Nobody likes taxes, but they are an unfortunate necessity of civilized life. In the United States (and most other developed countries), there are tax implications every time you earn money, whether that money comes from a paycheck at work or income off of your investments. But there are also lots of loopholes, exceptions, incentives, deductions and other breaks built into our tax code that can significantly help to lower your tax burden.
In our series on Wise Investing, we’ve been talking about some of the “do’s” and “don’ts” of investment. Today’s advice is pretty practical: When you invest, do work with professionals to get good tax advice and maximize your tax savings.
Let’s start with one important philosophical underpinning: I’m not encouraging anyone to cheat on their taxes or to pay the government any less than they really owe. In fact, I believe that everyone — and especially Christians — needs to be scrupulously honest about their financial situation at tax time, and needs to pay the full amount that they owe. This is a teaching that comes directly from Jesus in Matthew 22:21. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He tells the Pharisees, “and to God what is God’s.”
Paul makes this teaching even more explicit in Romans 13:6-7, in a passage talking about the God-given authority of government:
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
So, the Bible tells us that we ought to pay our governments what we owe them — there’s no arguing with that. But scripture also tells us in other places to keep careful account of our money, to give to the poor, to tithe, to plan for our futures and to build wealth for future generations. To do those things well, we need to have control of as much of our money as we can, which means that we shouldn’t overpay on taxes.
So, the best biblical philosophy on taxes is this: Pay what you owe, and not a penny more.
Now, back to investing. Before you started investing, your main source of income was probably money that you earned at work, and your taxes were fairly simple to figure out. You may well have filed your taxes by yourself every year. But as your financial life becomes more complex, your tax situation becomes more difficult to master on your own. Once you begin investing, you enter a new section of the tax code that you’ve never operated in before. In order to optimize your tax bill, you’re going to need the help of a professional.
You see, investment income isn’t taxed the same way that payroll income is taxed. Depending on how you invest, you may be able to deduct your investments from your taxable income, or invest with after-tax money but pay no taxes on the investment growth. Or you might end up paying what’s called “capital gains tax” — a special tax on investment income. As of this writing, capital gains are taxed at 15%, which means that if you make $100, you’ll have to turn $15 of it over to Uncle Sam at the end of the year.
Capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than regular payroll income because the government wants to incentivize people to invest money into the economy. But savvy investors and tax professionals also know how to avoid capital gains tax using perfectly legal strategies such as the Roth IRA. If you’re flying solo and investing in individual stocks by yourself (which is a dangerous idea for several reasons), you’re not going to get the benefits of government incentives. Instead, you’ll be left with the full tax bill come April 15.
These examples are just scratching the surface of the investment tax situation — our tax code is extremely complicated, and it’s impossible for anyone to stay on top of all of its intricacies unless that’s their full-time job. So as an investor, you need to consult with some of these experts to make sure that you’re investing in the smartest way possible. Experts can give you the tools to maximize your returns and minimize your tax liability. They can also help you look at your entire financial life (even the part beyond your investments) to find the appropriate tax deductions and strategies that will keep your IRS bill as low as possible, giving you more money to spend on the things that matter most to you.
The way that you go about getting this advice can vary based on the complexity of your financial life. When you first start investing, a few good conversations with your investment adviser can probably set you on the right track. You can also do some research on your own to study the different types of investment and retirement accounts available to you and find the ones that best suit your tax needs. If you’re using a common and straightforward plan like an IRA, you can probably do your taxes using tax preparation software every year. But if you’re involved in business ownership, real estate or other complicated investments, it’s best to work with professional accountants and tax attorneys. They may be expensive, but the money that they can save on your tax bill — and their keen ability to keep you from wandering into illegal tax territory — is well worth their fee.
No matter where you are in your investment journey, make sure that you’re getting the best advice possible. After all, there’s no point in giving the government any more of your money than you absolutely have to. After all, you can probably do much more good with that money than they can.
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