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How the Wrong IRA Investments Can Cost an Extra 44% in Tax

A guest post today –  Let me introduce you to a simple concept, one that is overlooked by most IRA owners and unfortunately even many financial advisors.  Not all investments are taxed the same way by IRS.  Therefore, if you understand how different investments are taxed, you can use that information to pay the lowest taxes by using the correct investments in your IRA and the correct investments outside of your IRA.

Here are the basics.  Some investments are taxed at 0%.  These would be tax-free bonds and of course you would never place these in your IRA because when distributing them from your IRA, you would pay tax at your full rate, let’s say 30% for the purpose of this post.  The next investment would be individual stocks.  As long as you hold them for more than a year, the dividends you receive and the profit on your appreciation is taxed at 15% (for most taxpayers).  However, if you had that same stock in your IRA, eventually, when you distribute the principal and dividends, you would pay tax at 30%.  Therefore, it is foolish to hold stocks that will qualify for long-term capital gains treatment in your IRA.  It is best to hold that type of investment outside of your IRA to take advantage of the very favorable tax treatment.


Alternatively, it’s likely that many investors buy mutual funds rather than individual stocks.  Let’s assume the mutual fund is a growth mutual fund.  Morningstar reports that the average growth mutual fund has a turnover rate of 100% annually.  This means that the average stock in the fund is held for six months and any profits would not qualify for long-term capital gains treatment (which requires holding a stock for at least six months).  If this mutual fund is held outside of your IRA, you pay your share of tax each year even if you make no withdrawals.  So if the fund is generating the majority of its profits as short-term capital gains, you will pay tax on these at your regular income tax rate.  In other words, if you earn $60,000 a year, and the fund generates $3,000 in short-term gains, that $3,000 is added on top of your income and taxed at the top rate applicable to you.  Again, let’s say this is 30%.  If you will be paying the same rate of tax later when you withdrawal these funds from an IRA, it certainly makes sense to hold such an investment inside an IRA so that you benefit from the years of tax deferred growth.

So let’s summarize so far.  Assets that qualify for long-term capital gains treatment and are taxed for most people at 15% should not be placed in an IRA.  Those investments would typically be individual stocks held for more than a year and index mutual funds which hold their shares on average for four years.  Those investments that should be held in an IRA are those on which you would owe tax at your regular ordinary rates and therefore you gain by the tax-deferral  of an IRA (or tax-free growth in the case of a Roth IRA).

So let’s take a look at the math so you can see the incredible difference by holding the right investments in the right places.  For simplicity, let’s assume your IRA has one investment, shares of IBM.

Initial investment  $50,000
Hypothetical growth rate of shares: 5% annually
Hypothetical Dividend:  3% annually
Investment made at age 40, liquidated at age 70
Taxpayer tax rate during holding period 30%

Held inside an IRA Held Outside an IRA
Value at end of 30 years 216,097 216,097
Dividends Collected 104,641 104,641
Tax paid on Dividends 0 31,392
Tax Paid Upon sale (and withdrawal from IRA) at end of term 81,221 24,915
Total Tax Paid 81,221 56,307

It is quite important to have the right securities inside and outside your IRA based on the way the security is taxed.  Show this post to your financial advisor and if he scratches his head, find another advisor.

Bob Richards is a CPA(inactive) and publisher of the Retirement Blog

  • Dilip Sarwate July 18, 2013, 11:19 pm


    Perhaps you, or Bob Richards, should address the issue of both investments being worth $216,097 at the end of 30 years. The dividends in the non-IRA investment _are_ being taxed on an annual basis, and this tax payment is a drag on the performance of the non-IRA investment. Paying the tax due each year from
    _other_ funds instead from the investment is equivalent to investing that much more into the non-IRA investment being compared to the IRA investment

  • Joe July 19, 2013, 8:49 am

    Hi Dilip (a fellow frequent poster at money.stackexchange) – I’ll ask bob to address this as well. When I proofread the article, I saw he used 5% for the share growth, and separated out the dividend. So the shares held outside the IRA show the $31K paid along the way on the dividends. The way it’s presented is a summary, and helps avoid the 30 line spreadsheet that would otherwise show the transactions each year.

  • cm July 19, 2013, 3:29 pm

    “t certainly makes sense to hold such an investment inside an IRA so that you benefit from the years of tax deferred growth.”

    Isn’t the benefit of “years of tax deferred growth” simply that you are likely to be in a lower tax bracket when you are in retirement? Because, whether you grow-tax deferred and are taxed at distribution time, or are taxed each year, the math works out the same, doesn’t it?

    This is a point I see so often but I want to be sure my understanding of it is right. There is no mathematical benefit to tax deferred growth; it is just a likely tax bracket benefit. Correct?

  • Steve July 19, 2013, 3:29 pm

    The lower tax on capital gains is actually (almost) irrelevant. That’s assuming you’re talking about a deductible TIRA or a Roth IRA, and not a nondeductible IRA which is indeed a pretty bad deal.

    The reason is that you defer paying the taxes up front. So if initial investment is $50k, then you either have to do your math that only $35000 (paying 30% tax up front) gets invested, or do your math that the $15k you avoid in taxes with an IRA gets invested in a taxable account.

  • Idi July 22, 2013, 2:38 pm

    Why would the non-IRA amount used to buy the initial IBM shares be $50,000? Shouldn’t it be (like Steve said), $35,000 after the 30% tax is taken out? So the non-IRA starts with $50,000, then pays 30% tax up front, leaving the investor with $35,000 to buy IBM shares. So you end up with only 70% of the IBM shares that the IRA account had at the beginning, and proportionately less in total dividends collected by liquidation time.

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