What Is Compliance Testing for 401k?

What Is Compliance Testing for 401(k)?

To maintain the tax-advantages of a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan, employers must follow the rules established by the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, including nondiscrimination testing.

401(k) compliance testing ensures that companies administer their 401(k) plans in a fair and equal manner that benefits all employees, rather than just executives and owners. In other words, a 401(k) plan can’t favor one group of employees over another.

Companies must test their plans yearly and address any compliance flaws surfaced by the tests. Often a third-party plan administrator or recordkeeper helps plan sponsors carry out the tests.

Understanding nondiscrimination tests for retirement plans is important both as an employer and as an employee.

401(k) Compliance Testing Explained

Compliance testing is a process that determines whether a company is fairly administering its 401(k) plan under ERISA rules. ERISA mandates nondiscrimination testing for retirement plans to demonstrate that they don’t favor highly compensated employees or key employees, such as company owners. 401(k) compliance testing is the responsibility of the company that offers the plan.

How 401(k) Compliance Testing Works

Companies apply three different compliance tests to the plan each year. These tests look at how much income employees defer into the plan, how much the employer 401(k) match adds up to, and what percentage of assets in the plan belong to key employees and highly compensated employees versus what belongs to non-highly compensated employees.

There are three nondiscrimination testing standards employers must apply to qualified retirement plans.

•   The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) Test: Analyzes how much income employees defer into the plan

•   The Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP): Analyzes employers contributions to the plan on behalf of employees

•   Top-Heavy Test: Anayzes how participation by key employees compares to participation by other employees

The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) Test

The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) test counts elective deferrals of highly compensated employees and non-highly compensated employees. This includes both pre-tax and Roth deferrals but not catch-up contributions made to the plan. This 401(k) compliance testing measures engagement in the plan based on how much of their salary each group defers into it on a yearly basis.

To run the test, employers average the deferral percentages of both highly compensated employees and non-highly compensated employees to determine the ADP for each group. Then the employer divides each plan participant’s elective deferrals by their compensation to get their Actual Deferral Ratio (ADR). The average ADR for all eligible employees of each group represents the ADP for that group.

A company passes the Actual Deferral Percentage test if the ADP for the eligible highly compensated employees doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the ADP for the group of non-highly compensated employees

OR

•   The lesser of 200% of the ADP for the group of non-highly compensated employees or the ADP for those employees plus 2%

The Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) Test

Plans that make matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k) must also administer the Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) test. Companies calculate this the same way as the ADP test but they substitute each participant’s matching and after-tax contributions for elective deferrals when doing the math.

This test reveals how much the employer contributes to each participant’s plan as a percentage, based on their W-2 income. Companies pass the Actual Contribution Percentage test if the ACP for the eligible highly compensated employees doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the ACP for the group of non-highly compensated employees

OR

•   The lesser of 200% of the ACP for the group of non-highly compensated employees or the ACP for those employees plus 2%

Companies may run both the ADP and ACP tests using prior year or current-year contributions.

Top-Heavy Test

The Top-Heavy test targets key employees within an organization who contribute to qualified retirement plans. The IRS defines a key employee as any current, former or deceased employee who at any time during the plan year was:

•   An officer making over $215,000 for 2023 and over $220,000 for 2024

•   A 5% owner of the business OR

•   An employee owning more than 1% of the business and making over $150,000 for the plan year

Anyone who doesn’t fit these standards is a non-key employee. Top-heavy ensures that lower-paid employees receive a minimum benefit if the plan is too top-heavy.

Under IRS rules, a plan is top heavy if on the last day of the prior plan year the total value of plan accounts for key employees is more than 60% of the total value of plan assets. If the plan is top heavy the employer must contribute up to 3% of compensation for all non-key employees still employed on the last day of the plan year. This is designed to bring plan assets back into a fair balance.

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Why 401(k) Compliance Testing Is Necessary

401(k) compliance testing ensures that investing for retirement is as fair as possible for all participants in the plan, and that the plan continues to receive favorable tax treatment from the IRS. The compliance testing rules prevent employers from favoring highly compensated employees or key employees over non-highly compensated employees and non-key employees.

If a company fails a 401(k) compliance test, then they have to remedy that under IRS rules or risk the plan losing its tax-advantaged status. This is a strong incentive to fix any issues with non-compliant plans as it can cost employers valuable tax benefits.

Nondiscrimination testing can help employers determine participation across different groups of their workers. It can also shed light on what employees are deferring each year, in accordance with annual 401k plan contribution limits.

Highly Compensated Employees

The IRS defines highly compensated employees for the purposes of ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Someone is a highly compensated employee if they:

•   Owned more than 5% of the interest in the business at any time during the year or the preceding year, regardless of how much compensation they earned or received,

OR

•   Received compensation from the business of more than $150,000 in 2023 and $155,000 in 2024 or $135,000 (if the preceding is 2022) and was in the top 20% of employees when ranked by compensation

If an employee doesn’t meet at least one of these conditions, they’re considered non-highly compensated. This distinction is important when compliance testing 401(k) plans, as the categorization into can impact ADP and ACP testing outcomes.

Non-Highly Compensated Employees

Non-highly compensated employees are any employees who don’t meet the compensation or ownership tests, as established by the IRS for designated highly compensated employees. So in other words, a non-highly compensated employee would own less than 5% of the interest in the company or have compensation below the guidelines outlined above.

Again, it’s important to understand who is a non-highly compensated employee when applying nondiscrimination tests. Employers who misidentify their employees run the risk of falling out of 401(k) compliance. Likewise, as an employee, it’s important to understand which category you fall into and how that might affect the amount you’re able to contribute and/or receive in matching contributions each year.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening an investment account, know your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. These fundamentals will help keep your strategy on track and with the aim of meeting your goals.

How to Fix a Non-Compliant 401(k)

The IRS offers solutions for employers who determine that their 401(k) is not compliant, based on the results of the ADP, ACP or Top-Heavy tests. When a plan fails the ADP or ACP test, the IRS recommends the following:

•   Refunding contributions made by highly compensated employees in order to bring average contribution rates in alignment with testing standards

•   Making qualified nonelective contributions on behalf of non-highly compensated employees in order to bring their average contributions up in order to pass test

Employers can also choose to do a combination of both to pass both the ADP and ACP tests. In the case of the Top-Heavy test, the employer must make qualified nonelective contributions of up to 3% of compensation for non-highly compensated employees.

Companies can also avoid future noncompliance issues by opting to make safe harbor contributions. Safe harbor plans do not have to conduct ADP and ACP testing, and they can also be exempt from the Top-Heavy test if they’re not profit sharing plans. Under safe harbor rules, employers can do one of the following:

•   Match each eligible employee’s contribution on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to 3% of the employee’s compensation and 50 cents on the dollar for contributions that exceed 3% but not 5% of their compensation.

•   Make a nonelective contribution equal to 3% of compensation to each eligible employee’s account.

Safe harbor rules can relieve some of the burden of yearly 401(k) testing while offering tax benefits to both employers and employees.

The Takeaway

A 401(k) is a key way for employees to help save for retirement and reach their retirement goals. It’s important for employers to conduct IRS-mandated 401(k) compliance testing in order to ensure that their 401(k) plans are administered in a fair and equal manner that benefits all employees.

If you don’t have a 401(k) at work, however, or you’re hoping to supplement your 401(k) savings, you may want to consider opening an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to help save for retirement. Since IRAs are not employer-sponsored, they’re not subject to 401(k) compliance testing, though they do have to follow IRS rules regarding annual contribution limits and distributions.

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FAQ

What is top-heavy testing for 401(k)?

Top-heavy testing for 401(k) plans determine what percentage of plan assets are held by key employees versus non-key employees. If an employer’s plan fails the top-heavy test, they must make qualified, nonelective contributions on behalf of non-key employees in order to bring the plan into compliance.

What happens if you fail 401(k) testing?

If an employer-sponsored plan fails 401(k) compliance testing, the IRS requires the plan to make adjustments in order to become compliant. This can involve refunding contributions made by highly-compensated employees, making qualified nonelective contributions on behalf of non-highly compensated employees or a combination of the two.

What is a highly compensated employee for 401(k) purposes?

The IRS defines a highly compensated employee using two tests based on compensation and company ownership. An employee is highly compensated if they have a 5% or more ownership interest in the business or their income exceeds a specific limit for the year. Income limits are set by the IRS and updated periodically.


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INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE

SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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How Do You Cash Out Stocks? Guide to Selling Stocks

Buying stocks can be fairly straightforward, whether online or through a financial advisor. But, when it’s time to sell shares, some beginning investors struggle with how to turn their stocks back into cash. After all, money invested in stocks is not immediately cash.

Investors may want to sell stocks for a wide variety of reasons. They might wish to reinvest the cash into another asset with an eye toward long-term gains. Or they could choose to withdraw funds from the stock market to cover short-term, daily expenses with cash earned from the sale.

So, how might investors go about cashing out stocks? And, what factors might individuals curious about how to cash out stocks bear in mind? Here’s an overview of the how and when of selling stocks.

Key Points

•   Stocks can be cashed out by selling them through a broker on a stock exchange.

•   Selling stocks can provide cash for major expenses or to reinvest in other assets.

•   Steps to cash out stocks include determining investment goals, accessing a brokerage account, placing a sell order, waiting for the sale to be completed, and receiving the proceeds.

•   Motivations for selling stocks include accessing cash for expenses, cashing out profits, preventing significant losses, day trading, and offloading low-performing stocks.

•   Types of sell orders include market orders, limit orders, stop orders, and trailing sell stop orders.

Can You Cash Out Stocks?

Investors can cash out stocks by selling them on a stock exchange through a broker. Stocks are relatively liquid assets, meaning they can be converted into cash quickly, especially compared to investments like real estate or jewelry. However, until an investor sells a stock, their money stays tied up in the market.

What Happens When You Sell a Stock?

When you sell a stock for a higher price than you paid, the proceeds from the sale will include your original investment plus your gains and minus any fees. If you sold your stock at a lower price than you paid, the proceeds will include your original investment minus your losses and any fees.

How to Cash Out Your Stocks: 5 Steps

There are several steps involved in selling stocks, including the following:

1.    Determine your investment goals: Consider why you want to sell your stocks and whether it aligns with your overall investment goals.

2.    Access your brokerage account: You need to access or log in to your brokerage account to sell your stocks.

3.    Place an order to sell your stocks: Once you’re logged into your brokerage account, you can place a sell order (like the orders outlined below) to sell your stocks. You can choose to sell at a specific price or through a market order, which will sell the stocks at the current market price.

4.    Wait for the sale to be completed: After placing an order to sell your stocks, you will need to wait for the sale to be completed. This can take anywhere from a few seconds to several days, depending on market conditions and the type of order you have placed.

5.    Receive the proceeds from the sale: After the sale is completed, the proceeds from the sale will be deposited into your brokerage account or sent to you in the form of a check.

Motivations for Selling Stocks

Some investors watch their portfolios closely, selling stocks regularly to cash out profits or avoid significant losses.

However, one common reason investors decide to sell stocks is that they need the cash from the investments to pay for living expenses. While different investors might sell for various reasons, it can be helpful to understand the motivation that drives the desire to sell.

So, why might investors want to cash out stocks? Some common reasons could include the following:

Motivation for Selling Stocks

Accessing Cash for Life Expenses

If investors know they’ll need cash for a major life expense, such as buying a car or home, they may choose to cash out some stocks. Selling shares might ensure there’s enough cash around to cover big expenses.

One benefit to having cash on hand instead of having money invested in stocks is that cash is not subject to the ups and downs of the stock market. However, the value of cash is impacted over time by inflation.

Some investors might also opt to move money out of stocks into potentially more secure investments, such as bonds or a money market account, until they’re ready to pay for that large expense. This way, their money still earns interest while at a lower risk of losing value.

Cashing Out Profits

If it appears as though a recession is coming or investors have seen significant gains in their portfolio, they might choose to cash out to lock in the profits.

However, attempting to time the stock market to avoid losses during unstable economic conditions is risky. What seems to be a trend in the market one day may or may not indicate how the markets may perform in the future.

Investors may want to ask themselves whether they’re interested in cashing out based on an emotional reaction (fear of recent market ups and downs, for instance) or a need for profits.

Preventing Significant Losses

The goal of investing in stocks is to earn profits, not take losses. Still, there are some instances in which it could make sense to sell at a loss.

For example, an investor may sell specific stock holdings to prevent the likelihood of deeper losses in the future. Another scenario that might drive an investor to want to sell stocks is an industry-wide hardship, where numerous companies in one sector of the economy experience financial calamity at the same time. Industry-wide hardships may negatively impact the value of specific stock holdings.

In other instances, a company might reduce or eliminate shareholder dividends. Earning dividends may be a prime reason an investor bought the stock in the first place, so they decide to sell the stock because it’s no longer part of their investment strategy.

Day Trading

Day trading is one way of selling stocks, but it can carry significant risks. Day trades are the purchasing and selling (or vice versa) of the same stock on the same day. Here, traders are attempting to gain profit through short-term trades — typically through the use of technical or market analyses, which can require an in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of trading.

If it were possible to clearly predict future stock movements, everyone might want in on the stock market. But, stocks are volatile. Rather than guessing based on company news and technical indicators, traders who wish to make shorter term trades might choose to set a price goal. For instance, if they buy shares at $10 each, they could set a goal to sell them when they reach $18 per share.

Offloading Low Performing Stocks

Even if investors conduct thorough research on a company before buying a stock, they may later realize it wasn’t a boon for their portfolio. If a purchased stock continues to decline in value over time, investors may opt to offload the low-performing stock.

Also, some investors sell low-performing stocks at the end of the year for tax-loss harvesting, where investors sell investments at a loss to reduce their overall tax burden.

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Understanding Types of Sell Orders

Once an investor has decided to cash out a stock, there are several options for how to sell. Each comes with different amounts of control over the sale. Here’s an overview of the most common types of sell orders:

Understanding Types of Sell Orders

Market Orders

When placing a market order, an investor agrees to sell their shares at the current market price per share. The sell order will be placed immediately or when the market reopens if the order is placed after hours.

One upside of market orders is that the trade can usually be executed quickly. A downside is that the investor has no control over the selling price.

Limit Orders

With a limit order, however, an investor can set the minimum price they are willing to sell their shares for. The sell order only gets executed if and when the stock reaches that price or higher.

For example, if you want to sell a stock currently trading at $50 per share and place a sell limit order at $55, the order will only be filled if the stock price rises to $55 or above.

The upside of limit orders is that investors can control the selling price (and potentially get a higher price than the current market rate). But, one possible downside is that their order won’t go through instantly and, potentially, might never go through (if the stock doesn’t reach the selected price).

Stop Orders or Stop-Loss Orders

A stop-loss order is placed with a brokerage to automatically sell a security when it reaches a specific price, known as the stop price. The reason investors set stop orders is to prevent incurring significant losses if a stock plummets in value.

For example, if you own a stock currently trading at $50 per share and place a stop-loss order at $40, the order will be triggered, and the stock will be sold if the price falls to $40 or below.

The upside of stop orders is that they can help protect against significant losses if the stock price drops unexpectedly. However, stop-loss orders do not guarantee a specific price, and the actual sale price may differ from the stop price due to market fluctuations.

Trailing Sell Stop Orders

Investors may also choose to place a trailing sell stop order, which allows you to set a stop price for a security that adjusts automatically as the price of the security moves in your favor.

With a trailing sell stop order, you can set the initial stop price at a certain percentage or dollar amount below the market price. The stop price will then adjust automatically as the market price of the security increases so that the stop price remains a fixed percentage or dollar amount below the market price. If the market price of the security then falls and reaches the stop price, the order will be triggered, and the security will be sold.

Trailing sell stop orders may allow traders to benefit from gains when a stock’s price rises while still protecting themselves from potential losses.

Factors to Assess When Cashing Out Stocks

There are several factors that you should consider when cashing out stocks:

•   Capital gains taxes: Cashing out stocks may result in capital gains, which are subject to taxes. It is important to consider the tax implications of cashing out stocks. Not all stock holdings are taxed similarly, which could impact an investor’s decision to sell or not to sell.

•   Investment goals: Consider why you are cashing out stocks and whether it aligns with your overall investment goals. If you are cashing out stocks to meet a short-term financial need, selling may be necessary even if the stock price is not optimal. However, if you are cashing out stocks as part of a long-term investment strategy, it may be worth holding onto the stocks, even if they’ve declined in price, because they may still appreciate over time.

•   Fees and commissions: Brokerage firms generally charge investment fees and commissions for executing trades, which can impact the overall profit or loss on the sale of your stocks. Considering these fees and commissions is important when deciding whether to cash out stocks.

Pros and Cons of Reinvesting Profits

Investors may choose to sell stocks to gain or spend cash. But, individuals may want to reinvest earnings from the stocks sold into other assets. If investors decide to reinvest their profits, they need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

Pros

Cons

Benefit from compound growth Lose out on opportunity to use profits for other financial needs
Diversify your portfolio Capital gains taxes
Hedge against inflation Exposure to market risk

Pros

•   Compound growth: Reinvesting stock profits allows you to compound your returns on your investments, which can significantly increase your overall returns over time.

•   Diversification: Reinvesting stock profits can help you diversify your portfolio and reduce risk by investing in various stocks rather than holding a lot of cash.

•   Hedge against inflation: Cash is subject to inflation, which makes cash savings lose value over time. Over a long-term period, cash tends to lose value, whereas the stock market tends to grow. By reinvesting rather than holding on to cash, investors may be less likely to lose money due to inflation.

💡 Recommended: 5 Tips to Hedge Against Inflation

Cons

•   Opportunity cost: Reinvesting stock profits means that you are not using the proceeds from the sale of your stocks to meet other financial goals or needs, such as paying off debt or saving for a down payment on a house.

•   Taxes: Reinvesting stock profits may result in capital gains tax, which can reduce the overall returns on your investments.

•   Market risk: The value of your investments can fluctuate due to market conditions, and reinvesting stock profits means you are exposed to the risks of the stock market.

Platforms for Buying and Selling Stocks

People just getting started with building a portfolio of stocks have several options. Options might include online platforms or traditional phone-in and in-person traders, including:

Online Brokerage Accounts

There are numerous online brokerage accounts and digital apps where investors can buy and sell stocks to build a portfolio. Online brokerage accounts and apps can be a convenient investment method, allowing users to sell from anywhere. Unlike many traditional brokerage firms, many trading apps don’t charge a commission on trades.

Opening a brokerage account will require identity verification and connection with a bank account for deposits and withdrawals.

Financial Advisors

Investors can also make stock trades over the phone or in person by working with a financial advisor. Sell orders placed through these individuals generally get executed within 24 hours, so it can be a slower method to cash out stocks. Before the arrival of web-driven trading, most stocks were bought and sold through traditional investment brokers or financial advisors.

The Takeaway

Before selling any stocks, investors might opt to evaluate their short- and long-term financial goals. Then, they could devise a plan to pursue those objectives, which may lead to cashing out stock holdings. However, knowing when to sell a stock can take time and effort. Rather than trying to time the market and sell stocks to lock in immediate profits and avoid future losses, individuals may want to invest for the long term.

Understanding how to navigate the stock market and decide when to cash out your stocks can be complicated. But that doesn’t mean the investing process needs to be confusing. By opening a SoFi Invest® online brokerage account, you can buy and sell stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), fractional shares, and more with a few clicks of a button with no commissions. You can track your favorite stocks, stay up to date on the latest market news, and access educational resources, all in the SoFi app.

Take a step toward reaching your financial goals with SoFi Invest.

FAQ

How long does it take to cash out stocks?

The time it takes to cash out stocks can vary depending on the type of order you place and market conditions. Generally, it can take anywhere from a few seconds to several days for a sale of stocks to be completed.

Do you get money when you sell stock?

Yes, you will receive money when you sell stock. The proceeds from the stock sale will be deposited into your brokerage account or sent to you in the form of a check. The amount of money you receive will depend on the price you sell the stock and any fees or commissions charged by the brokerage firm.

Can I withdraw money from stocks?

To access cash from stocks, you need to sell your holdings and use the proceeds from the sale to withdraw cash from your brokerage account.


SoFi Invest®

INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE

SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan: What Is It? Is It for You?

Safe harbor 401(k) plans enable companies to avoid the annual IRS testing that comes with traditional 401(k) plans. With a safe harbor 401(k), an employer makes mandatory contributions to all employees’ retirement accounts, and those funds vest immediately.

Often a perk used to attract top talent, safe harbor 401(k) plans are a way for highly compensated employees, like company executives and owners, to save more than a traditional 401(k) plan would normally allow.

Keep reading to learn more about safe harbor rules, why companies use these plans, along with the benefits, drawbacks, and relevant deadlines.

Key Points

•   Like a traditional 401(k), a safe harbor 401(k) lets employees deposit tax-deferred funds from their paychecks into a retirement savings account.

•   Employers are required to contribute to employees’ safe harbor 401(k) accounts.

•   Employer contributions in a safe harbor 401(k) vest immediately. There is no waiting period.

•   Highly-paid employees can contribute more to a safe harbor 401(k) than a traditional 40(k).

•   Safe harbor 401(k) plans allow companies to skip the annual nondiscrimination regulatory testing required by the IRS for traditional 401(k)s.

What Is a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) safe harbor plan is similar to a traditional 401(k) plan — but with a twist. In both cases, eligible employees can use the plan to contribute pre-tax funds to a retirement account and employers may contribute matching funds.

But with a traditional 401(k) retirement plan, companies must submit to annual nondiscrimination regulatory testing by the IRS to ensure that the company plan doesn’t treat highly compensated employees (HCEs) — generally defined as earning at least $150,000 in the 2023 tax year and $155,000 in the 2024 tax year and being in the company’s top 20% in pay, or owning more than 5% of the business — more favorably than others. The testing process is complex and can be a burden for some companies.

An alternative is to set up a safe harbor 401(k) plan with a safe harbor match. This allows a company to skip the annual IRS testing — and avoid imposing restrictions on employee saving — by providing the same 401(k) contributions to all employees, regardless of title, salary, or even years spent at the company. And those funds must vest immediately.

This is an important benefit, because in many cases, employer contributions to traditional 401(k) plans vest over time, requiring employees to stay with the company for some years in order to get the full value of the employer match. Often, if you leave before the employer contributions or match have vested, you may forfeit them.

For smaller companies, it may be worth making the extra safe harbor match contributions in order to avoid the time and expense of the IRS’s annual nondiscrimination testing. For larger companies, giving all employees the same percentage contribution could be expensive. But the upside is that highly paid employees can then make much larger 401(k) contributions without running afoul of IRS rules, a real perk for company leaders. In addition, 401(k) safe harbor plans are typically less expensive to set up than traditional plans.

💡 Quick Tip: Look for an online brokerage with low trading commissions as well as no account minimum. Higher fees can cut into investment returns over time.

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Traditional 401(k) vs Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans

While safe harbor 401(k)s and traditional 401(k) plans are similar in many ways, there are some important differences that employers should be aware of.

For instance, with traditional 401(k) plans, contributions from highly compensated employees can’t comprise more than 2% of the average of all other employee contributions, in addition to other restrictions. However, with safe harbor 401(k) plans, those limits don’t apply.

Comparing Plan Features and Benefits

Here is a side-by-side comparison of a safe harbor 401(k) vs. a traditional 401(k)

Safe Harbor 401(k) Traditional 401(k)
Employer contributions are required. Employer contributions are optional.
Employer contributions are vested immediately. Employer contributions may vest over time.
Highly-paid employees can contribute up to the $22,500 maximum in tax year 2023 and up to $23,000 in 2024. Highly-paid employees can be limited in how much they can contribute.
Companies do not have to do annual nondiscrimination testing. Companies must do annual nondiscrimination testing.

Choosing the Right Plan for Your Business

A safe harbor plan may be beneficial for some smaller companies that can’t afford the expense of nondiscrimination testing. In addition, the plan is simpler with less administrative tasks.

A company might also choose a safe harbor 401(k) if it has some key high-earning employees that make up a large share of the workforce.

However, if your company is able to easily manage the nondiscrimination testing process, you may want to opt for a traditional 401(k). A traditional 401(k) could also be a good option for business owners who want to try to retain employees over the long-term. They could set up a vesting schedule for employer contributions that requires employees to be with the company for three years before becoming fully vested, for instance.

Setting Up a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan

For employers interested in using a safe harbor 401(k), there are some general rules and guidelines they will need to follow.

Requirements, Contribution Formulas, and Deadlines

To fulfill the safe harbor 401(k) requirements, the employer must make qualifying 401(k) contributions (a.k.a. the safe harbor match) that vest immediately. The company contributes to employees’ retirement accounts in one of three ways:

•   Non-elective: The company contributes the equivalent of 3% of each employee’s annual salary to a company 401(k) plan, regardless of whether the employee contributes.

•   Basic: The company offers 100% matching for the first 3% of an employee’s 401(k) plan contributions, plus a 50% match for up to 5% of an employee’s contributions.

•   Enhanced: The company offers a 100% company match for all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 4% of a staffer’s annual salary.

Companies that opt for a safe harbor 401(k) plan have to adhere to strict compliance filing deadlines. These are the dates worth knowing.

October 1: That’s the deadline for filing for a safe harbor 401(k) for the current calendar year. This deadline meets the government criteria of a company needing to have a safe harbor 401(k) in operation for at least three months in a 12 month period, for the first year operating a safe harbor plan.

December 1: By this date, all companies — whether they’re rolling out a brand new safe harbor plan or are administering an existing one — must issue a formal notice to employees that a safe harbor 401(k) will be offered to company staffers.

January 1: The date that all safe harbor 401(k) plans are activated. For companies that currently have no 401(k) plan at all, they can roll out either a traditional 401(k) plan or a safe harbor 401(k) plan at any point in the year, for that calendar year.

Advantages of Implementing a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan

Safe harbor 401(k)s offer some distinct upsides for business owners and employees alike.

Benefits for Employers and Employees

By creating a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a business owner can potentially attract and maintain highly skilled employees. Employees are attracted to higher retirement plan contributions and the ability to optimize retirement plan contribution amounts, ensuring more money for long-term retirement savings.

Plus, a safe harbor 401(k) plan can also help business owners save money on the compliance end of the spectrum. For example, companies save on regulatory costs by avoiding the costs of preparing for a nondiscrimination test (and the staff hours and training that goes with it).

There are some additional upsides to offering a safe harbor 401(k) retirement plan, for higher paid employees and regular staff too.

•   Playing catch up. If a company owner, or high-level managers, historically haven’t stowed enough money away in a company retirement plan, a safe harbor 401(k) plan can help them catch up. The same may be true, although to a lesser degree, for regular employees.

•   The spread of profit. Suppose a company has a steady and robust revenue stream and is managed efficiently. In that case, company owners may feel comfortable “spreading the wealth” with not only high-profile talent but rank-and-file employees, too.

•   Encourage retirement savings. If a company is seeing weak contribution activity from its rank-and-file employees, it may feel more comfortable going the safe harbor route and at least guaranteeing minimum 401(k) contributions to employees while rewarding higher-value employees with more lucrative 401(k) plan contributions.

Disadvantages of Safe Harbor Plans

Safe harbor 401(k) plans have their downsides, too. Here are some drawbacks to consider.

Financial Implications for Employers

The matching contribution requirements for safe harbor 401(k)s can add up to a hefty expense, depending on employee salaries. And because employees are vested immediately, there’s no incentive to stay with the company for a certain period.

In addition, if a company introduces a safe harbor 401(k) plan, it must commit to it for one calendar year, no matter how the plan is performing internally. Even after a year, 401(k) plan providers (which administer and manage the retirement plans) may charge a termination fee if a company decides to pull the plug on its safe harbor plan after one year.

💡 Quick Tip: The advantage of opening a Roth IRA and a tax-deferred account like a 401(k) or traditional IRA is that by the time you retire, you’ll have tax-free income from your Roth, and taxable income from the tax-deferred account. This can help with tax planning.

Safe Harbor 401(k) Contribution Limits and Match Types

There are some different rules for employer contribution limits and matching with a safe harbor 401(k) vs. a traditional 401(k).

Understanding Contribution Limits

Just like traditional 401(k) plans, the maximum employee contribution limit for a safe harbor plan is $22,500 in 2023 and $23,000 in 2024. If you are over 50, you would be eligible for an additional $7,500 catch-up contribution, if your plan allows it.

But in a safe harbor plan, a company owner can reserve the maximum $22,500 (in 2023) and $23,000 in 2024 for their plan contribution and also boost contribution payments to valued team members up to an individual profit-sharing maximum amount of 100% of their compensation, or $66,000 in 2023 ($73,500 for those over age 50) — whichever is less. In 2024, that number is $69,000 (76,500 for those over age 50).

Regular employees are allowed the standard maximum contribution limit of $22,500 in 2023 and $23,000 in 2024, plus anyone over age 50 can contribute an extra “catch-up” amount of $7,500. Those are the same maximum contribution ceilings as regular 401(k) plans.

Different Types of Employer Matching Contributions

As mentioned earlier, with a safe harbor 401(k), an employer must make qualifying 401(k) contributions that vest immediately in one of these ways:

•   Non-elective: The company contributes the equivalent of 3% of each employee’s annual salary to a company 401(k) plan.

•   Basic: The company matches 100% for the first 3% of an employee’s 401(k) plan contributions, plus a 50% match for the following 2% of their contributions.

•   Enhanced: The company provides a 100% company match for all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 4% of a staffer’s annual salary.

IRS Compliance Testing and Safe Harbor Provisions

To help understand the benefit of safe harbor plans, it helps to see what employers with traditional 401(k) plans face in terms of following IRS rules and submitting to the annual nondiscrimination tests.

Navigating Non-Discrimination Testing

Each year, a company must conduct Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP), Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP), and Top Heavy tests to confirm there is no compensation discrimination.

If the company fails one of the tests, it could mean considerable administrative hassle, plus the expense of making corrections, and potentially even refunding 401(k) contributions.

Before explaining the details of each test, here’s a refresher on how the IRS defines highly compensated employees (HCEs) and non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs).

To be a HCE:

•   The employee must own more than 5% of the company at any time during the current or preceding year (directly or through family attribution).

•   The employee is paid over $150,000 in compensation from the employer for 2023 and $155,000 in 2024. The plan can limit these employees to the top 20% of employees who make the most money.

Employees who don’t fit these criteria are considered non-highly compensated. The nondiscrimination tests are designed to assess whether top employees are saving substantially more than the rank-and-file staffers.

•   The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) test measures how much income highly paid employees contribute to their 401(k), versus staff employees.

•   The Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) test compares employer retirement contributions to HCEs versus the contributions to everyone else.

According to the IRS, the terms of the ADP test — which compares the amounts different employees are saving in their 401(k)s — are met if the ADP for highly compensated employees (HCE) doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the deferral percentage for ordinary, i.e., non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs)

Or the lesser of:

•   200% of the deferral percentage for the NHCEs

•   or the deferral percentage for the NHCEs plus 2%.

The ACP test is met if the deferral percentage for highly compensated employees doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the deferral percentage for the NHCEs,

Or the lesser of:

•   200% of the deferral percentage for the group of NHCEs

•   or the deferral percentage for the NHCEs plus 2%.

Last, the top-heavy test measures the value of the assets in all company 401(k) accounts, total. If the 401(k) balances of “key employees” account for more than 60% of total plan assets, the 401(k) would fail the top heavy test. The IRS defines key employees somewhat differently than highly compensated employees, although both groups are similar in that they earn more than ordinary staff.

As you can see, maintaining a traditional 401(k) plan, and meeting these requirements each year, can be a burden for some companies. Fortunately, by setting up a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a company can avoid the annual nondiscrimination tests and still provide a 401(k) savings plan for employees.

The Takeaway

Companies that don’t want the regulatory obligations of a traditional 401(k) plan, and would like to prioritize talent acquisition and employee retention may want to consider safe harbor 401(k) plans.

However, a business owner needs to weigh the pros and cons of a safe harbor 401(k) plan because, in some cases, it can be expensive for a company to maintain.

But no matter what type of 401(k) an employer decides to go with, having a retirement plan in place, with different savings and investment options, can help employees — and business owners themselves — save for the future.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Help grow your nest egg with a SoFi IRA.

FAQ

Is a safe harbor 401(k) worth it?

Whether a safe harbor 401(k) is worth it depends on the goals of the business owner. A safe harbor 401(k) allows a company to skip the expense of nondiscrimination testing. And by creating a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a business owner may be able to attract and maintain highly skilled employees because of the higher contributions. However, the matching employer contribution requirements can add up to a high expense. A business owner needs to weigh the pros and cons of these plans.

Can I cash out my safe harbor 401(k)?

You can withdraw safe harbor 401(k) funds without penalty at age 59 ½ or if you leave your job. However, hardship withdrawals for immediate and heavy financial need may be allowed in certain circumstances. You can learn more at irs.gov.

Why would a company use a safe harbor 401(k)?

A company might use a safe harbor 401(k) to avoid the expense of nondiscrimination testing and to simplify the administration of a 401(k) plan. They might also use a safe harbor 401(k) to help attract and keep highly skilled employees.

What is an example of a safe harbor 401(k) match?

If an employer with a safe harbor 401(k) chooses to offer non-elective matching contributions, that means they contribute at least 3% of each employee’s annual salary. So if an employee makes $70,000 a year, for example, the employer would contribute $2,100 to their safe harbor 401(k) account.


SoFi Invest®

INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE

SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.

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Stock Market Quiz

The stock market consists of exchanges, such as the New York Stock exchange and the Nasdaq, where stocks of publicly held companies are bought and sold. But how much do you really know about the stock market? Taking a stock market quiz is a good way to find out.

If you’re interested in investing in stocks, it’s important to understand how the stock market works. For example, do you know the difference between a stock vs. bond? Are you familiar with mutual funds? How about volatility?

Learning your stock market I.Q. can be helpful as you decide how to invest. Investing in the stock market could potentially help you grow your money to reach your financial goals, such as buying a home or saving for retirement. However, there is risk involved with buying and owning stocks, and some stocks are riskier than others.

Taking this stock market quiz is a great way to test your knowledge. It can help you discover how much you know and show you what you still need to learn when it comes to investing.

Ready to take the stock market quiz? Go ahead and get started.

You’ve Got a High Stock Market I.Q.

Based on your answers to the stock market quiz, you have a keen understanding of stocks and how the stock market works. You’re also aware of the risks that come with stocks, and you have a sense of how much risk you can tolerate.

Keep up the good work. That means doing your homework before you make new investments to make sure they’re the right vehicles for you. Also, evaluate your portfolio every few months, or at least once a year, to help ascertain that you have the right mix of assets. If not, consider reallocating some of your assets and rebalancing your portfolio.

And finally, as you get closer to life milestones, such as retirement, consider making your portfolio more conservative and less aggressive, since you may need to live off the funds from your investments sooner than later and don’t want to risk your money.

Get up to $1,000 in stock when you fund a new Active Invest account.*

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*Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

You Know More Than the Basics

Your quiz answers indicate that you’ve done some investing and you’ve gained fundamental knowledge about the stock market and assets like stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). To keep learning more, which could help you when you’re making investment decisions:

• Research any type of investment you’re not familiar with, such as real estate investment trusts (REITs), before seriously considering them. Weigh the pros and cons of any potential investment to make sure it’s right for you and that you understand the risks involved.

• Learn about balancing and diversifying your portfolio and how it may help you to spread your investments across a range of assets.

• Make sure you’ve got the proper investment strategy in place for your future, especially when it comes to planning for retirement. For instance, you might want to consider opening an IRA if you don’t have one.

You’re Still Learning About the Stock Market

You’re a new investor, and according to your stock market quiz answers, you’ve got a lot to learn about the basics of investing. But you’re motivated: You want to grow your money for the future, and you’re eager to learn about how investing might help you.

One way to start is by determining your financial goals. For example, in the not-too-distant future, you might want to start a family or renovate your house. At the same time, you may want to plan for longer-term goals as well, such as your child’s education and your own retirement.

In addition, you can learn investment terminology so that you become better versed in such important factors as asset allocation and volatility. You can also study up on specific investments, such as how to buy stocks and how to know when to sell them.

And importantly, you’ll want to learn about investment risk so that you can make investment decisions that are suited to your risk tolerance.

The Takeaway

A stock market quiz can reveal how much you know about the way the market works and your understanding of different assets, such as stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds. It can even help pinpoint fundamentals that you may need to learn more about to make investment decisions that could help you reach your financial goals.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).


Invest with as little as $5 with a SoFi Active Investing account.


Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

SoFi Invest®

INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE

SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

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Guide to Tax-Loss Harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting enables investors to use investment losses to help reduce the tax impact of investment gains, thus potentially lowering the amount of taxes owed. While a tax loss strategy – sometimes called tax loss selling — is often used to offset short-term capital gains (which are taxed at a higher federal tax rate), tax-loss harvesting can also be used to offset long-term capital gains.

Of course, as with anything having to do with investing and taxes, tax-loss harvesting is not simple. In order to carry out a tax-loss harvesting strategy, investors must adhere to specific IRS rules and restrictions. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Tax-Loss Harvesting?

Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy that enables an investor to sell assets that have dropped in value as a way to offset the capital gains tax they may owe on the profits of other investments they’ve sold. For example, if an investor sells a security for a $25,000 gain, and sells another security at a $10,000 loss, the loss could be applied so that the investor would only see a capital gain of $15,000 ($25,000 – $10,000).

This can be a valuable tax strategy for investors because you owe capital gains taxes on any profits you make from selling investments, like stocks, bonds, properties, cars, or businesses. The tax only hits when you profit from the sale and realize a profit, not for simply owning an appreciated asset.

💡 Quick Tip: If you’re opening a brokerage account for the first time, consider starting with an amount of money you’re prepared to lose. Investing always includes the risk of loss, and until you’ve gained some experience, it’s probably wise to start small.

How Tax-Loss Harvesting Works

In order to understand how tax-loss harvesting works, you first have to understand the system of capital gains taxes.

Capital Gains and Tax-Loss Harvesting

As far as the IRS is concerned, capital gains are either short term or long term:

•   Short-term capital gains and losses are from the sale of an investment that an investor has held for one year or less.

•   Long-term capital gains and losses are those recognized on investments sold after one year.

Understanding Short-Term Capital Gains Rates

The one-year mark is crucial, because the IRS taxes short-term investments at the investor’s much-higher marginal or ordinary income tax rate. There are seven ordinary tax brackets: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%.

For high earners, gains can be taxed as much as 37%, plus a potential 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), also known as the Medicare tax. That means the taxes on those quick gains can be as high as 40.8% — and that’s before state and local taxes are factored in.

Understanding Long-Term Capital Gains Rates

Meanwhile, the long-term capital gains taxes for an individual are simpler and lower. These rates fall into three brackets, according to the IRS: 0%, 15%, and 20%. Here are the rates for tax year 2023, per the IRS.

The following table breaks down the long-term capital-gains tax rates for the 2023 tax year (for taxes that are filed in 2024) by income and filing status.

Capital Gains Tax Rate

Income – Single

Married, filing separately

Head of household

Married, filing jointly

0% Up to $44,625 Up to $44,625 Up to $59,750 Up to $89,250
15% $44,626 – $492,300 $44,626 – $276,900 $59,751 – $523,050 $89,251 – $553,850
20% More than $492,300 More than $276,900 More than $523,050 More than $553,850

Source: Internal Revenue Service

So if you’re an individual filer, you won’t pay capital gains if your total taxable income is $44,625 or less. But if your income is between $44,626 to $492,300, your investment gains would be subject to a 15% capital gains rate. The rate is 20% for single filers with incomes over $492,300.

As with all tax laws, don’t forget the fine print. As noted above, the additional 3.8% NIIT may apply to single individuals with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $200,000 or married couples with a MAGI of at least $250,000.

Also, long-term capital gains from sales of collectibles (e.g, coins, antiques, fine art) are taxed at a maximum of 28% rate. This is separate from regular capital gains tax, not in addition to it.

Short-term gains on collectibles are taxed at the ordinary income tax rate, as above.

Recommended: Everything You Need to Know About Taxes on Investment Income

Rules of Tax-Loss Harvesting

The upshot is that investors selling off profitable investments can face a stiff tax bill on those gains. That’s typically when investors (or their advisors) start to look at what else is in their portfolios. Inevitably, there are likely to be a handful of other assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate, or different types of investments that lost value for one reason or another.

While tax-loss harvesting is typically done at the end of the year, investors can use this strategy any time, as long as they follow the rule that long-term losses apply to long-term gains first, and short-term losses to short-term gains first.

Bear in mind that although a capital loss technically happens whenever an asset loses value, it’s considered an “unrealized loss” in that it doesn’t exist in the eyes of the IRS until an investor actually sells the asset and realizes the loss.

The loss at the time of the sale can be used to count against any capital gains made in a calendar year. Given the high taxes associated with short-term capital gains, it’s a strategy that has many investors selling out of losing positions at the end of the year.

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Tax-Loss Harvesting Example

If you’re wondering how tax-loss harvesting works, here’s an example. Let’s say an investor is in the top income tax bracket for capital gains. If they sell investments and realize a long-term capital gain, they would be subject to the top 20% tax rate; short-term capital gains would be taxed at their marginal income tax rate of 37%.

Now, let’s imagine they have the following long- and short-term gains and losses, from securities they sold and those they haven’t:

Securities sold:

•   Stock A, held for over a year: Sold, with a long-term gain of $175,000

•   Mutual Fund A, held for less than a year: Sold, with a short-term gain of $125,000

Securities not sold:

•   Mutual Fund B: an unrealized long-term gain of $200,000

•   Stock B: an unrealized long-term loss of $150,000

•   Mutual Fund C: an unrealized short-term loss of $80,000

The potential tax liability from selling Stock A and Mutual Fund A, without tax-loss harvesting, would look like this:

•   Tax without harvesting = ($175,000 x 20%) + ($125,000 x 37%) = $35,000 + $46,250 = $81,250

But if the investor harvested losses by selling Stock B and Mutual Fund C (remember: long-term losses apply to long-term gains and short term losses to short term gains first), the tax picture would change considerably:

•   Tax with harvesting = (($175,000 – $150,000) x 20%) + (($125,000 – $80,000) x 37%) = $5,000 + $16,650 = $21,650

Note how the tax-loss harvesting strategy not only reduces the investor’s tax bill, but potentially frees up some money to be reinvested in similar securities (restrictions may apply there; see information on the wash sale rule below).

💡 Quick Tip: It’s smart to invest in a range of assets so that you’re not overly reliant on any one company or market to do well. For example, by investing in different sectors you can add diversification to your portfolio, which may help mitigate some risk factors over time.

Considerations Before Using Tax-Loss Harvesting

As with any investment strategy, it makes sense to think through a decision to sell just for the sake of the tax benefit because there can be other ramifications in terms of your long-term financial plan.

The Wash Sale Rule

For example, if an investor sells losing stocks or other securities they still believe in, or that still play an important role in their overall financial plan, then they may find themselves in a bind. That’s because a tax regulation called the wash sale rule prohibits investors from receiving the benefit of the tax loss if they buy back the same investment too soon after selling it.

Under the IRS wash sale rule, investors must wait 30 days before buying a security or another asset that’s “substantially identical” to the one they just sold. If they do buy an investment that’s the same or substantially identical, then they can’t claim the tax loss.

For an investment that’s seen losses, that 30-day moratorium could mean missing out on growth — and the risk of buying it again later for a higher price.

Matching Losses With Gains

A point that bears repeating: Investors must also be careful which securities they sell. Under IRS rules, like goes with like. So, long-term losses must be applied to long-term gains first, and the same goes for short-term losses and short-term gains. After that, any remaining net loss can be applied to either type of gain.

How to Use Net Losses

The difference between capital gains and capital losses is called a net capital gain. If losses exceed gains, that’s a net capital loss.

•   If an investor has an overall net capital loss for the year, they can deduct up to $3,000 against other kinds of income — including their salary and interest income.

•   Any excess net capital loss can be carried over to subsequent years and deducted against capital gains, and up to $3,000 of other kinds of income — depending on the circumstances.

•   For those who are married filing separately, the annual net capital loss deduction limit is only $1,500.

How to Use Tax-Loss Harvesting to Lower Your Tax Bill

When an investor has a diversified portfolio, every year will likely bring investments that thrive and others that lose money, so there can be a number of different ways to use tax-loss harvesting to lower your tax bill. The most common way, addressed above, is to apply capital losses to capital gains, thereby reducing the amount of tax owed. Here are some other strategies:

Tax-Loss Harvesting When the Market Is Down

For investors looking to invest when the market is down, capital losses can be easy to find. In those cases, some investors can use tax-loss harvesting to diminish the pain of losing money. But over long periods of time, the stock markets have generally gone up. Thus, the opportunity cost of selling out of depressed investments can turn out to be greater than the tax benefit.

It also bears remembering that many trades come with trading fees and other administrative costs, all of which should be factored in before selling stocks to improve one’s tax position at the end of the year.

Tax-Loss Harvesting for Liquidity

There are years when investors need access to capital. It may be for the purchase of a dream home, to invest in a business, or because of unforeseen circumstances. When an investor wants to cash out of the markets, the benefits of tax-loss harvesting can really shine.

In this instance, an investor could face bigger capital-gains taxes, so it makes sense to be strategic about which investments — winners and losers — to sell by year’s end, and minimize any tax burden.

Tax-Loss Harvesting to Rebalance a Portfolio

The potential benefits of maintaining a diversified portfolio are widely known. And to keep that portfolio properly diversified in line with their goals and risk tolerance, investors may want to rebalance their portfolio on a regular basis.

That’s partly because different investments have different returns and losses over time. As a result, an investor could end up with more tech stocks and fewer energy stocks, for example, or more government bonds than small-cap stocks than they intended.

Other possible reasons for rebalancing are if an investor’s goals change, or if they’re drawing closer to one of their long-term goals and want to take on less risk.

That’s why investors check their investments on a regular basis and do a tune-up, selling some stocks and buying others to stay in line with the original plan. This tune-up, or rebalancing, is an opportunity to do some tax-loss harvesting.

How Much Can You Write Off on Your Taxes?

If capital losses exceed capital gains, under IRS rules investors can then deduct a portion of the net losses from their ordinary income to reduce their personal tax liability. Investors can deduct the lesser of $3,000 ($1,500 if married filing separately), or the total net loss shown on line 21 of Schedule D (Form 1040).

In addition, any capital losses over $3,000 can be carried forward to future tax years, where investors can use capital losses to reduce future capital gains. This is known as a tax loss carryforward. So in effect, you can carry forward tax losses indefinitely.

To figure out how to record a tax loss carryforward, you can use the Capital Loss Carryover Worksheet found on the IRS’ Instructions for Schedule D (Form 1040).

Benefits and Drawbacks of Tax-Loss Harvesting

While tax-loss harvesting can offer investors some advantages, it comes with some potential downsides as well.

Benefits of Tax-Loss Harvesting

Obviously the main point of tax-loss harvesting is to reduce the amount of capital gains tax on profits after you sell a security.

Another potential benefit is being able to literally cut some of your losses, when you sell underperforming securities.

Tax-loss harvesting, when done with an eye toward an investor’s portfolio as a whole, can help with balancing or rebalancing (or perhaps resetting) their asset allocation.

As noted above, investors often sell off assets when they need cash. Using a tax-loss harvesting strategy can help do so in a tax-efficient way.

Drawbacks of Tax-Loss Harvesting

While selling underperforming assets may make sense, it’s important to vet these choices as you don’t want to miss out on the gains that might come if the asset bounces back.

Another of the potential risks of tax-loss harvesting is that if it’s done carelessly it can leave a portfolio imbalanced. It might be wise to replace the securities sold with similar ones, in order to maintain the risk-return profile. (Just don’t run afoul of the wash-sale rule.)

Last, it’s possible to incur excessive trading fees that can make a tax-loss harvesting strategy less efficient.

Pros of Tax-Loss Harvesting Cons of Tax-Loss Harvesting
Can lower capital gains taxes Investor might lose out if the security rebounds
Can help with rebalancing a portfolio If done incorrectly, can leave a portfolio imbalanced
Can make a liquidity event more tax efficient Selling assets can add to transaction fees

Creating a Tax-Loss Harvesting Strategy

Interested investors may want to create their own tax-loss harvesting strategy, given the appeal of a lower tax bill. An effective tax-loss harvesting strategy requires a great deal of skill and planning.

It’s important to take into account current capital gains rates, both short and long term. Investors would be wise to also weigh their current asset allocation before they attempt to harvest losses that could leave their portfolios imbalanced.

All in all, any strategy should reflect your long-term goals and aims. While saving money on taxes is important, it’s not the only rationale to rely on for any investment strategy.

The Takeaway

Tax loss harvesting, or selling off underperforming stocks and then potentially getting a tax reduction for the loss, can be a helpful part of a tax-efficient investing strategy.

There are many reasons an investor might want to do tax-loss harvesting, including when the market is down, when they need liquidity, or when they are rebalancing their portfolio. It’s an individual decision, with many considerations for each investor — including what their ultimate financial goals might be.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Invest with as little as $5 with a SoFi Active Investing account.

FAQ

Is tax-loss harvesting really worth it?

When done carefully, with an eye toward tax efficiency as well as other longer-term goals, tax-loss harvesting can help investors save money that they can invest for the long term.

Does tax-loss harvesting reduce taxable income?

Yes. The point of tax-loss harvesting is to reduce income from investment gains (profits). But also when net losses exceed gains, the strategy can reduce your taxable income by $3,000 per year.

Can you write off 100% of investment losses?

It depends. Investment losses can be used to offset a commensurate amount in gains, thereby lowering your potential capital gains tax bill. If there are still net losses that cannot be applied to gains, up to $3,000 per year can be applied to reduce your ordinary income. Net loss amounts in excess of $3,000 would have to be carried forward to future tax years.


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