How to Master Financial Planning with Restricted Stock Units

Casey Fenton

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December 13, 2023

So, you've landed a job that throws RSUs into the deal, huh? Congrats! That’s awesome, but you might be wondering, "How can I use these RSUs to build a secure financial future?"

Ah, the age-old question. While RSUs might sound like a confusing acronym straight out of a financial planner's dictionary, they're actually a straightforward tool you can use to give your finances a leg up.

Let’s talk about navigating the tax maze, diversifying your investment portfolio, and even setting the foundation for a worry-free retirement. This isn't just for the Wall Street wizards; it's practical advice for employees like you who want to turn a job perk into long-term financial growth - you should master all of these, too.

Understanding the Basics of RSUs

Before diving into financial planning strategies, it's crucial to grasp the nuts and bolts of RSUs. What are they? How do they work? And most importantly, what are the pros and cons of having them as part of your compensation package?

What Are RSUs?

Picture this: A room full of wrapped gift boxes, each tagged with your name. They're yours, but there's a catch—you can only open them after a set period.

RSUs are like those gift boxes. Essentially, they are company shares that become fully yours after crossing certain milestones or timeframes, often referred to as the vesting schedule.

How Do RSUs Work?

RSUs and vesting schedules are like a buddy movie: always together. So, what's a vesting schedule?

Think of it as a countdown timer. When it hits zero, the RSUs are fully vested, meaning they become sellable shares.

It's a celebratory moment, but also one that rings the tax bell. Yup, vested RSUs get taxed as income, so prepare for a visit from Uncle Sam.

Advantages of RSUs

RSUs have a certain allure, mainly due to their predictability. Unlike stock options, where market volatility could leave you in the lurch, RSUs provide a level of certainty.

Once the vesting conditions are met, those shares are all yours, no upfront cost involved. They’re like an automatic boost to your financial arsenal.

Disadvantages of RSUs

But not everything is rainbows and unicorns.

RSUs lack voting rights, meaning you don't get a say in the company's decision-making process. Plus, let's be real, the tax implications can make your head spin. Navigating the IRS regulations on RSUs is like solving a complex puzzle, so it’s wise to consult a tax advisor.

That covers the basics of RSUs. The advantages make them a valuable asset, but there are challenges to keep in mind. Armed with this foundational knowledge, the next logical step is to explore how to prepare financially before these RSUs vest.

Financial Planning Before Vesting

So, the RSUs are in the bag but not yet vested. This period is the perfect window to put on the financial planning cap and create a well-thought-out roadmap. From setting goals to saving for emergencies, there's a lot to sort through.

Setting Financial Goals

Now is the time to define some clear financial milestones. Dreaming of owning a home in a trendy neighborhood? Perhaps there’s a dream vacation to the Maldives waiting on the horizon. 

RSUs can help achieve these goals. Say, for instance, a chunk of RSUs vest and they’re worth $50,000; that could be the down payment for a home or an all-inclusive trip overseas.

These RSUs aren't just numbers on a screen; they’re instrumental in turning dreams into reality.

Emergency Savings

Before diving deep into the allure of RSUs, it's crucial to have a safety net. 

Aim to stash away enough cash to cover living expenses for 3-6 months. For instance, if monthly living costs add up to $4,000, a healthy emergency fund would hover around $12,000 to $24,000.

These funds ensure that an unexpected medical bill or a sudden job loss doesn’t become a financial catastrophe.

Diversification

Remember, a balanced portfolio is a happy portfolio.

RSUs are just one ingredient in a diversified investment mix. Let's say the RSUs make up 40% of the portfolio. It’s wise to consider balancing it out with bonds, real estate, or even index funds to reduce exposure to company-specific risks.

For instance, adding dividend-yielding stocks or low-cost ETFs can offer both stability and additional income.

Tax Planning

When RSUs vest, they’re as taxable as any other income, so tax planning should never be an afterthought.

One way to mitigate the tax hit is by timing the sale of vested shares. For example, selling them in a year when income is lower could result in a lesser tax bracket, reducing the overall tax burden.

That's the primer on pre-vesting financial planning. Knowing the objectives and preparing for contingencies makes for a smooth transition when those RSUs finally do vest.

Financial Planning After Vesting

So, the clock has chimed and those RSUs have finally vested. Quite the milestone, isn't it? Now it’s time to pivot from thinking about vesting schedules to making actionable financial choices.

Handling Newly Vested RSUs

It's like hitting a fork in the road with three exciting paths: selling immediately, holding for future growth, or diversifying.

Suppose the RSUs vested are worth $100,000. Selling right away could instantly pay off a student loan or a pesky credit card debt. Holding onto them means betting on future growth.

On the other hand, diversifying could mean taking that $100,000 and spreading it across a range of investments like real estate or bonds, thereby spreading risk.

Tax Implications After Vesting

The IRS treats income from vested RSUs as, well, income.

For example, if holding onto the RSUs for over a year and then selling, the gains could qualify for a lower long-term capital gains tax rate, which tops out at 20%, compared to a short-term rate that can go as high as 37%.

Rebalancing Your Portfolio

Vested RSUs can tip the scales of a portfolio. Say, if before vesting, stocks made up 60% of a portfolio, but post-vesting they've ballooned to 80%.

Now might be the time to rebalance, by potentially selling some shares and investing in assets that align with your financial goals and risk tolerance. This could be as simple as reducing the stock portion back to 60% and boosting the bond allocation or diversifying into sectors or markets previously unexplored.

Planning for Future Financial Milestones

As life goals evolve, so should the financial game plan.

Newly vested RSUs could significantly contribute to a down payment for a dream home, or they could be funneled into a retirement account for more tax-efficient growth. Maybe a portion of them could be set aside to fund a child’s education. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and the right moves depend on current life objectives and what's around the corner.

Now that a solid plan for post-vesting is laid out, navigating the myriad of financial choices becomes less daunting and more strategic.

Advanced Financial Strategies for RSUs

Once basic financial planning is squared away, it's time to graduate to some higher-level strategies that can make RSUs work even harder.

Utilizing RSUs for Debt Repayment

Bogged down by debt? Using RSUs to pay off debt can be a game-changer. 

Prioritize debts with the highest interest rates first—think credit card debt or personal loans. By eliminating a 17% interest rate credit card debt with RSUs, for instance, that’s an immediate 17% return on investment.

Maximizing Tax Benefits

Taxes are always lurking in the background, but there are smart ways to lessen the burden. Ever heard of tax-loss harvesting?

Say the RSUs vested are worth $100,000, and there’s another asset in the portfolio that has lost $20,000. Selling the losing asset can offset the gains from the RSUs, effectively reducing the tax liability. Additionally, don't underestimate the power of charitable giving, which can not only offset gains but also provide a welcome deduction at tax time.

Leveraging RSUs for Retirement Planning

When it comes to planning for the golden years, the choices can be dizzying. Retirement account options include:

For instance, funneling the vested RSUs into a Traditional 401(k) can reduce taxable income for the year, while a Roth 401(k) allows for tax-free withdrawals in retirement. IRAs offer similar benefits but have lower contribution limits.

Annuities provide a steady income in retirement, while target-date funds offer a set-it-and-forget-it approach. And never, ever leave free money on the table—if there’s an employer match, take full advantage.

A toolkit of advanced strategies like these can do wonders. It can help to not only manage the short-term financial landscape but also lay the groundwork for long-term stability and prosperity.

Final Thoughts

RSUs aren't just shiny baubles on a financial balance sheet; they’re a significant form of equity compensation, closely tied to the health and performance of the company. When leveraged effectively, they can be transformational for achieving financial goals, from paying down high-interest debt to setting up a cushy retirement.

But remember, RSUs aren't a one-size-fits-all solution. Financial landscapes are as diverse as the people who own them. With multiple strategies available for both pre- and post-vesting, it may be prudent to seek tailored advice from a financial advisor familiar with the intricacies of equity compensation.

Ready to harness the full power of those RSUs? Then drop us a message right now. Let’s talk!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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