What You Need to Know about Stock Options

Contributed by: Nick Defenthaler, CFP® Nick Defenthaler

As a professional, there are various ways you can be compensated for your work.  Although not as prevalent as they once were, stock options still exist in many different companies and can often be negotiated into your overall compensation package.  Stock options are intended to give you motivation and incentive to perform at a high level to help increase the company’s stock price which will, in turn, have a positive impact on the value of your own stock options.  There are various forms of stock options and they can certainly be confusing and even intimidating.  If you’ve ever been offered options, your initial thought might have been, “I know these things can be great, but I really don’t have a clue what they are or know what to do with them!” For starters, there are two common forms of stock options NSOs & RSUs.

NSO: Non-qualified Stock Options

Non-qualified stock options, or NSOs, have been around and very popular for decades.  The mechanics, however, can be a bit tricky which is partly why you don’t see them quite as much as you used to.  There are various components to NSOs, but to keep things simple, the company’s stock price must rise above a certain price before your options have value.  Taxes are typically due on the difference between the market value of the stock upon “exercising” the stock option and what the stock price was when the option was “granted” to you.  Upside potential for NSOs can be significant but there’s also a downside. The options could expire making the stock worthless if it does not rise above a certain price during the specified time frame.

RSU: Restricted Stock Units

Restricted Stock Units, or RSUs, have become increasingly popular over the past 5 – 10 years and are now being used in place of or in conjunction with NSOs because they are a little more black and white.  Many feel that RSUs are far easier to manage and are a more “conservative” form of employee stock option compared to NSOs because the RSU will always have value, unless the underlying company stock goes to $0.  As the employee, you do not have to decide when to “exercise” the option like you would with an NSO.  When the RSUs “vest”, the value of the stock at that time is available to you (either in the form of cash or actual shares) and is then taxable.  Because you do not truly have any control over the exercising of the RSU, it makes it easier and less stressful for you during the vesting period.  However, because the RSUs vest when they vest, it does take away the opportunity to do the kind of pro-active planning available with NSOs.

Stock Options and Tax Planning

As you can see, stock options have some moving parts and can be tough to understand.  There are many other factors that go into analyzing stock options for our clients and we typically also like to coordinate with other experts, like your CPA because tax planning also plays a large part in stock option planning. If stock options are a part of your compensation package, it is imperative to have a plan and make the most of them because they can be extremely lucrative, depending on company performance and pro-active planning.  Please reach out if you ever have questions about your stock options – we work with many clients who own them and would be happy to help you as well!

Nick Defenthaler, CFP® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ at Center for Financial Planning, Inc. Nick is a member of The Center’s financial planning department and also works closely with Center clients. In addition, Nick is a frequent contributor to the firm’s blogs.