Hey GCC, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is amazing! Thank you so much for making me aware of this – I’m able to pay no tax on my entire earned income! I also saw on your blog that it is possible for a married couple to earn about $100,000 in qualified dividends and long-term capital gains. Can I do that too?! That is, since the FEIE excludes all of my overseas work income, can I also harvest $100k of capital gains tax free?! Cuz that would be sweet!`

I agree that would be sweet. But no. Mostly.

The FEIE and Capital Gain Harvesting

The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, as the name indicates, allows the exclusion from taxation of foreign earned income. (More here.) This can result in incredibly low Adjusted Gross Incomes and Taxable Incomes.

For example, on our 2018 tax return, we had total income of over $135k but an AGI of ~$70k and Taxable Income of only ~$45k.

Using 2018 numbers, income from dividends and long-term capital gains isn’t taxed until total income is over $101,200 (MFJ.)

If our AGI is so low, the logic goes, then surely there is some opportunity to also harvest a bunch of tax-free capital gains. Yes?

Unfortunately, no.

How the FEIE excludes income

The FEIE isn’t nearly as generous as it looks upon first glance. To determine our actual tax burden with excluded foreign income, we must first find out exactly how much tax we would owe if we were living in the US or if the FEIE didn’t exist. Good bit of fun, that.

The FEIE then allows us to subtract the taxes due on a portion of our foreign earned income, the part that is already most favorably taxed.

All other / non-excluded income is taxed at our highest possible marginal rates.

With regards to the potential for harvesting long-term capital gains, if total income exceeds $101,200 (2018, MFJ) then any gains above that amount will be taxed at 15%+. It doesn’t matter than the FEIE results in reduced taxable income and adjusted gross income.

An example:

The good folks at engaging-data.com have a great visualizer for how different income segments are taxed, which I populated based on our 2018 tax return.

As depicted in the top income segment CG15%, if we were in the US, $27,123 of our capital gain income would be taxed at 15%, with a tax burden of $4,068. (Which matches our 2018 1040 Line 11.)

More capital gain income would also be taxed at 15%.

Only after this is determined does the FEIE apply, excluding the foreign earned income.

In 2018, we excluded $57,775. Mathematically speaking, the FEIE filled the entire 10% bracket (19,050 * 10%) and much of the 12% bracket ($38,725 * 12%.) for a total of $6,552. (Doesn’t match the graphic above.)

This leaves only the tax on the capital gains, which are unfortunately not $0.


The FEIE can result in significant reductions in taxable income and adjusted gross income. This leads many to assume expats have the opportunity for the harvesting of large capital gains.

Alas, taxes on all non-excluded income are calculated as if we were residing in the US / the FEIE didn’t exist. Only then are the relevant taxes on foreign earned income subtracted from the total. In effect, the non-excluded income is taxed at the highest applicable marginal rates.

If total income is less than $101,200 in 2018 (MFJ, single filers divide by 2) then expats can harvest up to that threshold, but any qualified dividends or long-term applicable gains above this threshold will be taxed at 15%+.