How taxes and fees impact return on investment


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Earning high returns can be exhilarating. But it’s important to remember that they don’t necessarily represent the money that goes in the bank. Commissions, taxes, and other fees impact the returns any investor makes on their investment.

Just how big a bite these investment expenses take out of an investor’s assets isn’t always instantly clear. But by understanding the fees they pay, and the taxes they’re likely to owe, investors can better plan for the money they’ll actually receive from their investments. And they can also take concrete steps to minimize the effects of fees and taxes.

There are a few different types of investment expenses an investor may come across as they buy and sell assets. Here are the most common ones.

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1. Fund Fees

Mutual funds are a very popular way for investors to get into the market. They’re the vehicles that most 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs offer investors to save for retirement. But these funds charge fees, starting with a management fee, which pays the fund’s staff to buy and trade investments.

Investors pay this fee as a portion of their assets, whether the investments go up or down. (With employer-sponsored retirement accounts, the employer may cover the fees as long as the account holder is employed by the company.) Management fees vary widely, with some index funds charging as little as .10% of an investor’s assets. But other mutual funds may charge more than 2%.

In addition to the management fee, the fund may also charge for advertising and promotion expenses, known as the 12b-1 fee. Plus, mutual fund investors may have to pay sales charges, especially if they buy funds through a financial planner, or an investment advisor. While the maximum legal sales charge for a mutual fund is 8.5%, the common range is between 3% and 6%.

One way to understand how much of a bite these mutual fund fees take out of an investment on an annual basis is to look at the expense ratio.

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2. Advisor Fees

Investors may also face fees when they hire a professional to help manage their money. Some advisors charge a percentage of invested assets per year. More recently, some advisors have simplified the cost by simply charging an hourly fee.

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3. Broker Fees and Commissions

Even investors who want to manage their own portfolios typically pay a broker for their services in the form of fees and commissions. These fees and commissions may be based on a percentage of the transaction’s value, or they may be rolled into a flat fee. Another factor that may influence the fee: whether an investor uses a full-service broker or a discount broker.

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How to Minimize the Cost of Investing

No matter how an investor approaches the market, they can expect to pay some fees. It’s up to each individual to decide whether or not those fees are worth it. For some, paying a professional for hands-on advice is worth the extra annual 1% fee (or more) of their invested assets. For others, minimizing costs may be a priority. Among many options, there are a few investing opportunities that stand out as relatively low-cost.

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1. Index Funds

When investing in mutual funds, one type of fund has established itself as the least expensive in terms of fees: Index funds. That’s because these funds track an index instead of paying analysts and managers to research and trade securities. When it comes to index funds vs. managed funds, proponents typically cite the lower fees.

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2. Automated Investing Platforms

People seeking investing advice or guidance who don’t want to pay typical fees might want to explore automated investing platforms, also known as “robo-advisors.” Some of these platforms charge annual advisory fees as low as .25%. That said, these platforms often use mutual funds, which charge their own fees on top of the platform fees.

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3. Discount Brokerage

Investors who manage their own portfolio may opt for a discount or online brokerage. These brokers tend to charge flat fees per trade as low as $5, with account maintenance fees also often as low $0 to $50 per account.

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How Taxes Eat into Investing Profits

There are typically two kinds of taxes that investors have to worry about. The first is income tax, and the second is capital gains tax. In general, income taxes apply to investment earnings in the form of interest payments, dividends, or bond yields. Capital gains, on the other hand, apply to the returns an investor realizes when they sell a stock, bond, or other investment. (The exception: The IRS taxes short-term investments, which an investor has held for less than a year, at that investor’s marginal income tax rate.)

By and large, capital gains tax rates are lower than income tax rates. Income tax rates for high-earners can be as high as 37%, plus a 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). That means the taxes on those quick gains can be as high as 40.8%—and that’s not including any state or local taxes.

The taxes on long-term capital gains are lower across the board. According to 2021 IRS rules, for investors earning less than $80,000, the capital gains tax rate may be 0%. It goes up depending on income, with couples making between $80,000 and $496,600 paying 15%, and those with income above that level paying 20%.

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Strategies to Minimize Taxes

There are a few ways an investor can minimize the impact of taxes on their investments. One popular way to take advantage of the tax code is by investing through a retirement plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b), or IRA. All of these plans encourage people to save for retirement by offering attractive tax breaks.

For tax-deferred accounts like a 401(k) or traditional IRA, the tax break comes on the front end. Retirees will have to pay income taxes on their withdrawals from these plans—at a time when many retirees are on a fixed income. On the other hand, retirement accounts like a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA are funded with after-tax dollars, and money is not taxed upon withdrawal in retirement.

Another approach some investors may want to consider is tax-loss harvesting. This strategy allows investors to take advantage of investments that lost money by selling them and taking a capital loss (as opposed to a capital gain). That capital loss can help investors reduce their annual tax bill. It can even be used to offset as much as $3,000 in non-investment income.

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The Takeaway

Fees and taxes typically do have an impact on an investor’s returns on investments. How much they eat into profit varies, and is largely dependent on what the investments are, how they are being managed, and how long an investor has had them. Other factors include the investor’s income level, and whether they’ve also lost money on other investments.

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