How Optimizing Your RSUs will make a BIG difference to your success


Restricted stock units are a popular form of compensation for many professionals in tech and other high-growth sectors in WestStar’s neighborhood. In some cases, the RSU portion of their compensation can make up over half of their total annual pay.

Because it is so important to them, it is really important to us; and although every professional we speak to knows that optimizing their RSU earnings and minimizing taxes will make a big difference to their success, many don’t know how to go about it.

Understanding how RSUs work, and how (and when) taxes are paid can be essential in optimizing this employee benefit and potentially reducing your tax bill.

At WestStar we’ve guided many equity-compensated technology employees and executives (we call them ‘Aviators’) on a flightpath to early retirement or a work-optional lifestyle. We’ve found that our Aviator clients reach out to us because they find their equity compensation programs complex and time-consuming and need to overcome these barriers if they want to grow their wealth and free up their time to take control of their lives.

Although the questions they ask are typically simple, more often than not, the answers are complex.

  • How do RSUs work?
  • When can I sell my RSUs?
  • How are RSUs taxed?
  • How do I pay the RSU taxes and when are the taxes paid?
  • How much company stock should I own and when is it too much?
  • What options do I have for diversifying the stock?
  • What happens to my RSUs if I die?
  • What happens to my RSUs when I retire and still have unvested RSUs?

Our ‘advice in plain English’ approach brings confidence and clarity to managing your equity compensation programs, and will help you make decisions with a long-term financial plan in mind.  Let’s run through the questions and answer them for you.

How Do RSUs Work?

A Restricted Stock Unit is not an actual transfer of stock on the grant date, it’s a pledge by your employer to transfer stock to you at a later date (often referred to as the vesting date), providing you and/or your company hit certain metrics.

Your RSU vests and is converted to shares over time. Once this happens, you own the shares and you can sell or transfer them.  You don’t pay for them!

Because RSUs and other stock-based compensation can exist as part of your overall compensation package, they can be a way to build significant wealth.

To explore the intricacies of RSU Vesting, Payouts, and Tax Implications, click here for our Easy Guide.

When Can I Sell My RSUs?

In most cases when your RSUs vest you can sell them immediately.

How Are RSUs Taxed?

Two events trigger the taxation of your RSUs.  The first occurs when your RSUs vest.  When a tranche vests, it’s as though you received a cash bonus, and the value of the tranche at the time it vests is taxed as ordinary income.

Typically, your employer immediately sells some of the vested RSUs to cover federal taxes, though the amount sold and withheld is not always the correct amount to cover your tax liability.

Most companies automatically withhold the statutory 22% federal income tax. If your tax rate is above 22%, you’ll owe more tax.

It becomes very important to keep your eyes on each tranche as it vests and to work with your financial planner and CPA to calculate what the tax liability is, so there are no surprises come tax time each year.

The second event that triggers your RSUs taxation has to do with the stock you own after a tranche vests.  If you choose to sell the stock immediately, then little to no more tax is due.  If you choose to hold onto the stock in the hope that it appreciates, and then down the road decide to sell some or all of the stock, you’ll then owe taxes on the gain.

The gain will either be taxed as ordinary income (if the stock is held for less than 12 months) or taxed as a capital gain (or loss) if it is held for over 12 months.

How Do I Pay The RSU Taxes And When Are The Taxes Paid?

When the RSUs vest, ordinary taxes are due on the value of the vesting tranche. If, however, the stock is held onto after the RSUs vest, then either additional ordinary income tax or capital gains tax will be due at the time the stock is finally disposed of.

Usually, this additional tax is not withheld by your employer but becomes due from you through estimated quarterly payments or at the tax filing deadline each year.

Your financial planner and CPA should ideally be involved in helping you calculate taxes, develop a strategy for paying and managing your tax liability, and avoid surprises.

When we work with clients, we always ask if they have a CPA who helps them file their taxes, and if somebody has a CPA then that’s great. But if not, we have relationships with many CPAs to whom we can introduce people and make sure they’ve got the right fit for someone that will talk with them as often as they need.

How Much Company Stock Should I Own And When Is It Too Much?

Any concentrated stock holding is risky, but when it’s your own company’s stock, you run a higher risk if the company stock loses value. Often, such an event can cause layoffs, and you could simultaneously lose your job and significant value in any stock you hold.

Ultimately, your strategy for how much company stock you choose to own will depend greatly on your risk tolerance and your family’s financial planning goals.

Our experience is that often an employee will accumulate enough of their Company stock to begin feeling anxious about it.  At this point, they become interested in protecting what they already have, and diversification becomes part of the conversation.

Planning is about understanding the elements of the entire compensation package and exploring the possible outcomes of different stock ownership strategies.  How comfortable are you with each outcome?  The best course of action for you will present itself through education and careful consideration.

For more on how to incorporate RSUs into your investment strategy and avoid concentrated stock risk, read this great article.

What Options Do I Have For Diversifying The Stock?

Every individual or family has a unique rate of return needed to support their unique goals and this should be taken into account when constructing their financial plan.

It’s really important to be working with a financial planner who can help you manage your family’s financial goals.  The planning process will help identify the rate of return on your assets that your family needs to combat inflation and ensure you don’t outlive your money.

Diversification involves selling some of the company’s stock and buying a mix of stock in other companies of different sizes and in different industries. Depending on your time horizon, this can include investing a portion of the proceeds in a bond portfolio to help mitigate volatility.

What Happens To My RSUs If I Die?

This becomes a question we feel everyone should be asking, particularly since the longer you’ve been tenured with a Company, the greater the amount you could have invested in RSUs.

While there may be certain exceptions for performance-based RSUs, if you die while holding unvested RSUs, they will immediately vest and be paid out in cash or shares at the Company’s discretion.

What Happens When I Retire And Still Have Unvested RSUs?

 What happens to your unvested RSUs at retirement will depend on the plan and the company’s policies. If when you retire you stand to lose RSUs with significant value, the company may pay you to continue working until your RSUs vest.

If your employment terminates before the scheduled vesting date – due to death or disability – your RSUs will immediately vest, unless the award is subject to performance-based vesting.

You’ll find the specifics in your company’s Summary Plan Description, which will stipulate exactly what happens in the case that somebody dies, becomes disabled, or if any other unexpected events occur.

Why hitch your wagon to WestStar?

At WestStar Prosperity Partners we help tech professionals accelerate their progress towards their financial goals, by making the most of their equity compensation. We will give you a clear view on how to optimize your stock position and manage your tax obligations.

Our ‘advice in plain English’ approach is designed to bring confidence and clarity to managing your compensation programs, and we help you make decisions with a long-term financial plan in mind.

If you have questions about your specific circumstances, or want to make sure you’re equipped with the knowledge and advice to pursue your future with real confidence and clarity, please get in touch. We welcome the opportunity to chat with you.

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We wish you every success in the future and hope to hear from you soon.

Sam Gullette & Erik Alexander

Disclosure: “A diversified portfolio does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.”

Sam Gullette, CFP®, CLU®
Certified Financial Planner™

‘My mission in life is to help people take control of their money and avoid financial stresses. My clients are successful professionals and executives, many of whom are compensated heavily with company stock. Together we maximize their wealth-building opportunities, minimize taxes, and make sure their family is protected if life throws them a curveball.’

Erik Alexander
Financial Consultant

‘I work with professionals and executives who are compensated through various forms of company stock.  They have more money than time and struggle to balance the key aspects of their lives. Their decisions affect others, and they feel a huge responsibility towards making them wisely. I enjoy helping them solve their complex problems, and being counted on for their and their families’ financial wellbeing.’