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  • Writer's pictureMark Fonville, CFP®

Are ETFs Tax Efficient?

Updated: Apr 15

Are ETFs Tax Efficient?

Exchange-Traded Funds, or ETFs, have been making waves in the investment world, and their popularity is on the rise.

A recent survey found that ETFs ranked third out of the top 10 investment products in U.S. households. These investments offer investors a diversified basket of assets that you can trade on the stock exchange, much like individual stocks.

The appeal lies in their flexibility, low costs, and tax efficiency. ETFs can be a good choice for both seasoned investors and those just starting out. As investors seek to improve their portfolios, ETFs have become a go-to choice.

If you need help navigating your tax efficient investment strategy for retirement, contact our team today and get a free assessment or complete the quiz below.

This article delves into the growth of ETFs, spotlighting the blend of flexibility, low costs, and tax efficiency. With a focus on retirement planning, you'll uncover how ETFs are a top tool. They’re useful for many investors seeking tax-efficient strategies for building and managing their portfolios. 

Understanding Exchange-Traded Funds

ETFs are investment funds that trade on stock exchanges, much like individual stocks. Here are three key characteristics of ETFs:

  1. Diversification: ETFs typically hold a basket of assets, such as stocks, bonds, or commodities, providing investors with diversification across a range of securities.

  2. Liquidity: You can buy or sell ETFs on the stock exchange throughout the trading day at market prices. This liquidity makes them easy to trade, similar to individual stocks.

  3. Tax Efficiency: Fund providers structure ETFs in a way that can lead to tax efficiency. For example, the "in-kind" creation and redemption process helps lower capital gains distributions, making them attractive for tax-conscious investors.

ETFs vs. Traditional Investment Options

While ETFs are similar to mutual funds, their structure and management style set them apart. Let's break down the similarities and differences between ETFs and more traditional investments: 


  • Traded on Exchanges: Like individual stocks, you can trade ETFs on stock exchanges. This gives investors flexibility to buy and sell throughout the trading day.

  • Diversification: Both ETFs and mutual funds can provide diversification by holding a basket of assets. Stocks and bonds can also be diversified, but it’s more limited based on the underlying businesses.

  • Income Generation: ETFs and traditional investments can generate income for investors through dividends or interest payments.


  • Management Style: Most mutual funds are actively managed by fund managers who try to outperform their market benchmarks. ETFs, on the other hand, often passively track an index, aiming to replicate its performance rather than beat it.

  • Minimum Investment: Mutual funds often have minimum investment requirements. On the other hand, you can buy ETFs in increments of a single share. This makes ETFs more accessible to smaller investors.

  • Tax Efficiency: ETFs are tax efficient due to the "in-kind" creation and redemption process. This can result in fewer capital gains distributions compared to mutual funds.

Tax Efficiency in ETFs

The taxes with ETFs can be more favorable compared to other investments. ETFs often use a creation and redemption process that helps minimize capital gains distributions. 

This results in potential tax savings for investors. 

When you sell an ETF, you might incur capital gains taxes, but the structure of ETFs can make these more predictable than those with mutual funds. 

On the other hand, individual stocks can provide more control over capital gains taxes but may reduce your diversification, and bond interest is typically taxed as regular income.

Let’s break down how taxes impact capital gains, dividends, and distributions:

  1. Capital Gains:

Capital Gains/Loss Formula
  • When you sell shares of an ETF for a profit, you incur capital gains. This can be either short-term or long-term, depending on how long you held the ETF.

  • Short-term capital gains (holding period of one year or less) are typically taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.

  • Long-term capital gains (holding period of more than one year) often qualify for lower tax rates than short-term gains.

2. Dividends:

How Dividends Work

  • ETFs that invest in dividend-paying stocks may distribute dividends to investors. These can be qualified or non-qualified dividends.

  • Qualified dividends are generally taxed at lower capital gains tax rates.

  • Non-qualified dividends are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.

Long-term Capital Gains Tax

3. Dividends: 

  • ETFs may distribute capital gains to investors, resulting from the fund manager selling securities within the ETF at a profit.

  • These distributions can be either short-term or long-term, and the tax treatment follows the same rules as mentioned for capital gains.

  • Some ETFs aim to minimize capital gains distributions through in-kind creation and redemption processes, potentially reducing the tax impact on investors.

Understanding the tax ramifications of ETFs can be complex. But, it's paramount to integrate your tax plan with your investment plan. We recommend completing the quiz below to connect with one of our financial advisors here at Covenant.

Are ETFs Good For Retirement?

Yes, ETFs can serve as a powerful tool for a properly designed portfolio in retirement. First off, ETFs offer a cost-effective way to invest. Also, the in-kind creation and redemption process can reduce capital gains events, providing you with more control over when they incur. This can provide a more predictable and lower tax liability, aligning well with the income needs of retirees.

The generally lower expense ratios of ETFs contribute to overall cost efficiency. This can help you retain a larger portion of your investment returns. ETF tax efficiency helps with fostering a more financially sustainable and secure retirement.

How do ETFs Fit in with Retirees' Goals?

With tax efficiency in mind, ETFs and retirees' financial goals can go together smoothly. The diversified nature of many ETFs helps lower risk. That’s crucial for retirees seeking stable income streams during their post-career years.

The low expense ratios with ETFs contribute to a cost-effective portfolio, ensuring more of the returns remain in your pocket. Also, the liquidity of ETFs allows retirees to adapt to changing market conditions and income needs.

With investments across asset classes, you can balance your portfolio with risk tolerance and income requirements. Overall, the flexibility, cost efficiency, and diversity of ETFs make them a compelling choice for many retirees. You can craft a retirement plan that prioritizes stability, income, and long-term financial well-being.

Challenges and Considerations

While ETFs offer tax advantages, there are still some potential hidden costs and pitfalls for investors.

One concern is the capital gains taxes when selling ETF shares for a profit. Though ETFs are generally tax-efficient, investors may trigger capital gains upon selling, increasing their tax liability.

Also, the tracking error, or the variance between an ETF's performance and its underlying index, can result in unexpected return fluctuations from the index.

Investing behavior can also impact your tax efficiency.

The timing of buying and selling ETF shares can be crucial. If you engage in short-term trading, capital gains may incur higher taxes, as short-term capital gains are taxed at higher rates than long-term gains.

On the other hand, long-term strategies can align better with the tax-efficient nature of ETFs, as they reduce the number of taxable events.

Strategies for Mitigating Tax Challenges

By using these strategies, retirees can minimize taxes and maximize after-tax returns:

  1. Long-Term Investing: Buy long-term investments to qualify for lower capital gains tax rates. Holding onto ETFs for more than a year can reduce the tax burden.

  2. Low Turnover ETFs: Choose ETFs with low turnover rates. Low turnover means fewer transactions within the fund. This can reduce the likelihood of capital gains distributions.

  3. Tax-Efficient ETFs: Look for ETFs designed for tax efficiency. Some providers structure ETFs to minimize the number of distributions and this reduces taxable events.

  4. Understand Tax Consequences: Stay informed about the taxes and ETFs, especially those focused on niche strategies. Knowing the potential tax impact can guide your investment decisions.

  5. Consult with Tax Professionals: Seek advice from tax professionals who can provide guidance based on your financial situation. They can help you develop a tax-efficient investment strategy.

Final Thoughts: Are ETFs Tax Efficient?

Investors often recognize ETFs for their tax efficiency. These funds are valuable tools in the quest for financial peace in retirement. The structure of many ETFs, with lower capital gains events and expense ratios, aligns well with the goals of many retirees. By reducing unexpected tax liabilities and keeping more of your returns, ETFs are a top choice for retirement.

Tax efficiency extends beyond mere financial gains; it provides a sense of control and security. As retirees navigate the financial landscape, tax-efficient investments like ETFs can be a crucial element in building a retirement plan.

We hope that you’ve found this article valuable when it comes to answering the question “are ETFs Tax Efficient?”

If you’re interested in learning more about how ETFs could benefit you and your portfolio, please contact us today for a free assessment.


Mark Fonville, CFP

Author: Mark Fonville, CFP®

Mark is a fiduciary, fee-only financial advisor at Covenant Wealth Advisors specializing in helping individuals aged 50 plus plan, invest, and enjoy retirement without the stress of money.

Forbes nominated Mark as a Best-In-State Wealth Advisor* and he has been featured in the New York Times, Barron's, Forbes, and Kiplinger Magazine.


Disclosure: Covenant Wealth Advisors is a registered investment advisor with offices in Richmond and Williamsburg, VA. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital. The views and opinions expressed in this content are as of the date of the posting, are subject to change based on market and other conditions. This content contains certain statements that may be deemed forward-looking statements. Please note that any such statements are not guarantees of any future performance and actual results or developments may differ materially from those projected. Please note that nothing in this content should be construed as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any security or separate account. Nothing is intended to be, and you should not consider anything to be, investment, accounting, tax, or legal advice. If you would like accounting, tax, or legal advice, you should consult with your own accountants or attorneys regarding your individual circumstances and needs. No advice may be rendered by Covenant Wealth Advisors unless a client service agreement is in place. Hypothetical examples are fictitious and are only used to illustrate a specific point of view. Diversification does not guarantee against risk of loss. While this guide attempts to be as comprehensive as possible but no article can cover all aspects of retirement planning. Be sure to consult an advisor for comprehensive advice.

Registration of an investment advisor does not imply a certain level of skill or training.


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