Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dividends Provide a Tax-Efficient Form of Income

A famous saying goes that there are two things certain in this world: death and taxes. While I am pretty sure I can’t escape death, I know that I can try to legally minimize taxes as much as possible. I hate paying more taxes than I have to. In a previous series of articles I discussed how I am maxing out tax-deferred accounts today, in order to minimize my tax liabilities as much as possible. In addition, I am trying to get a deduction today, and then roll these amounts into Roth and try to pay as close to zero percent on the conversion as possible. The amounts in tax-deferred accounts will be the tip of the iceberg, or the “safety net” in case my main strategy experiences turbulence. In effect, these tax-deferred accounts are equivalent to an emergency fund for my retirement.

However, I think I didn't stress enough the fact that most of my income in retirement would be coming from qualified dividends. This will be my bread and butter, because dividends provide the best tax-efficient method of income in the US.

Did you know that if you were single, and your taxable income does not exceed $36,250 in 2013, you would owe zero dollars in Federal taxes on your qualified dividend income? If you were married, filing jointly, you won’t owe a dime in taxes on qualified dividends at the Federal level as long as your taxable income does not exceed $72,500.

This means that if you are single, living on your own, and only claiming yourself as a dependent, you can essentially make $46,250 in annual qualified dividend income, and pay zero taxes on that. This includes the Standard Deduction of $6,100 and the Personal Exemption of $3,900. This calculation also assumes you have no other sources of income and no other deductions for the sake of simplicity and to illustrate the point. In order for you to generate so much in income, your portfolio would likely be worth anywhere between $1.321 million and $1.542 million at yields between 3% – 3.50%. If you made your selections wisely, your dividend income should at least keep up with inflation over time. With most dividend growth stocks, I expect a 6% annual dividend increase in the long run, ahead of the annual inflation rate of 3%.

This net dividend income for the single individual above is equivalent to $58,900 in salary earnings. In other words, if you are single, it would take you to earn $58,900 from a day job in order to end up with the same amount of net income that the same individual can achieve with “only” $46,250 in qualified dividend income. And you were wondering why Warren Buffett’s secretary is so vocal about her bosses taxes.

Let’s see how this translates for a married couple, filing jointly, without any kids, mortgages and student loans. They could essentially earn $92,500 in annual qualified dividend income, before owing a single cent to the Federal government in 2013. This includes two standard deductions and two personal exemptions in the tax return. In order for this couple to generate so much in income, their dividend growth portfolio would likely be worth anywhere between $2.643 million and $3.083 million at yields between 3% – 3.50%.

This net dividend income for the married individuals above is equivalent to $117,800 in salary earnings. In other words, if you are married with no children, it would take the couple to earn $117,800 from a day job in order to end up with the same amount of net income they can achieve with “only” $92,500 in qualified dividend income.

For the sake of simplicity, and to illustrate a point about the tax efficiency of dividends, I have compared salary only income versus dividend only income. The tax code is so complicated, that it would probably take me years and hundreds of pages before I can explain every single possible scenario affecting those sample single and married individuals.

I claim that the dividend income is the most efficient form of income in the US, because it can increase over time to compensate for inflation. With municipal bonds, you do not pay any income tax, no matter how much you make. However, since your income is fixed, your “real” purchasing power is decreasing over time. As a result, you are worse off than with dividend stocks over extended periods of time.

I should also mention that ordinary dividend income is taxed like ordinary income. Luckily, this type of dividends are not taxed at the FICA level. Examples of ordinary dividend income includes the income sent your way by Real Estate Investment trusts, net of any depreciation for example. Each REIT has a different tax picture, which also varies every year. I didn’t include these into my scenario above, because I didn’t want to overly complicate something that was already complicated. But feel free to play it out safely at home. If you do not believe me, you can check the website of National Retail Properties (NNN) at this link.

I purposefully also avoided included MLP distributions, because these are even hairier at tax time. These distributions might not even be taxable to you as long as your cost basis is above zero.

Foreign dividends are another type of income which is taxed usually as qualified dividends. The twist is that some governments withhold the tax at the source, which entitles you to a credit. Therefore, if you paid $15 in dividend taxes to Canada on your $100 dividend check from Canadian National Railway (CNI), you don’t also have to pay Uncle Sam $15 additional dollars in dividend income. You can essentially get a credit for this. If you are single earning under $46,250 in dividend income, you might even get a check in the mail for $15.

Full Disclosure: I am not a tax advisor, and this article should not be considered as individual tax advice. Please discuss your individual tax situation with a licensed CPA. I have no position in the companies listed above.

Relevant Articles:

Best International Dividend Stocks
My Retirement Strategy for Tax-Free Income
How to Retire Early With Tax-Advantaged Accounts
Six Dividend Paying Stocks I Purchased for my IRA
Should income investors worry about higher dividend taxes?


  1. I'm confused by the difference between qualified dividend and ordinary dividend. Can you define the two or provide links to a description of the difference. Thank you.

  2. This is awesome. Though I read your articles nearly every day, I have never taken the time to comment. I sincerely appreciate your work.

  3. The foreign tax credit isn't a refundable credit. You won't get a check back from Uncle Sam if your tax liability is $0.

  4. Awesome article. This should be required reading for dividend investors if they're not doing their own homework.

  5. Such a simple tax code, huh? That's one of the reasons I'm pursuing the DG strategy. It would take a lot of work to increase your job income from ~$90K to $146k, but that's essentially what you're doing if you can pull in those dividends.

  6. Seth,

    Most companies like Coca-Cola or McDonald's pay qualified dividends out of earnings. These earnings have already been taxed by the IRS at the corporate level.

    For pass-through entities such as REITs, a portion of distributions are taxable as ordinary dividend income, because REITs are not taxed by the government.

    Hope that helps!

  7. ChadR,

    That is correct. So maybe you would have to carry it back or carry it forward. In reality, an investor would likely have other forms of income and a tax liability to offset the foreign credit.

    Rob, WE and PIP,

    Thank you for stopping by and reading the site.


  8. Seth,
    Qualified dividends receive special tax treatment. To receive the special tax treatment, you must own and hold the dividend paying stock for a full period consisting of 60 days on either side of the day of payout date. Any 60 day window will do - prior to, after, or straddling the payout date.

    If you do not hold the stock for the 60 day window, the dividend is treated as ordinary income, and you would pay taxes commensurate with your marginal income tax rate.

    Since DG investors are typically buy-and-hold investors, this is normally not an issue.

  9. DGI,

    Thanks for the article. I was just looking to find more knowledge about this too!

  10. A correction. I said it was 60 days on either side of the payout date. That's incorrect. It's 60 days on either side of the ex-dividend date. More precisely, you must hold the stock for 60 days during a 121 day period, the 1212 day period beginning 60 days prior to the ex-dividend date.

  11. Since qualified dividends face so little taxation, does it make the most sense to buy your dividend producing assets in a traditional IRA instead of a Roth IRA?

    That way you take advantage of the deduction in the present, and enjoy the low tax dividend distribution in the future.

    1. That's a smart observation I'd not thought about. I've used a Roth IRA in the past instead of a Traditional, but if I'm following the DGI approach to retirement the Traditional would seem to be where it's at. I'm self employed so there will be no pension/etc for me.

  12. I think your math is wrong in the table. Net income is what you keep, so:
    Net income = Salary - Income Taxes - FICA

    but you appear to be incorrectly calculating:
    Net income = Taxable income - Income Taxes - FICA

    Your point still stands, but this error somewhat overstates the tax benefit of dividends relative to earned income.

    1. Thank you for comment. You have a good point. I have adjusted the numbers and examples accordingly.

      Best Regards,

      Dividend Growth Investor

  13. Great article, general points I understand and need to study in detail. My opinion is one of your best dividend articles. Thank You, Barry

  14. Don't forget those living off of dividend income no longer have to pay social security or medicare taxes (the working man taxes). Extra bonus!


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