The Scoop on IRAs and Tax Losses

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

My friend who is a stockbroker wrote heaps of sell tickets for his clients back in December of last year. This may seem controversial, considering that finance gurus always advise us to sell high and buy low and it has been a long, long time since stocks traded as low as they did at the time. However, selling stocks in a down market has one huge advantage: you can deduct the losses from your taxable income. Especially thinly traded, volatile stocks that have performed poorly throughout the year tend to be hammered to the ground in December, only to rebound in January as investors with a long-term, bullish perspective pick them back up again.

Taking advantage of these losses in your regular, taxable accounts is a no-brainer. But at times, it can pay off to take tax losses in your retirement accounts as well.

Before you read any further, take note that you can never deduct losses in traditional IRAs or 401(k)s. The reason for this is simple: you already made a deduction when you put the money in the account!

However, if you have a Roth or traditional nondeductible IRA, you may be able save a few tax dollars, as long as your cost basis is higher than your current account value. Unfortunately, this type of transaction has several drawbacks.

First of all, in order to deduct a loss, you need to liquidate the entire account. When you want to build it back up again, all the usual limits and restrictions will apply to you. Furthermore, losses in these accounts cannot be deducted directly from your taxable income – they can only be used as parts of an itemized deduction. Therefore, they are much less beneficial for this purpose than losses in regular, taxable accounts.

To sum up, taking a tax loss in your Roth or traditional nondeductible IRA may make sense if you have accrued only a tiny balance and you itemize. If you have a large amount of money saved up, you don’t itemize, or your account is either a 401(k) or a traditional IRA, don’t bother.

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