Government bureaucrats -- better known as the IRS -- are after your money. They want to skim some of your funds coming (buying) and going (selling). The more you make, the more they take. So it goes.
Don't let that get you down, though -- there are ways to keep your hard-earned money out of their pockets. I should be clear: I'm not suggesting that you cheat on your taxes. Rather, you can and should limit how much you actually have to pay Uncle Sam.
Different investment vehicles
There is a certain hierarchy to investment vehicles based on their tax-minimizing potential. To take advantage of that tax-saving potential, you need to understand that hierarchy.
Start with your company-matched 401(k). The money your employer matches is 100% free. And even better, your contributions (as well as the matching funds) are not included in your taxable income. You don't pay taxes on this money until you retire, so the full amount can grow happily for years to come.
Next, use a Roth IRA. There are certain qualifications to open this type of plan -- your adjusted gross income must be less than $95,000 for single filers and $150,000 for joint filers to open a Roth IRA, and your ability to contribute phases out from there. But if you can do it, you should. Here's how it works: You contribute after-tax dollars now, and when you retire, your withdrawals are tax-free. Our golden years will most likely cause a leap in our income tax bracket, so this will help ensure some significant tax savings later.
Next on the list is the employer plan without a match. Now, there's no free money in this case, but your contributions are pre-tax.
Last in the hierarchy of tax savings is the traditional IRA. Contributions to this plan are tax-deferred -- you're taxed when you withdraw the funds.
It's important to know which vehicles your investments should be riding in, but you should also know that there are ways you can invest in your regular accounts that will keep a lot of your money away from Uncle Sam's grubby hands.
Introducing municipal bonds and bond funds
If you buy bonds issued by municipalities in your home state, you're sheltered from some federal, state, and local taxes (which is the biggest reason why the wealthy favor these investments). Keep in mind, however, that some of the payouts from "muni bonds" are subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Even some municipal bond funds are subject to the AMT, so look for funds with "tax-free" or "tax-exempt" in their names.
If municipal bonds and funds are too complicated for you to keep track of, or if you just plain want better returns than they usually afford, take a look at tax-managed funds -- funds that typically keep half their portfolio in equities and the other half in fixed-income investments.
Tax-managed funds are ideal for money that is not in a 401(k) or IRA. They use a variety of strategies to maximize after-tax returns by focusing on long-term share price appreciation (which is not taxed until you sell) and qualifying dividends taxed at lower rates. So instead of being taxed twice (on capital gains and distributions), you're only taxed once.
Saving tax money with exciting returns
Eaton Vance Tax-Managed Growth (EXTGX) uses companies like Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN ) , BP (NYSE: BP ) , PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP ) , and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) to build up its portfolio. This fund even states in its prospectus that its objective is to "seek long-term, after-tax returns by investing in a diversified portfolio of equity securities." With a three-year return after taxes of almost 13%, I'd say that's a sound way to save money on the distribution and capital gains taxes.
Vanguard Tax-Managed Balanced fund (FUND: VTMFX ) is No. 1 in its category for 10-year annualized returns. The fund bases its 7.15% per year after-tax return on the success of solid companies like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) -- the fund's two largest holdings, making up nearly 3% of all net assets -- along with tax-advantageous muni bonds. And with an expense ratio at an incredibly low 0.12%, you could save yourself a lot of money.
Foolish bottom line
There's less than a month left till tax time, and while we all might be tempted to lie, cheat, or steal from Uncle Sam, there's simply no need. (For most of us, at least.) You can legally reduce how much you pay out to the government.
What to do with those savings is another matter. For more tax-time strategies, as well as comprehensive ideas on how to invest your savings, take a free one-month guest pass to the Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. Advisor Robert Brokamp walks you through tax implications, investment strategies, and community discussions to show you the best way to retire well and sooner than you expected, all while keeping the maximum amount you can in your own pocket. (Click here to learn more.)
When it comes to your money, it's better to stick it to Sam. With a few actionable tax strategies, you can do it legally.
Fool research analyst Shruti Basavaraj owns no shares of any company mentioned above. This article was enhanced by the invaluable research assistance of Joey Khattab. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy does not advocate stealing.