Tag Archives: tax rate

How tax brackets work

Being in the 24% tax bracket doesn’t mean you pay 24% on everything you make.

The progressive tax system means that people with higher taxable incomes are subject to higher tax rates, and people with lower taxable incomes are subject to lower tax rates.

The government decides how much tax you owe by dividing your taxable income into chunks — also known as tax brackets — and each chunk gets taxed at the corresponding rate. The beauty of this is that no matter which bracket you’re in, you won’t pay that rate on your entire income.

Being in the 24% tax bracket doesn’t mean you pay 24% on everything you make.

For example, let’s say you’re a single filer with $32,000 in taxable income. That puts you in the 12% tax bracket in 2018. But do you pay 12% on all $32,000? No. Actually, you pay only 10% on the first $9,525; you pay 12% on the rest.

These Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed last year changed the tax brackets as well as the standard deduction.  The old 2017 tax bracket for this taxpayer was 15% meaning that he pays quite a bit less in 2018 than 2017.

If you are single and had $90,000 of taxable income, you’d pay 10% on that first $9,525, 12% on the chunk of income between $9,525 and $38,100, 22% on the income between $38,700 and $82,500 and 24% on the rest because, because some of your $90,000 of taxable income falls into the 24% tax bracket. The total bill would be about $15,890 — about 18% of your taxable income, even though you’re in the 24% bracket.  This is often referred to as your “effective rate”  as opposed to your “marginal rate.”

Under the new law, the “standard deduction” is going to make a big difference.  For a single filer, the deduction goes from $6,500 to $12,000.  For a married couple filing jointly the standard deduction goes from $13,000 to $24,000.  The increase in the standard deduction means that many people are no longer going to itemize.

 

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Revolution

Our favorite economist, Brian Wesbury of First Trust, comments on the changes taking place in the economy:

One word that could describe Donald Trump’s unexpected ascendancy to the presidency is – “revolt.” Revolt against the “establishment.” Revolt against the “status quo.”

After all, status quo bureaucracies, tax rates, institutions, regulations, and narratives promised prosperity, yet the economy was mired in slow growth and many felt it was hard to get ahead. Reliably blue states tilted red, and the pendulum swung the other way.

Since 1993, the top federal tax rate on US corporations has been 35%, one of the highest in the world. This has forced US companies to expand overseas. Both sides of the political spectrum knew it was a problem, yet nothing was ever done.

Now the rate is 21%, and full expensing of business investment for tax purposes is law. These changes will boost the incentive to invest and operate in the US, leading to more demand for labor, which means lower unemployment and faster wage growth, as well. From an economic perspective, this is a revolution.

But there’s more. We’re referring to the new limit for state and local tax deductions. That change, combined with a larger standard deduction, will launch an overdue revolution in the policy choices of high tax states as well as the geographical distribution of business activity.

California’s top marginal income tax rate is 13.3%. Under the old tax system, tax payers who itemize could deduct their state income taxes from their taxable federal income. So for the highest earners, the effective marginal rate was 8.0%, not 13.3%. [Deducting 39.6% of 13.3% saved them 5.3%. 13.3% minus 5.3% is 8.0%.]

Politicians in California could raise state income tax rates, and up to 39.6% of the cost would be carried by taxpayers in other states. The same goes for New York City residents, where the top income tax rate is roughly 12.7%.

Now taxpayers are limited to $10,000 in state and local tax deductions (with a 37% top federal tax rate). The financial pain of living in high tax states is now exposed. California and New York City – and many other high tax jurisdictions – look a lot less attractive than states like Texas, Florida, and Nevada.

This change may limit the measured income and wealth gap in the US between the rich and poor. California and New York don’t just have high taxes, they also have a high cost of living. So, if some high earners in these places leave to take lower pay in places with lower taxes and a lower cost of living, the income and wealth gap would narrow.

But incentives work on all institutions, and policymakers in high-tax states have massive pressure to cut tax rates.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is set to rule on Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Based on a similar case from a few years ago, it’s likely the Court will rule that all government workers (state, local and federal) will have a choice to pay union dues, or not. We know from experience that, when given a choice, many workers stop supporting the political activities of unions. This would be another force significantly altering the balance of power.

Whether you agree with these developments or not, the U.S. hasn’t seen economic policy changes like this in a long time. The forces that support markets and entrepreneurship over government control are reasserting themselves.

 

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Paying a million dollars in taxes?

It’s time to pay our taxes and for many people it’s a painful chore. Whether you’re getting a refund or sending the US Treasury a check, the amount of money the government takes from our hard-earned income is never pleasant.

But I have told people that one year I would like to actually have to pay the government $1 million in taxes. Why? Because it means that I probably earned in the neighborhood of $2 million and that’s a nice neighborhood.

I have had a number of conversations this year with clients who have to write big checks to the government. The question always comes up “is there a way to pay less?” The answer is “yes” but the trade-off is not always to their advantage.

Tax free bonds (“munis”) have been a traditional way of avoiding taxes. Unfortunately the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy has reduced the yield on munis to the very low single digit range. A triple A rated Virginia muni maturing in 10 years yields a touch over 1.5%. Unless you are very taxaphobic the idea of tying your money up for a decade at a rate below inflation is not very attractive.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been touted for their tax efficiency. That’s true, but unless you buy and hold them forever, at some point you will have to sell them to get money for living expenses.  That’s when the tax comes due. And the tax rate could actually be higher.

The same argument goes for buying individual growth stocks. At some point, you will want to turn them into cash that you can spend for, say, a new car, travel, or all the other things you need money for and that’s when the tax man wants his share. Keep in mind that today’s growth stock can be tomorrow’s bankruptcy. Trees don’t grow to the sky and at some point even Apple may find that there’s a worm in the core. Individual stocks are fine, but lack of diversification is one of the biggest risks to wealth.

The US tax rate reached 94% during WW II in 1944. In the years that followed the rate never dropped below 70% until 1981. Investments were offered whose primary goal was to shelter income from taxes. These were often extremely poor investments. One shelter I recall was an investment in an aircraft leasing company that owned used aircraft. When the price of fuel rose, these planes were sidelined for more efficient models.  Some of the used planes were sold for parts.  Most investors eventually broke even … after a decade or so. The lesson here is that you should not let tax avoidance drive your investment decisions.

Top federal tax rates
These “tax shelters” mostly dried up during the Reagan era when top tax rates dropped to 28% in 1988.

They have been rising gradually since then.

Regular garden variety mutual funds have been getting a bad press because their capital gains distributions are not predictable. However, they have two advantages: (1) they focus on the primary objective of growth of capital rather than secondary issues, and (2) they allow you to pay your taxes as you go. The benefit of that is that when you want to turn your mutual funds into cash to pay for groceries – or whatever is you need money for – most of your tax may already have been paid and the tax man will take a smaller bite.

The desire to avoid taxes is natural, but the best way to manage money is to focus on avoiding major losses and getting a fair return. If taxes bother you, vote for the candidate who you think will lower the tax rate. That’s the smart way to manage your taxes.

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