Warren Buffett Is Worth $100 Billion and Still Pays Less in Taxes Than You

Warren Buffett

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Warren Buffett
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No Accounting for It

Make no mistake: Taxation in the United States is an uneven playing field. And recent changes in tax law have tilted it even further toward wealthy taxpayers. Many billionaires famously pay less in taxes as a percentage of their income than middle-class people. (Former President Donald Trump is reported to have paid nothing in many recent tax years and as little as $750 when he did pay.) While only the rich can skate by the taxman in some respects, a few of their moves can also help the average working stiff.

Related: Big Celebrities Who've Had Tax Trouble

The Very Rich Are Different...
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Wages vs. Investment

The richest man in the world, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, reportedly earned a salary of just $81,840 when he was CEO. (He stepped aside in 2021.) Billionaires generally don't make their money from big salaries; their wealth is built on investments in companies and other assets, from real estate to art. The money they make on these investments is taxed differently than the money you make from working.

 Related: High-Profile CEOs Who Left Their Companies

Rich People's Resources Bend the Tax Code to Their Favor

Dividends and Capital Gains

Most of the income that billionaire investors report on their taxes is "unearned" — namely dividends (when they own shares in a company that gives a portion of its profits to shareholders) and capital gains (when they sell an asset for more than they paid for it). These are often taxed at a lower rate than earned income. For long-term capital gains, it can be as low as zero. 

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...From You and Me

Paycheck and Payroll Tax

Not only do workers pay higher income tax rates, their earnings are also subject to payroll tax. "Earned income from labor is taxed as high as 37%, depending on your tax bracket, and then workers also have to pay 7.65% toward Social Security and Medicare," says Lyn Alden, founder of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy. "Qualified dividends and long-term capital gains, on the other hand, are taxed at a maximum rate of 20% for shares of stock, and they are not taxed any money toward Social Security and Medicare."

The New Normal in Taxes Favors The Rich

Lucrative Loopholes

Lower tax rates are only the beginning. "Billionaires and multimillionaires also have access to certain partnership structures, write-offs, and other specific accounting tactics to legally reduce or defer their taxable income," Alden says. These are out of the reach of most Americans, who have far less wiggle room to lower their tax burdens. 

New Qualified Business Income Deductions Allowed

Business Income

Joshua Wu, a tax specialist at the law firm Latham & Watkins and and a former deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, cites the new Section 199A, which allows non-corporate business owners to deduct up to 20% of their qualified business income from a partnership, S corporation, sole proprietorship, or trust. "That 20% deduction is not available to people who earn money as normal employee W-2 wage earners," he says. 

The Capital Gains Game

The Capital Gains Game

The capital gains tax structure rewards long-term investment: If you sell assets you've owned for a year or less, the capital gains are taxed at your regular marginal tax rate. Of course, the average family can't afford to have money tied up in investments when they need it for practical purposes such as food, clothing, and transportation. An investor such as Warren Buffett — who's already worth $110 billion — has the means to hold onto stocks for years or even decades as they go up in value. He can also defer paying taxes on that increase in his net worth until he actually sells the stock.

Related: The Richest Person in Every State

Heir Apparent

Heir Apparent

Billionaires looking to pass on wealth to future generations can avoid capital gains tax altogether by holding their assets until death, Wu says. The heirs get the assets with a "step up in basis" — instead of paying capital gains tax based on the original value of the assets, they pay only if the asset appreciates beyond its value at the time of their benefactor's death. Furthermore, the 2017 tax law doubled the amount excluded from federal estate tax to $11.2 million for individuals and $22 million for married couples, a hefty boost for America's richest families. The amount has been edging up since then, too.

Bigger IRS Bill

Starting at Home

One opportunity the average person has to make a long-term investment and reap capital gains is by buying a home. Profits from the sale of a home are a specific form of capital gains that are exempt from tax up to a certain amount: $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples filing jointly. There are lots of rules, however. For instance, to avoid taxes, you have to own the home and live in it for two of the five years leading up to the sale.

Taking Advantage With 401(k)s

401(k) Contributions

How can the average taxpayer play the rich investor's game of deferring income tax? "Many taxpayers fail to take advantage of ways to save money tax-free each year, including maxing out their 401(k)s," says Stacy Caprio, founder of Fiscal Nerd. "This is one way to put away a large chunk of income completely tax-free that will be available to use in retirement." Another is by contributing to a traditional IRA or similar retirement vehicle.

Deferring Taxes is the New Black

Tax-Free Retirement

While a traditional IRA lets you defer taxes for decades, you do eventually have to pay tax on the money you earn on your investments and the money you withdraw in retirement. With a Roth IRA, you don't have to pay capital gains tax on the earnings, and you can withdraw money without paying income tax in retirement. Contributing to a Roth IRA doesn't get you out of paying any income tax now, though. 

Related: Most and Least Tax-Friendly States for Retirees

Become Your Own Boss

Becoming Your Own Boss

Starting a small business offers tax savings not available to individual taxpayers. While individuals pay taxes on earnings, businesses pay taxes on profits. "This is a key distinction," says real estate investor Eric Bowlin, who teaches a course on achieving financial independence with passive income from real estate. "Businesses pay for internet, cable, phones, computers, cars, fuel, rent, mortgage interest, and more first, and pay taxes on what's left. Regular people earn money and pay taxes first, then pay rent, car, fuel, internet, etc." 

Depreciation is Not All Bad News

Location, Location, Depreciation

Many wealthy people and "business owners" buy real estate. Bowlin, who owns more than 480 rental units, says it's a good tax shelter because depreciation of a rental property can be deducted. "It loses roughly 1/30th of its value on paper every year, but in real life, it actually appreciates," he says.

Home Sale Exclusion

Playing Real Estate Professional

A self-employed person who buys real estate and actively manages the properties may qualify to list their occupation as '"real estate professional" when filing taxes. "This status allows [them] to deduct losses against non-rental income on their tax returns," says Alina Trigub, founder of SAMO Financial

Small Business Stock Awareness

Small Business Stock Awareness

Tax lawyer Wu points to some lesser-known tax benefits available to "normal" taxpayers — for example, people who work for small companies that offer stock as part of their compensation. Recent legislation has made permanent many of the benefits associated with qualified small-business stock, including a potential 100% exclusion from capital gains tax when the stock is sold. The stock must have been held for more than five years and issued by a "qualified small business," which generally means that it must have less than $50 million in gross assets.