Reinvesting dividends in a taxable account

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One of the most frequently asked questions on our forum is whether to reinvest dividends in a taxable account. This page discusses the pros and cons of taking dividends in cash in the taxable account. Below, the term "dividends" is used for brevity, but it should be understood as "dividend and capital gain distributions" to be precise.

Pros of taking dividends in cash

It is a good idea to take dividends in cash in several cases:

  • If you are planning to use specific identification of shares, taking dividends in cash avoids creating a lot of small tax lots. You can invest dividends along with new money.
  • If you are planning to do tax loss harvesting, automatic reinvestments of dividends may accidentally trigger a wash sale.
  • If you are investing a relatively small amount of new money compared to the dividends you receive, taking dividends in cash may better facilitate rebalancing because you can choose not to put any new money (including dividends) into an outperforming fund.
  • If you have difficulty maxing out tax-advantaged accounts from your paycheck, and taking dividends from your taxable account would allow you to max out your tax-advantaged accounts, you may want to take dividends in cash and use the cash to max out your tax-advantaged accounts. (This situation may apply to investors who have inherited a large taxable account, or have built a large taxable account, ignoring the benefits of tax-advantaged accounts for many years.)
  • If your taxable account has a fund that is less than ideal but remains a suitable holding, you might want to take dividends in cash from that fund. For example, if you have Vanguard 500 Index Fund with a large amount of unrealized capital gains, and your asset allocation calls for Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund for domestic stocks, you may want to take dividends from Vanguard 500 Index Fund in cash to avoid investing more money into Vanguard 500 Index Fund.
  • For retirees withdrawing income from taxable accounts, taking dividends and capital gains distributions in cash simplifies tax accounting. [footnotes 1]

Cons of taking dividends in cash

Although taking dividends and capital gain in cash generally simplifies cost basis accounting, there are several caveats.

  • If you have your mutual fund or brokerage automatically reinvest distributions back into a fund with a purchase fee, shares purchased with the distributions are not subject to the purchase fee (at Vanguard, the Vanguard Global Ex-US Real Estate Index Fund imposes a purchase fee). However, the savings with automatic reinvestment are extremely small. If you assume 2% distributions from a fund with a 0.75% purchase fee, the purchase fee is 0.02% of the fund balance.
  • If you have your mutual fund or brokerage automatically reinvest distributions back into a fund with a permanent redemption fee (such as, for example, the Vanguard Global Ex-US Real Estate Index Fund), shares purchased with distributions are subject to the fee. However, if the fund imposes a short-term redemption fee, the shares purchased with distributions are usually not subject to a redemption fee if you redeem them within the short-term redemption fee period. This feature is specific to a fund.
  • There is a small opportunity cost for not investing dividends immediately. See Delaying reinvestment of dividends for more details.

Observations

  • There is no extra tax cost for reinvesting dividends, versus receiving cash and buying shares. Either way, the newly-added shares have a basis which is subtracted from the sale price of those shares to compute the capital gain when you sell.
  • The decision to take dividends in cash does not require you to use specific identification of shares or do tax loss harvesting.
  • If you are planning to use average cost basis, and you might want to sell some of the fund soon (to rebalance, for example), you will pay extra taxes to sell the shares you just bought. If you are planning to use average cost basis and know that you will continue to add to the fund, it doesn't matter whether you reinvest distributions.
  • The share price in a bond fund does not vary significantly, so there is little potential tax cost to reinvesting dividends and selling those shares later. (However, since most bond funds distribute dividends monthly, you will always have a wash sale if you sell any shares for a capital loss, which is an accounting complication even if it doesn't cost you a significant amount in taxes.)

Notes

  1. In Spending from a Portfolio: Implications of Withdrawal Order on Taxable Investor, Jaconetti, Colleen M., CPA, CFP, and Bruno, Maria A. CFP, Vanguard Investing Counceling & Research, the following common sources of retirement income are cited:
    • Social security
    • Pensions
    • Part-time employment
    • Trust income
    • Rental income
    • Required minimum distributions
    • Dividend, interest, and capital gains from taxable accounts
    If these sources of income are more than sufficient for income needs, the income distributions from the taxable account can be taken in cash and reinvested in the taxable portfolio, just as one might do during the accumulation stage. If these income sources are insufficient in attaining the income goal, additional sales from the taxable account may be considered.

See also