RSUs and Alternative Investments: How RSUs Compare To Real Estate Or Mutual Funds

Casey Fenton

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December 7, 2023

Picture this: You're at a weekend BBQ, and your friend Mike can't stop talking about his latest real estate investment—a rental property he's certain will yield significant passive income. Across the patio, Sarah is animatedly discussing her mutual fund portfolio, boasting impressive returns. But when the conversation turns to you, you casually mention your vested RSUs from your company. Eyebrows go up, and you can tell you've piqued their curiosity. That's because, unlike traditional investments, RSUs offer a unique blend of benefits that many overlook.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg called Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), an often-underestimated form of investment that could be the missing puzzle piece in your diversified portfolio. In this article, you'll discover how RSUs can hold their own when compared to other investment avenues like real estate and mutual funds, and why they deserve your attention.

How RSUs Fit Into Your Investment Portfolio

The beauty of an investment portfolio lies in its flexibility to adapt and evolve. You can mix and match various investment types to achieve the desired level of risk and return. And just like every plant in a garden has a specific role—be it adding color, attracting pollinators, or providing shade—each investment in your portfolio serves a purpose. But what role do RSUs play?

1. Long-Term Commitment with Short-Term Flexibility

One of the most appealing aspects of RSUs is their time horizon. Your RSUs usually come with a vesting schedule, typically spanning several years. This built-in time frame encourages long-term investment, aligning your financial interests with the long-term success of your company. It provides a sense of stability to your portfolio, acting as a counterbalance to more volatile investments.

However, once your RSUs vest, they offer a level of liquidity that long-term investments like real estate can't match. If needed, you can convert these vested units into cash rather quickly, offering a safety net in case of unexpected financial needs.

2. Synergizing with Your Financial Goals

Every investment you make should align with your broader financial goals, whether that's saving for retirement, buying a home, or creating an emergency fund. RSUs, with their unique blend of long-term vesting and short-term liquidity, can serve multiple purposes. For example, you could earmark vested RSUs for your child’s college education, while also considering them as a retirement investment due to their long-term growth potential.

3. Risk Mitigation Through Employer Performance

Since RSUs are tied to the performance of your employer, you have a level of insight into this investment that you might not have with others. You're likely familiar with your company's vision, strategy, and financial health. This unique insider perspective can offer you a sense of control and may even allow for more informed decision-making when it comes to managing the RSUs within your portfolio.

4. A Natural Hedge Against Career Risks

Your career and financial investment should ideally support each other. The RSUs act as a natural hedge here. If you're thriving at your job and the company is doing well, your RSUs can significantly appreciate value. On the flip side, if you decide to change jobs or your company hits a rough patch, your vested RSUs can be liquidated to support you in transitional periods.

RSUs vs. Real Estate Investments: A Balanced Perspective

When weighing investment options, it's easy to be swayed by the allure of real estate. After all, owning a tangible asset like property often carries a certain cachet. But it's essential to look beyond the surface and understand the different characteristics that each investment brings to your financial table. Here’s how RSUs stack up against real estate investments in a way that highlights the unique strengths of each:

1. Lower Barriers to Entry

RSUs are typically awarded as part of your compensation package, requiring no upfront capital on your part. This is a stark contrast to real estate, which often demands a substantial down payment and additional costs such as closing fees, maintenance, and property taxes. The lower barrier to entry for RSUs allows you to become an investor without the initial financial burden, making them an accessible avenue for wealth accumulation.

2. Liquidity: Cash in Hand When You Need It

Once your RSUs vest, they become instantly liquid, meaning you can sell them and convert them into cash almost immediately. This level of liquidity is a significant advantage over real estate, which can take time to sell and may involve further costs like agent commissions. The liquidity of RSUs can be particularly beneficial during emergency situations where quick access to cash is crucial.

3. Aligning Investments with Your Career

RSUs come from your employer, creating a synergistic relationship between your career and investment. If your company performs well, it’s likely your RSUs will too. In contrast, your real estate investment's performance is usually disconnected from your career, relying on market conditions and property management skills.

4. Portfolio Diversification with Minimal Effort

RSUs slide into your investment portfolio with little to no effort on your part. They automatically diversify your assets without the need for active management. While real estate can also add diversification, it often demands more hands-on involvement, including property upkeep and tenant management.

5. Tax Efficiency and Planning

RSUs are straightforward in terms of tax implications: they're taxed as ordinary income upon vesting. Real estate offers some tax advantages like property tax deductions and potential depreciation benefits. However, the simplicity of RSUs can make tax planning more straightforward, allowing you to understand your financial obligations with clarity.

RSUs vs. Mutual Funds

Both RSUs and mutual funds offer unique advantages, and both come with their own sets of challenges. You might be attracted to the hands-off approach of mutual funds or enticed by the direct link between RSUs and your company's performance. But how do these investment avenues truly compare? 

1. No Management Fees

One of the most immediate advantages of RSUs is the absence of management fees. Unlike mutual funds, which often charge annual fees to cover administrative and portfolio management costs, RSUs come to you free of any such fees. This means more of your money is working for you, without any drain on your returns.

2. Built-In Loyalty with Career-Linked Growth

RSUs offer a unique angle: they link your investment's growth potential directly to your workplace contributions and your company's performance. In a sense, you’re both the investor and the asset manager, as your work can contribute to stock price appreciation. On the other hand, mutual funds involve a professional money manager making decisions about a diversified basket of stocks or bonds, entirely disconnected from your daily efforts.

3. Seamless Diversification with Mutual Funds

The power of mutual funds lies in diversification. With a single investment, you can spread your risk across a basket of stocks or bonds. RSUs don't offer this kind of diversification because they're tied to the stock of a single company. However, RSUs can serve as a potent supplement to mutual funds, adding a layer of concentrated growth potential to your otherwise diversified portfolio.

4. Tax Treatment and Financial Planning

While both RSUs and mutual funds have tax implications, RSUs are generally easier to understand. They're taxed as ordinary income upon vesting. Mutual funds can have a mix of long-term and short-term capital gains, dividends, and sometimes even foreign taxes to consider. The simplicity of RSUs can make financial planning and tax forecasting more straightforward.

5. Liquidity and Timing

RSUs offer high liquidity once they vest, allowing you to convert them into cash almost immediately if needed. Mutual funds are generally liquid too but selling can trigger capital gains taxes, and some funds may have redemption fees if sold too quickly after purchase.

RSUs vs. Other Alternative Investments

Alternative investments are typically anything that falls outside of traditional stock and bond markets. This could include hedge funds, private equity, commodities like gold or oil, and more recently, cryptocurrency. These investment options often promise diversification and higher returns, but they can come with higher fees, greater complexity, and increased risk. Here’s how they fare against RSUs:

1. Accessibility and Complexity

Alternative investments like private equity or hedge funds often have high minimum investment requirements and may only be accessible to accredited investors. RSUs, on the other hand, are generally awarded as part of your employment compensation, meaning there are no minimum investment or qualification criteria to meet. The entry barrier is virtually nonexistent.

2. Transparency and Information Availability

When you own RSUs, you're directly invested in the company you work for, offering a level of transparency often not found in alternative investments. With hedge funds or private equity, the investment strategies may be more opaque, and the risks harder to assess. In contrast, working for the company behind your RSUs provides you with a more in-depth understanding of your investment.

3. Liquidity Concerns

Among alternative investments, RSUs offer superior liquidity once they have vested. This contrasts with investments like private equity, which often require long holding periods and have no guaranteed secondary market. Even commodities like gold can require storage and have transaction costs when buying or selling.

4. Regulatory Oversight

RSUs are regulated financial instruments, tied to publicly-traded companies subject to scrutiny by entities like the SEC in the United States. Many alternative investments, particularly newer options like cryptocurrency, operate in less regulated spaces, which can increase the risk profile.

5. Tax Implications

Just like any investment, RSUs come with their own tax implications, generally being taxed as ordinary income once vested. Alternative investments have their own complex tax treatments. For example, gains from commodities or private equity can be subject to both capital gains and income taxes, depending on the structure of the investment.

6. Considerations with RSUs

RSUs are not without their limitations. They don't offer the diversification benefit of a broader alternative investment like a commodity index or a private equity fund that spreads risk across multiple companies. Additionally, your financial well-being is closely tied to your employer's performance, which can be a double-edged sword.

Complementing Your Investments

RSUs offer a unique blend of characteristics—liquidity, transparency, and low entry barriers—that can complement the higher risks and potentially higher rewards of alternative investments. While these alternative routes may promise lucrative returns, they often come with high volatility and complexity. Therefore, RSUs can act as a stabilizing force in your portfolio, balancing the riskier bets you might be making in the alternative investment realm.

How to Maximize the Investment Value of Your RSUs

So, you've been awarded RSUs, a significant component of your overall compensation. It's a great position to be in, but merely receiving them doesn’t automatically maximize their potential. You need a strategy to grow and safeguard this investment. Here are actionable steps you can take to get the most out of your RSUs.

  • Understand the Vesting Schedule: Knowledge is power, and this is especially true when it comes to RSUs. Make sure you fully understand your vesting schedule, which outlines when your RSUs become yours to sell or transfer. The moment your RSUs vest, they become a much more flexible asset, allowing you to sell them for immediate cash or hold them for potential future gains.

  • Keep an Eye on Tax Obligations: When your RSUs vest, they're considered income and are taxed accordingly. It's crucial to plan for this tax liability. Consult a tax advisor to understand your specific situation and how you can strategically manage your tax obligations. For instance, you might offset the tax impact by harvesting losses from other investments.

  • Diversify But Don't Dilute: The term "don't put all your eggs in one basket" holds for RSUs as well. While RSUs offer great potential, having too much of your net worth tied to your employer's stock can be risky. Consider selling a portion of vested RSUs to invest in other assets like mutual funds or alternative investments, keeping a balanced portfolio.

  • Reinvest Dividends and Bonuses: If your company pays dividends on vested RSUs, consider reinvesting those dividends back into the stock, other equities, or alternative investments. The power of compounding can make this a potent strategy for asset growth over the long term.

  • Be Mindful of Market Timing: While timing the stock market is notoriously difficult, having a general awareness of market conditions can inform your decisions about when to sell your vested RSUs. If your company is on a growth trajectory and the market outlook is favorable, holding onto your RSUs for a longer period might maximize their value.

  • Utilize RSUs in Your Retirement Planning: Consider the role RSUs can play in your retirement planning. For example, you could sell vested RSUs and funnel the proceeds into a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, taking advantage of their respective tax benefits.

  • Leverage RSUs in Estate Planning: If part of your financial strategy involves estate planning, consult with an advisor to explore ways your RSUs can be integrated into your plans. Depending on your situation, there might be tax-efficient methods of passing RSUs on to heirs or charitable organizations.

  • Keep Abreast of Company News and Performance: Since RSUs are tied to your employer, staying updated on your company's performance can provide insights into the potential future value of your RSUs. This will help you make informed decisions about holding, selling, or diversifying your RSUs.

Why You Should Consider "Investing" in Your RSU Compensation

It’s essential to recognize that RSUs don't require you to invest any of your own money. They are granted to you as part of your compensation package. Despite this no-cost nature, RSUs can represent a high-value asset that deserves your attention, just like any other investment you might make. Here's why you should consider "investing" your time and strategic thinking into maximizing the value of your RSUs.

1. Potential for Significant Growth

Especially if you're working for a high-growth or tech company, RSUs can offer substantial upside potential. Unlike a regular salary, which might grow incrementally, the value of RSUs can multiply, providing a windfall that far outpaces traditional forms of compensation.

2. Favorable Tax Treatment

While RSUs are taxable upon vesting, they are generally subject to capital gains tax if you hold them long enough before selling. This tax rate is often lower than the ordinary income tax rate, providing a tax-efficient way to grow your wealth.

3. A Form of Forced Savings

Let’s face it, saving can be hard. RSUs act as a form of forced savings. Once they vest, you have an asset that you can either sell for immediate needs or, ideally, continue to invest. It’s a financial cushion that grows without you having to consciously set money aside.

4. Low Risk, High Reward

Given that RSUs come at no purchase cost to you, they represent a low-risk form of investment. While it's true that the stock price can fluctuate, affecting the value of your RSUs, remember that these didn’t cost you anything to begin with. Their potential for high reward at virtually no monetary risk to you is a significant advantage.

5. Adds Complexity and Depth to Your Portfolio

Adding RSUs to your investment mix can add another layer of complexity and depth to your portfolio, offering a different set of advantages and disadvantages compared to other investments. This complexity can be beneficial for those who know how to strategically manage a diverse portfolio.

6. Opportunity to Learn and Engage

Having RSUs gives you a reason to engage more deeply with investment concepts and strategies. You’ll likely find yourself learning about stock markets, tax implications, and asset diversification, enriching your understanding and skills as an investor.

Don’t Choose, Just Include

RSUs present a unique and valuable opportunity for building wealth and diversifying your investment portfolio. While they don't require the investment of your own money, they do demand strategic thinking and active management to unlock their full potential. 

Remember, incorporating RSUs into a diversified portfolio doesn't just mitigate risk—it can significantly bolster your financial growth prospects. So, take the time to understand and strategically manage your RSUs; they could very well be the game-changer in your long-term financial planning.

Want more financial tips to maximize your RSU value? Feel free to browse the Upstock blog here or check out our learning materials to compare RSU with other equity compensation models.

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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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