Remembering equity compensation when planning for retirement

Morgan Stanley at Work


Equity compensation can be one of your most valuable workplace benefits. Whether it’s in the form of stock options, restricted stock units (RSUs), or an employee stock purchase plan (ESPP), it offers an opportunity to share in your company’s success.

But what role can it have in long-term financial goals? According to a recent survey, nearly 40% of stock plan participants are seeking retirement planning information1— more than any other financial topic. Yet not everyone thinks about using their equity compensation as a tool to build wealth for retirement. While there are many factors to consider, from vesting schedules to taxation to market volatility, financial strategies for the future can include equity compensation as a key component.

Let’s start by looking at a few important considerations for your equity compensation at each stage: saving for retirement, nearing retirement, and entering retirement.

When saving for retirement

Get involved and stay engaged.

The first place to start is a simple one: Consider taking advantage of any retirement and equity benefits available to you at work and know the details of each. That means not just participating in your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan, but understanding contribution limits, company matches and automatic features, plus exploring retirement savings plans outside the workplace, like Individual Retirement Accounts. Understand the rules and requirements of your company stock awards and consider enrolling in your ESPP if one is offered. Remember, like all investing, your equity compensation may fluctuate in price over the course of time you own the shares.

Think about retirement with every equity compensation payout.

When you receive a payout, it’s OK to treat yourself to something you’ve always wanted, or perhaps start that long-awaited home improvement. But it’s also a good time to give your retirement savings a boost. Consider contributing a percentage point more of your salary to your workplace retirement plan or IRA or funding an investment portfolio dedicated to generating retirement income.

Be aware of overconcentration.

One of the biggest risks of building a portfolio that includes equity compensation is owning too much of one stock. Your investment portfolio includes stocks you own as part of your workplace retirement savings account, your personal investments, and more. A diversified portfolio can provide the right balance of risk and potential reward, while overconcentration may leave you too dependent on the value that stock and overly exposed to market volatility. Some financial planners suggest keeping no more than 10-15% of investable net worth invested in a single stock, although this is a rule of thumb, and particular circumstances may mean its suitable to hold more or less than this range.2

When nearing retirement

Know where equity compensation fits in.

With retirement in sight, it’s important to have a clear picture of how much income will be needed to support your lifestyle. Decide what role you expect your equity compensation to play here. Do you see it as a critical piece of the puzzle, or as a nice cushion to supplement your other income sources? Or could you even retire early by using your current equity compensation holdings as a bridge until you can tap into other assets, like your 401(k) and Social Security benefits? One of our dedicated professionals can help you answer these questions and more.

Tie up any loose ends long before you set your date.

Before you enter retirement, there may be some actions you need to take, or requirements you need to satisfy, with your equity awards. While an ESPP will likely end when your employment does, stock options or RSUs may be subject to different vesting schedules as you near retirement, post-termination exercise periods, and length-of-service or age-at-retirement requirements (see below). Make sure you understand and plan for these conditions, or you may risk forfeiting shares or not being able to sell shares when you’d planned to.

Equity Compensation and Retirement

Get familiar with these terms and find out how they might impact you.

Vesting schedule Often issued when an equity compensation grant is awarded, it details when and how you receive the award. Usually based on a set time period but can also be based on metrics like stock prices or earnings.
Post-termination exercise period The period after service with an employer ends during which vested options must be exercised before they expire, commonly 90 days.
Age-at-retirement and length-of-service requirements As with some retirement benefits, some equity compensation plans may require employees to meet minimum age and/or service thresholds in order to exercise options and use equity compensation in retirement.

When in retirement

Enjoy the income, but don’t forget about taxes.

You should always factor in the impact of taxes as you plan for retirement, but it’s especially important do so when you’re actually entering retirement as your sources of income will be changing. If you sell shares to generate retirement income, there will likely be tax consequences, whether that’s owing ordinary income taxes, capital gains taxes, or both. This may be a time to work with a tax professional who can help you plan the timing of any stock sales to spread out the tax burden and a financial advisor who can help with withdrawals and retirement cash flow.

Do what matters most to you.

When you’ve worked for a company for many years, determining what to do with your previous company’s shares can be a complex—and perhaps even emotional—decision. Just remember that once you retire, you deserve to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Now may be an opportunity to use your equity compensation for something that’s meaningful to you, from travel to philanthropy to funding a passion or new business venture.

Prepare for a more secure retirement today.

From understanding plan requirements to determining the role of stock awards in your retirement income strategy, it takes careful planning over time to make the most of your equity compensation benefits.

Whether retirement is still decades away or just around the corner, we’re here to help. Explore E*TRADE from Morgan Stanley’s options, where you’ll find the guidance you need to plan for life’s most important goals.

  1. Stock Plan Participant Survey, E*TRADE Corporate Services, 2020
  2. “Top 10 Financial-Planning Rules That Everyone With Stock Options Needs To Know” ” Available at

The source of this Morgan Stanley article, Remember Equity Compensation When Planning For Retirement, was originally published in June 2021.

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