Is Joe Biden coming for your Money?

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US politics has been admittedly kind of boring lately, with the current US president just “going to work” and “doing his job” rather than “threatening to nuke a hurricane” on a daily basis, but I thought it was time to check in with what good ol’ J to the B was up to these days. Turns out, quite a bit!

After passing a COVID stimulus bill back in March worth $1.9 trillion, Biden and the Democrats have been rolling out proposal after proposal, each with equally eye-popping price tags. The American Jobs Plan & the American Family Plan unveiled last week in his State of the Union address promise new highways, broadband for all Americans, two years of free community college, two years of free pre-school, expanded access to Obamacare, subsidized daycare, and a choice of one free rainbow OR unicorn per family [citation needed].

Choose wisely, my friends.

Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want all that? Until you look at the price tag. The American Jobs Plan has a projected price tag of $2.3 trillion dollars! And the American Family Plan? $1.8 trillion. For a total spend of $4.1 trillion.

A trillion is a difficult thing to envision, but that is $1,000,000,000,000, or a million million dollars. To put that into perspective, if you were to convert that into $100 Benjamins and stack them up in a tower, a trillion dollars would be almost 3 times the height of the Empire State building. And to put that into another perspective, the total price that America spent on the Iraq war was about $2 trillion dollars. So the Democrats are proposing to spend the equivalent of 2 Iraq wars, all in one go.

Yikes.

So how are the Democrats planning to pay it? By raising money on the wealthy of course! Ah, classic big-spending-soak-the-rich Democrats. Left-wing politics at its finest.

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise. During the election, the Democrats campaigned on going after millionaires, and this is just a fulfillment of that promise. So I thought I’d do a deep dive into what exactly Joe Biden’s plan is to go after millionaires, and more importantly, how those proposals might affect the FIRE community.

Income Tax

The first and most obvious way to raise taxes on the wealthy is a good old fashioned income tax hike. Income taxes (especially for employed people earning salaries) is one the most reliable ways of taxing individuals because there are relatively few ways of evading it. I mean sure, there are some self-employed people who can monkey around with how their income is classified but for most people, there’s very little else they can do to affect how much income is reported aside from maxing out your 401(k).

The current Democratic proposal is to increase the top federal tax bracket from 37% to 39.6%. This is actually where this tax bracket was in 2016, so what this proposal really does is roll the Trump tax cut on that specific tax bracket back to Obama levels.

Specifically, this is what the new proposed US Federal tax brackets would look like.

Tax rateTaxable income bracket
10%$0 to $9,875
12%$9,876 to $40,125
22%$40,126 to $85,525
24%$85,526 to $163,300
32%$163,301 to $207,350
35%$207,351 to $518,400
37% 39.6%$518,401 or more
2021 US Federal Tax Brackets for Single Filers

A few things to note here. First, none of the other tax brackets are changed by this proposal. During the 2020 US presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised that people earning less than $400,000 wouldn’t see any tax increases at all, so by only targeting the top earning tax bracket of $518,401+, he’s holding himself to that promise.

A single person earning over $500k a year is relatively rare, even in the FIRE community. While there are quite a few millionaires in this space, the vast majority of them became millionaires by saving a high percentage of their working salary rather than earning an insane amount each year from stock options as a C-suite executive or Wall Street finance guy. With less than 5% of Americans in his category, this is a very narrow minority of our readers that would be affected by this change. Or at least, among the single filers anyway. The picture changes a bit when we look at married couples filing jointly…

Tax rateTaxable income bracket
10%$0 to $19,750
12%$19,751 to $80,250
22%$80,251 to $171,050
24%$171,051 to $326,600
32%$326,601 to $414,700
35%$414,701 to $622,050
37% 39.6%$622,051 or more
2021 US Federal Tax Brackets for Married Filing Jointly

Again, the last tax bracket is the only one that changes, but look at how the tax brackets are organized versus the single filers. In every other tax bracket, the income level where you get bumped into a higher bracket is simply double the number for single filer. However, the one exception is the 35% to 37% boundary, where the number for the married couple is only slightly higher than for the single person ($622,050 vs. $518,400). This means that for married couples filing jointly, it’s actually easier to hit this top tax bracket than for a single filer.

A single filer earning over $500k is going to be limited to highly paid executives. A couple earning $622k is equivalent to both people earning $311k, and while still quite a high bar, can be done if both spouses are highly paid professionals (2 doctors, 2 lawyers, etc.). With $538,926 as the cut off for top 1% household income in the US, this is incredibly rare.

In both cases, regardless of the marital status, the proposed change in the top federal tax bracket is unlikely to affect the vast majority of people working towards FIRE.

Capital Gains Tax

Here’s where things get interesting. Changes in the federal long-term capital gains tax rates are relatively rare. The last major change was all the way back in 2008, which created the lower two levels of 0% that we base a lot of our FIRE tax planning on.

SingleMarried filing jointly or qualified widow(er)Tax Rate
$0–$38,600$0–$77,2000%
$38,601–$425,800$77,201–$479,00015%
Over $425,800Over $479,00020%
US Long Term Capital Gains Tax Rates for 2021

The Democrats proposal is to create a new capital gains tax rate of 39.6%, which by the way is the same proposed rate as ordinary income at the top tax bracket. Historically, LT capital gains have been taxed at a far lower rate than salaried income, and this is what has fuelled all this anti-fat-cat sentiment because people like Warren Buffet who derive most of their income from capital gains are able to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary, who gets paid in the form of a salary. So effectively, this change would stop the preferential treatment of long term capital gains vs. ordinary income.

BUT it only does this to people earning over $1,000,000. So rather than changing existing tax rates for LT capital gains, it would create a new bracket for households earning over $1M, like so…

SingleMarried filing jointly or qualified widow(er)Tax Rate
$0–$38,600$0–$77,2000%
$38,601–$425,800$77,201–$479,00015%
$425,800-$1,000,000$479,000-$1,000,00020%
$1,000,000+$1,000,000+39.6%
Proposed US Long Term Capital Gains Tax Rates for 2021

So while on the surface this may seem alarming for people trying to get to FIRE, again I don’t think this affects us. Here’s why.

The FIRE journey can be broken up into two major phases: Accumulation and Retirement. In the Accumulation phase, you’re working, saving your money, and investing it in (hopefully) low-cost Index ETFs. During this period, you generally don’t need to sell anything at all. As we demonstrated in our Investment Workshop, even if your portfolio drifts from your target allocations, you can keep your portfolio rebalanced by allocating more newly added cash towards the ETFs that are under target and less towards the ETFs that are over. No selling required. And therefore, no capital gains to report.

In Retirement, it’s a different story. Sometimes you do have to sell to rebalance (or to raise money to fund your living expenses), but during this period your household income will plummet since you’re, by definition, retired and no longer working. Under the current US tax code, as long as your total household income is less than $77,200 any capital gains you realize can be done for free!

So again, this is another tax hike that simply won’t affect most people in the FIRE community.

The BIG exception to this, however, are people who put the majority of their savings into real estate rather than ETFs and are relying on that to retire.

One of the more subtle problems (and there are many) about using real estate to retire is that you can’t strategically manage your capital gains taxes. If you own ETFs and need to sell something, you don’t have to literally liquidate your entire portfolio. You can sell just a few shares, and capital gains will only be realized only on the portion you sell. With real estate, on the other hand, you can’t sell part of a house. You can only sell the entire thing. So if you are sitting on a big capital gain on an investment property and you sell it to retire, you may find yourself pushed into that $1M+ tax bracket for the year, and if that happens you may see almost 40% of your nice fat juicy housing gain vanish into Uncle Sam’s coffers.

Just another reason to avoid real estate, as if you needed more.

Inheritance Taxes

The final tax hike that’s being proposed is to something we haven’t really written about on this blog at all: Inheritance taxes.

The US tax rate on estates is a punishing 40%, but US citizens currently have an estate exemption of $11.2 million, meaning if the total value of your net worth at the time of your death is less than $11.2 million, then no inheritance tax is due. This $11.2 million number was created by Trump, which doubled the previous exemption of $5.6 million. The Democratic proposal would roll this exemption back to its previous value of $5.6 million.

In addition, Joe Biden is also proposing to eliminate a rule in how capital gains of inherited assets are treated called the “step-up in basis” rule. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say Alice has a giant portfolio of ETFs worth $3M that she originally bought for $1M, so there’s an unrealized capital gain of $2M. At some point, Alice dies (sad trombone noise) and passes on her entire portfolio to her son Bob (happy flute noise!). Under the current rules, no capital gains taxes are paid in Alice’s hands. Bob would receive the portfolio’s full value at $3M, and the basis (or book value) would be “stepped up” to its current market value of $3M. That means that later on, if he sells this portfolio for $4M, he would only have to pay capital gains on the increase in value that occurred from the time he received the inheritance, or $4M – $3M = $1M.

So even though the “real” capital gain on this portfolio should be $4M – $1M = $3M (the price Alice originally purchased this at), $2M of that capital gain went away when Alice died.

This rule has been described by activists as a subsidy that unfairly favours inherited wealth. Capital gains is, after all, already taxed less than regular income, and by holding those assets forever until death, it’s taxed even less.

So if Democrats get their way and eliminate this loophole, Alice’s original basis will get passed down to Bob along with the shares. When Bob sells those shares, he will realize the full capital gains on those shares ($4M – $1M = $3M) as if Alice had sold them herself.

Now, there is a certain small group of people that are very, very upset about this change, but for the FIRE community this doesn’t really affect them because inheritance taxes, by definition, don’t affect your retirement because when the come due, you’re usually, you know, dead. It might affect how your money gets passed down to your kids, but that’s really an estate planning issue rather than a FIRE issue.

However, if inheriting money from your parents is a major part of your FIRE plan, this might affect you. The first change, which is the lowering of the estate exemption from $11.2M to $5.6M, will mean you receive less money out of an estate worth $5.6M, though I would argue that your “problems” at that point are pretty unrelatable even to other millionaires. And the second change, which is the elimination of the “step-up-in-basis” rule just means that you’ll be more susceptible to capital gains tax when you sell those shares, but even that can be managed by a) only selling shares after you retire and b) doing it slowly enough so that you only realize capital gains within the 0% tax rate each year.

Conclusion

While Joe Biden’s vow to go after the wealthy with tax hikes initially sent a wave of apprehension through the FIRE community, it appears that they’ve defined “wealthy” very narrowly, meaning those earning very high yearly salaries ($500k+) or those with ridiculously high net worths ($5.2M+). For the vast majority of our readers who are either on their journey to FIRE or already retired, it appears that these tax hikes aren’t targeted at us. Phew.

So what do you think? Do you think Biden’s tax proposals are structured in a fair manner, or are they unfairly punishing the ultra-rich? Let’s hear it in the comments below!


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51 thoughts on “Is Joe Biden coming for your Money?”

  1. It’s also important to note that the increased rate of the top bracket will only apply to the portion of income that is ABOVE that amount, not the entirety of the income. So if you make $600,000 a year, you’ll pay 2.6% of $82k or about $2,000 more a year in taxes. That’s a FIRE net worth of $15m… and they’re asking for an extra $2k a year. That’s like one bottle of Le Montrachet Grand Cru a year, or twenty minutes a year on a private chartered Cessna Citation Mustang jet.

    It really only seems unreasonable in that taxes should be even higher on the wealthy, and much, much lower for regular people.

  2. “Unfairly punishing the ultra-rich” is a legitimate way to frame it… but only if we first accept that the ultra-rich got that way by acting “fairly,” yeah?

  3. @Wanderer another Biden tax proposal you should add: $500k cap on benefit from 1031 exchanges (big change for real estate passive income)

  4. Well, no tax is fair by definition since they are all taken by force from the people. So, it doesn’t matter if he raised the taxes on the rich or the poor, it would still be unfair.

    1. Taxes are essentially just a yearly subscription fee for the country you live in.

      Childhood is the free trial period.

      Some people don’t want to grow up and pay their dues.

      Given that the very rich get preferential treatment by our government officials in a veritable host of ways, it’s only fair that their subscription fee should be higher. As it is, we in the middle class are subsidizing their subscription fee and that’s not fair.

  5. I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep over these tax rates if they pass. I also think those that will be affected if the increases are passed will find a way to survive without going hungry or losing their home.

  6. Thanks for pulling all this together for us – very informative article about the upcoming proposed changes. Another thing to remember is that what Biden wants won’t necessarily be what he gets. Not all of this will make it through, and some of it will be watered down as well. Of course the media will have a field day either bashing it or singing its praises. By the end, they will have their loyal listeners convinced that the very existence of the human race is at stake. In reality, it won’t change very much at all. It seldom does.

  7. I’m more horrified at the spending than the tax increases. Basically, we need to increase taxes just to pay for what we already have without any more add-ons. I really feel like the U.S. is going down the toilet regardless of which party is in power.

    1. Great point. The tax increases will not come close to paying for this spending and doesn’t address current debt levels. There are not enough tax payers in those brackets, and the FIRE group will get pulled in at some point, which makes me nervous about retiring early. The goal here is narrative setting…if we just get the select few to pay their fair share (whatever that is), human suffering will end. Congress has no interest in balancing its books or paying for past spending. Why would we want to authorize them to spend more?

  8. This is what we get by trying to slay a demon (Trump) by electing a communist demon ! We got what we asked for and now here is the bill to pay.
    Let’s just hope it doesn’t pass senate or USD will be worth less than the Yuan soon

  9. One thing that I think you missed here is the potential impact (though short term) of the capital gains taxation on the high income earners impacting the market, which indirectly affects the entire FIRE community. Since a very disproportionate amount of the market is held by very wealthy individuals, policies that effectively target this group will likely shift the decisions to invest in public equities markets, pulling the rug out from under those of us who are building our perpetual money machines heavily in ETFs. This seems to be an unfortunate reality of tying our livelihood to the wealthy’s table-scraps.

    I don’t believe this is necessarily a problem per-say (as the wealth disparity needs to be addressed), just worth discussing.

  10. Your analysis will not help me sleep at night…You’re not addressing the unintended consequences of attempting to redistribute wealth. Not many wealthy or semi-wealthy will sit idly by when they come for their gold. Does anyone here really think that these changes to the tax brackets are going to pay for the rainbows and unicorns for everyone especially with the coming inflation and destruction of the economy when the job creators head for the hills?

    1. Those wealthy people leaving to other country won’t change a thing since they wouldn’t pay their share of tax whether they stay here or not if tax hike won’t happen.

      Also what kind of job creation do you think we will lose? Amazon Wearhouse?
      Imagine if Apple move their base to Panama for avoiding tax, do you think those brilliant engineers will follow them or hiring bunch of new engineers at Panama? Not a chance.

  11. Biden’s plan is excellent and at leat a small step toward more equitable taxation at every level.

  12. I do so enjoy seeing the Trump pumpers and the anti-tax burn communists at the stake crowd on here. Of course they hate Biden. How surprising his approval rating is 75%. Good for Biden. Soooo sad for his haters. As for the anti-tax crowd, you’re funny too. I like clean water coming out of my tap. I like to drive on maintained roads too. I especially like and appreciate when I need to take a dump, all I need to do is flush the toilet and my problems become the sewer system and the water treatment plant’s problems. Get real, you misguided fools. Infrastructure and other services need to be paid. That money comes from various income taxes. Not ongoing deficits. And subsidized daycare as well as free college will pay future dividends for the US. Biden has his head screwed on properly. Not like the wack job loser who preceded him.

    1. I only like money on my account and my 401k skyrocketing..this is the only reason I’m still in this **** country!
      Trump will be back and I’ll sure vote for that ! zero Corp taxes !!!!!!

    2. If only people in Flint paid their taxes they wouldn’t have to drink lead water…
      If the last 50 gazillion dollars Trump and Biden gave out that did not result in inflation or raised taxes doesn’t prove that the government doesn’t need your taxes to spend, you’re welcome to give all your money to Uncle Sam and pat yourself on the back 🙂

      1. Of course pick an exception to the norm like Flint to justify your point of view. Must be nice living in a world that is only black and white. Or very dull.

    3. I love it when people write what I’m thinking (the reasons we pay taxes). It saves me so much time. Thanks Dave.

  13. My view is that a lot of clever accountants will come up with schemes to “help” their
    clients to pay less tax.

  14. Any news about dividends taxation?
    The yield shield is mostly comprised of dividends.

    Many FIRE people build a dividend income portfolio and hope to live (at least partially) on dividends and not just capital gains…

  15. I got a poem for you guys:

    “While you were here giving your opinion
    Biden just spent another Trillion ! ”

    -Author Unknown

  16. There are 3 issues here that need to be parsed:

    1. spending – a trillion here, a trillion there and soon you have inflation. Think late 70’s at 14%. Watch the portfolio tank.

    2. new taxes – When something cost more, you get less of it. When something is taxed, you get less of it. Wages are determined by productivity and productivity is determined by organization, capital, and technology. The new taxes will penalize capital and this will result in lower wages (with a time lag). Every study of history and all models agree.

    3. tax fairness
    Joe was all about fair share. But what is fair about 50+% of the population paying no taxes at all. When a democratic society reaches the tipping point of 50%, then the non-payers will vote to keep raising the taxes on the payers until the payers either leave or stop generating income. Ayn wrote a book about that and “Atlas Shrugged.” This is when capitalism and individual initiative and motivation die.

    At this point I am fearful for my grandkids’ future.

    1. Ah, the “everybody should pay their fair share” trope…You know why so many people don’t pay federal income taxes? It’s because they don’t make enough money over all the deductions, bro. So what point are you arguing/advocating for here…that these people should all make more money so their income falls above the deductions, or that we should lower the deductions we all get and/or increase the tax rates on the bottom few brackets JuSt So EvErYoNe PaYs ThEiR fAiR sHaRe?

  17. So the top tax bracket would be 39.6%, plus your state tax rate. In California, the top rate is 13.3%. which is a combined 52.9%. I don’t make anywhere near the top brackets, but in my mind, I don’t care how much you make, the Government (combined Federal + State) should never be able to take more than 49.9% of what you make. Income or investments.

    An article I read regarding inheritance taxes stated that one of the options they are considering is charging the capital gains taxes up front based on the day of death, and then resetting your basis, afterwards. So in this case you’d have to sell stocks in order to pay for the taxes, you wouldn’t be able to sell it slowly over a long period of time and slowly pay the capital gains taxes as you suggest. You’d have to pay it all at once, and then you would get the step up in basis from that point forward.

    The bigger problem with this comes with real estate or a family business. If you or your parents have owned a house for say 30 years or more in almost any reasonably nice area in California, especially at or near the coast, it would not be unreasonable that their house has gained a million dollars or more. So in this case, most people wouldn’t be able to keep the family house, they’d have to sell the house in order to pay the capital gains taxes. The exception was if the property was a family farm. The same would apply to a family owned business that has increased in value. In many cases, the kids would have to sell the business in order to pay for the taxes.

    1. Totally agree with you. Any Government taking more than 49.9% of what you make should be called CUBA or VENEZUELA !!!

      1. You do realize that the US had a Income Tax Rate for the top bracket of over 70% from 1936 – 1980, right? And from 1917 up until 1986 it was over 50% except for a handful of years leading up to *drumroll please* the Great Depression.

        https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/historical-highest-marginal-income-tax-rates

        So perhaps you should revise your comment to be:

        “Any Government taking more than 49.9% of what you make should be called CUBA, VENEZUELA, or THE UNITED STATES FOR VIRUTALLY ALL OF THE 20TH CENTURY!!!”

  18. It’s quite difficult to imagine that the U.S. is finally raising taxes on capital gains. I wonder if it’ll actually pass and come to fruition but that will be the most historic thing I’ll see in my lifetime, I think.

    There will be a lot of people who favor getting things for free by having others pay for it. Good or bad thing? Who knows, but that is reality!

  19. The issue of family farms and other family business was not addressed when speaking about the new inheritance and capital gains tax increase. Due to the inflated cost of land even a modest family farm or business will need to be liquidated just to pay the taxes. That is a sad state of affairs to play by the rules while your alive just to have the government take an asset that has possibly been in your family for generations. The money receive from your families lose will used to “redistribute the wealth ” or to line the pockets of someone they feel is more deserving. The percentage of the money requested in each of these bills that is actually allocated to the bills name sake such as the infrastructure bill is remarkably small. The majority of the money will go towards pet projects and pork. If the bills were voted on by line item it would never pass the publics scrutiny.

  20. lol, no, a subscription is voluntary. There is nothing voluntary about this, and the price is way to high for what you get.

  21. In Denmark and Sweden they have found taxing the rich at really high rates is counter productive. So, they ended up just taxing the middle class really high.

  22. You shouldn’t be fearful for you grandkids’ future. You should be fearful for you own. The collapse isn’t going to happen in some distant future. We’re staring it in the face.

  23. Just to clarify, is there a tax rule in Canada where taxes go up if President Biden raises various taxes? Just making sure given you guys are Canadian and most of your readers are Canadian? Therefore, I don’t think Biden is coming after most of y’all.

    I don’t think American taxes are influenced by Canadian taxes. But I think under Biden we are heading closer to becoming Canada.

    But if United States home prices rise as much as Canadian home prices have risen over the past 1-20 years, it’s going to be nuts!

    I’d actually love to learn more about the Canadian tax system and its future.

    Thanks,

    Sam

    1. You really don’t know this website well, do you? 90% of readers are American and they invest most of their money in the US stock market as most of the world.

      1. Ah, I had no idea 90% of readers are American here. Cool. I often don’t know a lot of things and don’t want to assume, hence why I ask.

        As an American, there’s just so much going on in America to deal with that I have no time writing about and researching Canadian, Mexican or any other country’s politics or tax issues.

        It’s tough enough trying to figure out American taxes and politics alone! So I’m impressed if others can keep track.

        Do you have any good Canadian PF site recommendations?

        Oh, now that I think of it, I have written about Canada before several times actually. I think you’ll enjoy this post!

        https://www.financialsamurai.com/the-best-life-hack-for-americans-taking-advantage-of-canada/

  24. Old Joe doesn’t have a clue. He talks about trillions like if it’s something trivial.
    Do you have any idea what will happen when US loses it’s S&P rating because the debt is officially unpayable?
    It seems like US doesn’t want to have USD as the golden standard for currency anymore. I bet China is happy with that and so are the crypto people.

  25. [email protected] Financial Thought For the Day!

    A successful FIRE mindset must have “USEFULNESS” as the seed of foundation.

    Nickel and dime with taxes in this land of unlimited opportunities (United States) is a sure failure.

    Be “USEFUL” and pay your taxes to help the people that have less than you along the way is highly recommended!

  26. I listened to a podcast today in which Clark Howard said his biggest financial mistake was making a personal investment decision purely for tax reasons. He retired at 31 before FIRE was a thing.

    https://www.wesmoss.com/podcasts/5-clark-howard-on-saving-more-and-retiring-early/?utm_source=Clark.com&utm_campaign=90325f8b4f-Clark_Daily_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_afa92deb83-90325f8b4f-72239517

    I plan to continue my 90/10/10 mix of equities/bonds/cash to help fight inflation over the long haul. Inflation is my bigger concern right now.

  27. What we also need is a tax hike on super-short term capital gain on investments that are bought and sold on the same day, for example, or the same week.

    I propose a 95+% tax on all gains from those kinds of transactions.

    Hopefully, that will put a stop to the Gamestock, Dogecoin, Tesla, Bitcoin speculation.

    1. I bet they say the same about long-term blind VTSAX holders like us. More Taxes is not and will never be the answer

      1. I’m pretty sure Congress will agree with both of you (Crescent Moon and Kimberly) – high taxes on short term capital gains and high taxes on long-term gains.

    2. The other option is a tax per transaction, which people such as Bernie Sanders have advocated for. It’s a little bit of sand in the gears of ridiculous speculation, and would probably doom a lot of HFTs (tiny violin).

  28. Janet Yellen has brought up that it might be a good idea to tax Un-realized Capital Gains.
    Anybody else see that? What about Un-realized Capital Losses? Bet that wouldn’t be part of her equation.

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