out.

Pros of tax loss harvesting

Aside from saving on your tax bill, tax-loss harvesting can increase your gains through the magic of compounding. That's because making a loss comes with a trump card you don’t necessarily need to play right away. It's possible to hold off on the loss you've made and put it towards past or future tax years. It’s like a nice, interest-free loan from the government.

Is there anything to be careful about?

Tax loss harvesting is not possible in retirement accounts. These accounts are already taxed advantaged so you can't benefit from further tax reductions. As we mentioned earlier, you can't buy and sell the exact same investments and tax loss harvesting can be a little complicated if you choose to do it yourself. Since everyone's situation is unique, it's wise to consult a tax professional, financial advisor or have a robo-advisor do the tax loss harvesting for you.

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Last Updated June 20, 2019

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