In case you somehow missed the memo, our economy is stuck in a recession, and things could stay that way until there's a widely available vaccine or treatment to target COVID-19. What that really means is that the U.S. unemployment rate is likely to stay high for the rest of the year, and that the stock market could be pretty volatile between now and when 2020 wraps up.
At a time like this, it's especially crucial to be tax-savvy, and the right moves on your part could lower your IRS burden and put more money in your pocket, where you want it to be. With that in mind, here are three important tax tips to keep in mind.
1. Take advantage of losing investments
Stock values can fluctuate during periods of economic prosperity, but during a recession, they can swing even more wildly. If you have stocks in your portfolio that have lost value, but you suspect they won't recover easily, you may want to sell them while they're down for one big reason: You can use your loss to offset gains.
Normally, it's a good idea to leave your portfolio alone when it's down to avoid permanent losses. The exception, however, is when you own stocks you're convinced won't make a comeback. If that's the case, and you do sell at a loss, you can use that loss to offset capital gains taxes you'll be charged on investments you sell at a profit. And if your total loss for the year exceeds your gains, you can then use it to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income for the year, and then carry your remaining loss over to the next tax year.
2. Be careful with short-term capital gains
Periods of stock market volatility can open the door to investing opportunities. That's precisely what's already happened this year, when stock values plunged sharply in March. Back then, it was easy to scoop up quality investments at a discount -- but be careful if you're planning to sell some of those stocks now and reap some gains.
Short-term capital gains, which apply to investments you've held for a year or less, are taxed at a much higher rate than long-term capital gains, which apply to investments held for at least a year and a day. Specifically, you'll pay the same tax rate on short-term gains as you will for ordinary income, and that, in turn, could create a major tax hassle when you go to file your 2020 return.
Now in some cases, short-term gains are unavoidable. For example, if you have a stock that's up now from earlier in the year but you're convinced it's headed for disaster, holding it much longer could result in losses. The key, however, is to be mindful of short-term capital gains and avoid them if possible.
3. Use tax-advantaged accounts wisely
The benefit of investing in a traditional brokerage account is getting to access your money when you want it. But there's no tax benefit to using one of these accounts. On the other hand, if you invest in an IRA or 401(k) plan, you'll have an opportunity to reap the many tax benefits that come with using these accounts.
Traditional IRA and 401(k) contributions, for example, get to go in with tax-free dollars, and investment gains are tax-deferred. Roth IRAs and 401(k)s, meanwhile, offer tax-free gains and tax-free withdrawals. The only catch is that you'll need to wait until you're at least 59 ½ to take distributions from one of these accounts, but if you're looking to lower your near-term tax burden, they're a good way to go.
The more strategic you are in the coming months, the better prepared you'll be to get through our current recession. Think about the different ways you can lower your taxes as the country grapples with a health and economic crisis unlike any we've ever experienced.