Got Crushed in the Market? Harvest Your Losses to Lower Your Taxes

There’s no sugarcoating the stock market’s 20% plunge, but there is a small consolation prize: You have one of the best opportunities in years to lower your tax bill.

That’s because the US tax code allows investors to sell poor-performing stocks and use those investment losses to offset capital gains from selling better-performing assets, such as stocks, bonds, a home or business. If your losses exceed your gains, you can even deduct up to $3,000 against your taxable income. Losses beyond $3,000 can be carried forward every year until death (!) to offset gains in future years.

The extent to which the strategy — known as tax-loss harvesting — can lower your tax bill and boost returns isn’t insignificant. According to research from Derek Horstmeyer, a finance professor at George Mason University, when the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has yielded a negative return, the average benefit of harvesting losses provided a bump of 3.21 percentage points (for investors facing a 25% capital gains tax rate).

So if you’re sitting on paper losses, what are you waiting for? You might as well use them to your advantage and sell before the year is out. Any capital losses incurred in 2022 can be used against gains from this year and beyond when you file your tax returns in April. But most investors should buy back a similar stock or fund right away to keep their portfolios balanced and stay invested if the market starts to turn around.

The Internal Revenue Service’s wash sale rule says the sale of a security won’t be considered a capital loss if you buy the same security or one that’s “substantially identical” 30 days before or after selling it. You won’t get fined if you run afoul of the rules, but you won’t be able to get the tax write-off. And don’t think if you sell something in your brokerage account you can just buy it right back in a retirement one — the wash sale rule applies across all an investor’s accounts.