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Tech professionals – Understanding your employee stock compensation and their taxation

Iftikhar Ahmed, CFP®

2 min read

Mar 29

Navigating employee stock compensation can feel like decoding a secret language, right? We often get asked what the differences and optimum ways are to benefit from these. Let’s break it down (at least at a high level):

  • Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) – These are tax-friendly. You don’t pay taxes when you exercise them but rather when you sell the stock, and it's taxed as capital gains, which can be lower than regular income tax.

  • Non-Qualified Stock Options (NSOs) – These are taxed as ordinary income when you exercise them, which means you’ll pay more in taxes up front compared to ISOs.

  • Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) – Think of these like a bonus. They become yours as they vest, and you’ll be taxed as income when they do. No need to buy anything; they’re granted to you.

  • Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP) – These allow you to buy your company’s stock at a discount, and if you hold onto them for a while, you can enjoy tax benefits.

Each type has its own perks and pitfalls. ISOs might be great for tax benefits, NSOs could give you more immediate income, RSUs offer straightforward ownership, and ESPPs can be a sweet deal if you believe in your company’s future.

Preferential Capital Gains Tax Rates  One of the major benefits of ISOs and some ESPP plans is the potential for preferential capital gains tax rates. If you hold the stock long enough (usually at least a year after exercising and two years after the grant date), you may qualify for long-term capital gains tax rates, which are generally lower than ordinary income tax rates. This can significantly reduce your tax burden and maximize your returns.

Given the intricacies and potential tax implications, having a financial advisor can help tailor strategies to align with your financial goals and avoid any surprises. 

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