Skip to main content

Pick Your Taxable Account Allocation Wisely

As you probably know, I am a proponent of using index funds for all of your accounts, including your taxable account. But with so many index funds out there spanning nearly every asset class you can think of, it can be difficult to choose which ones to use. I think that it is a very important decision, because changing your taxable portfolio can have potentially costly implications. Let me explain.

Who This Advice Applies To

I need to preface this article by saying that this advice only applies to physicians who are in the 25% or higher tax bracket. For residents with stay-at-home spouses and part-time attendings who are in the 10% or 15% tax brackets, this advice does not apply to you. Instead, you should use the tax-gain harvesting approach that I described in this post. This is because investors in the 10% or 15% tax bracket pay 0% long-term capital gains tax, so you can switch your investments around without penalty. For everyone else, you need to select your taxable account allocation early as an attending and stick with it.

The Power of Compound Interest

Most physicians should be saving approximately 15–20% of their gross income each year, and should not need any money in the taxable account. Therefore, if you are investing for the long term, you should rarely be selling stock to pay expenses. Of course, there are exceptions with big lump-sum payments, such as a down payment for a house, a new car paid with cash, or your child’s tuition bill. You should not be selling stock to pay for routine expenses, and ideally, you should not be selling index funds to reallocate it to another index fund or asset allocation.

We all know about the power of compounding. This is primarily used to encourage young investors to invest early and often, reaping the benefits of compound interest. I’ve also used this argument to emphasize how important it is to keep costs low, as saving 1% on the fees to mutual funds or financial advisors can make a huge difference in retirement. Avoiding selling your index funds to reallocate it to another asset class is important, because doing so can be very expensive.

The reason for this is that each time you sell your index funds, you incur a taxable event. Hopefully, you have invested in this index fund for more than a year, so you pay the long-term capital gains tax, which is 15% for most physicians (20% for you specialists in the top 39.6% tax bracket). This decreases your ability to maximize your returns, because by paying long-term capital gains tax on your profits, those taxes will not be able to earn interest going forward. The absolute value of this is less than you think, because if you choose not to sell, of course you’ll have to pay the long-term capital gains in the future, when you eventually sell your stock. But you lose the ability to earn interest on your interest.

Asset Location

What all this means is that you have to choose your asset allocation of your taxable account wisely. One option would be to simply invest your taxable account with the exact same allocation as your retirement accounts. This is acceptable, but that’s not quite maximizing your returns because you have not taken advantage of asset location. In general, you would want to have stocks in your taxable account, while having bonds in your retirement account, because of the higher tax efficiency of the stock funds. While the value of asset location is questionable, particularly in the current low-interest environment, since you have to set your asset allocation early as an attending, I would follow the standard advice.

Which Asset Class and Mutual Fund

Once you decide what your asset allocation will be in your tax account, you need to decide which specific kind of stock index fund you will use. When making this decision, I advise that you keep things very simple, because you cannot change your mind without tax consequences. Specifically, I recommend that you use either S&P 500 index fund or a total stock market index fund.

This is not the time to become fancy and purchase more exotic index funds, such as small cap, value, or other slice-and-dice index funds which may have in the past been associated with better returns. Remember, you cannot change your asset allocation without tax consequences, and if you change your mind, or new research shows that a different asset class may be superior, you have no choice but to take a taxable event to reallocate your portfolio. The same thing goes for international and emerging markets index funds. If you prefer to have bonds in your taxable account, I would favor a total bond market index over the numerous slice-and-dice index funds that are out there. Again, there may be a strong argument for a specific type of bond fund, but bond market trends are cyclical, and you want to stick with something simple, so you don’t have to suffer tax consequences to reset your allocation.

Another reason why I favor keeping it simple in your taxable account is that I don’t believe that the index fund market has fully matured. There will be continued competition amongst the mutual fund companies, and the investor will benefit with improved index fund offerings offerings and declining expense ratios. For example, Fidelity recently introduced the Fidelity Total International Index Fund (FTIPX), which is an international stock index fund that includes both developed and emerging international markets, as well as small-, mid-, and large-cap stocks. This is truly a total international stock index fund. This fund, in combination with the total stock market index fund FSTVX), enables you to have truly global stock exposure. They even offer this at a very low expense ratio (0.11%). If you invested in international stocks a few years ago in your tax account, you are locked into that mutual fund, and cannot take advantage of the new offerings at Fidelity and Vanguard can offer. Therefore, this is why I strongly recommend using only the index funds that you know will be the foundation of your portfolio, that is, either an S&P 500 index fund or Total Stock Market index fund. There is plenty of space to slice-and-dice and experiment in your retirement account, because there are no tax consequences to tweaking your portfolio.

An Example

For these examples, we will assume that a physician invests $25,000 in their taxable account at the age of 35 with an 8% annual return with a 15% long-term capital gains rate and liquidates the portfolio at age 70.

Example 1: The Physician Who Sells Annually

Because this physician sells his stock annually, he earns an after-tax return of 8% x (100%-15%) = 6.8% return. His initial $25,000 investment will be worth $249,996 at age 70.

Example 2: The Physician Who Switches Their Portfolio Once After 5 Years

This physician decided to change his allocation at age 40 after 5 years. Otherwise, he does not touch his portfolio, and his initial $25,000 investment will be worth $306,600 at age 70.

Example 3: The Set It And Forget It Physician

This physician will allow her portfolio to growth at 8% for 35 years, and pay long-term capital gains (15%) at age 70. Her initial $25,000 investment will be worth $317,939 at age 70.

My Approach

My approach is to invest taxable account money in the Fidelity Total Stock Market Index Fund (FSTVX). This mutual fund has a long track record, so I doubt I will ever have to liquidate this fund. It is a close decision between the Total Stock Market Index Fund and the S&P 500 Fund, but I want the additional diversification benefits of holding mid-cap and small-cap stocks, instead of only the large-cap stocks in the S&P 500 fund. The decision to use Fidelity over Vanguard is strictly a personal preference, and using the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX) would also be an excellent choice.

Conclusion

This article presents a relatively subtle, but important approach to your index fund investing. You don’t want to be in the situation where you have to unwind a portfolio because you are in investments that you don’t want to hold for the long-term.

What is your taxable account allocation? Have you had to tweak it over the years?

11 thoughts to “Pick Your Taxable Account Allocation Wisely”

  1. Hi! I am a pulm-ccm physician in the South-wife is an MD as well. So for us, in our taxable account I use a Roboadvisor-I use Fidelity Go-I know-I could do it myself, and I know all about stocks, bonds, ETFs, indexing, etc…but I tend to tinker too much-So, I choose to let Fidelity do it for me-I have a small acct at Betterment, but worry about their sustainability, esp with all the big firms getting in the “robo” game.

    The Fidelity Go portfolio is ok-sure it could be better I guess, but it does what it should, and it keeps me from trading/swapping out into supposed “better” portfolios.

    Just my 2 cents–BTW enjoy your writing and hope the blog is successful!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, DG. Fidelity Go is definitely a reasonable option for people who want to hand off their investments to a financial advisor. Have you considered a target-date fund and checking your investments rarely (e.g. annually)? If you’re worried about not being able to stay the course during market downturns, keep in mind that you can probably tell Fidelity Go to convert your money to cash or remove money from the service during a market panic.

      1. Great points–but I only use the Fidelity Go for taxable investing–so only Muni Bond funds are used in that portfolio–for all my and my spouse’s retirement accounts we use target date funds or the Vanguard LifeStrategy Funds–I believe these are the best for us in our 401ks/IRAs/403b account given the taxable bonds. I try to keep it 80/20 stock:bond ratio and leave it as is. During 2008, kept adding more to them and made a good bit of $$$–so we can hang on when there is a market downturn and keep adding more.

        DG

  2. Great article! As a pediatrician in a high cost of living area, I only recently became able to start contributing meaningful amounts to a taxable account. I ended up deciding to go with a two fund approach, using Fidelity’s S&P 500 fund FUSVX (0.045% cost) plus their extended U.S. market fund FSEVX (0.07% cost). When combined in a 4:1 ratio it replicates their total US market fund FSTVX with an overall expense ratio of 0.05%. While this combination is slightly more expensive than FSTVX alone, it gives me the opportunity to tilt a little more or less to smaller stocks by changing the proportion of FUSVX to FSEVX with future contributions.

    1. Portorafti — looks like you’ve found the taxable asset allocation that you will stick with for the long-term. Your asset allocation also allows you the flexibility to tweak your portfolio without tax consequences. Just remember to not let recent returns affect how you tilt, for example, don’t let the recent small-cap rally post-election cause you to over-tilt.

  3. Reading this and other articles about fees got me thinking–For a $500 k portfolio Fidelity Go charges me $1750 a year. Over 20 yrs that’s going to be a lot of $$$– maybe should switch to a 2 or 3 fund portfolio. Have always liked the simplicity of VT ( vanguard total world). Don’t know what I’m going to do…..

    1. The purpose of this post was to highlight the importance of sticking with a taxable asset allocation early in your investment life. Whether it’s Fidelity Total Stock Market, Fidelity Go, or some other allocation, an important consideration is that you will stick with it for the long-term to avoid the tax consequences of unwinding a portfolio.

  4. Great to see some attention devoted to the often overlooked taxable account. I agree with choosing a simple portfolio of low cost tax-efficient index funds that you can set and forget. Since most of my savings (>80%) are in a taxable account, and since I prefer not to accept the risk of a 100% stock portfolio, my taxable account consists of 75% stocks (split between total stock market index and total international index) and 25% bonds (in an intermediate term tax exempt bond index). There might be a better allocation, but this seems to be one I can stick with for the next few decades without needing to sell prematurely.

    1. Sounds like you have a plan that you can stick with. You do not necessarily need 100% stocks in your entire portfolio. One approach is to put more stocks in your taxable account and more bonds in your retirement accounts. This is the classic teaching on asset location, although WCI and others dispute the importance of this teaching.

  5. A great post I love your site. Have followed WCI among others but looking for deeper dive on some of these topics.
    I am a 50 year old cardiologist who decided about 3 years ago to ditch my 1% of assets under management FA. I was able to convert the accounts over to my name without selling the funds as my FA used Schwab as a custodian. I have a sizable taxable account and live in a state with state capital gains. My struggle right now is if It is worth converting my current actively managed funds to index funds which would of course trigger significant capital gains. I have tax harvested all I can. I put some in a Directed charity account. I am worried that if I incur the tax burden now I loose the compound growth going forward but then face the 1.2% drag on my return due to the high ER.

    It is similar in some sense to rebalancing or changing AA in the taxable account.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks again for your site and insight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 Shares
Share3
Tweet
Pin
Share