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Differences Between Ordinary Income and Capital Gains Tax


Different kinds of income are taxed differently under the United States tax system and two of the major distinctions are between ordinary income tax and capital gains tax. Ordinary income tax applies to income earned from regular activities such as wages, salaries and commissions. It also applies to interest earned on bank deposits. Capital gains tax applies when you sell a capital asset such as a stock, bond, real estate or other investment for more than you paid for it. A financial advisor can help you account for different taxes on types of income.

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Ordinary Income Tax

Income earned from working for wages, salaries and commissions, as well as income earned from interest paid on bank deposits, is taxed as ordinary income. This type of income is taxed at your regular tax rate, also known as your marginal tax rate.

The marginal rate is determined by tax brackets. The IRS publishes annually updated income ranges for seven tax brackets that go from 10% to 37%. The percentage of tax applied increases as income rises.

For a simplified example of how this works that doesn’t account for deductions and other factors, a taxpayer who earns a $75,000 salary in 2023 will be taxed using the following tax brackets:

  • 10% on the first $11,000 = $1,100
  • 12% on the amount over $11,000 and up to $44,725. This amount is $33,725, so the tax would be $4,047
  • 22% on the amount over $44,725 and up to $75,000. This amount is $30,275, so the tax would be $6,660.50.

The total tax on ordinary income in this simplified example is $1,100 + $4,047 + $6,660.50 = $11,807.50.

Capital Gains Tax

capital gains vs ordinary income

Capital gains tax applies when you sell a capital asset for more than you paid for it. Capital assets include stocks, bonds, jewelry, real estate and other investments. The tax rate varies depending on whether it’s a short-term or long-term capital gain and also on your income. Different capital gains tax rates may apply to specific types of assets as well.

Short-term capital gains result from sales of assets held for a year or less. These capital gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate. So, if you sell a stock you owned for six months and make a $10,000 profit, this will be added to your ordinary income and taxed accordingly.

Long-term capital gains from sales of assets held for more than a year receive a more favorable tax rate. Long-term capital gains rates for 2023 are 0%, 15% or 20% depending on your income.

For example, if you sell a stock you held for two years and make a $20,000 profit, the tax on this gain would be:

  • 0% if your taxable income, including the gain, is up to $40,400
  • 15% if your taxable income is more than $40,400 but not more than $445,850
  • 20% if your taxable income is over $445,850

To combine this with the previous example involving an ordinary income of $75,000, adding a $20,000 long-term capital gain results in a total income of $95,000. This would place you in the 15% bracket for long-term capital gains. The additional tax on your $20,000 gain would be 15% of $20,000 or $3,000, increasing your total tax bill including ordinary and capital gains tax to $14,807.50.

Special Considerations

In addition to the basic rates, high-income investors may also have to pay an additional 3.8% net investment income tax. Also, certain types of assets have specific rules. For example, capital gains on sales of collectibles such as art and jewelry are taxed at a flat rate of 28%.

As well as making gains when selling assets, you may also experience losses. These losses can be used to reduce your overall capital gains for a given tax year and potentially reduce the taxes you owe. An investing strategy called tax-loss harvesting can be employed to make the most of money-losing asset sales.

The Bottom Line

capital gains vs ordinary income

Ordinary income tax applies to regular earnings like wages, salaries and interest and is taxed at your marginal tax rate, which varies from 10% to 37% depending on your income. Capital gains tax, charged when selling assets for a profit, varies depending on how long you owned an asset. Short-term gains on assets held a year or less are taxed as ordinary income, while long-term gains held for over a year have generally lower tax rates.

Tips for Tax Planning

  • Careful tax planning is one of the most effective ways to increase your income and wealth and talking to a financial advisor can help with this important task. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Check out SmartAsset’s Capital Gains Tax Calculator to find out how much tax you’ll owe when selling investments.

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