“Buy, Borrow, Die” Estate Planning Strategy

If it feels like the rich play by a different set of rules, it’s because they do.

I recently learned about the concept of “Buy, Borrow, Die” and it’s fascinating. I’m not an expert on estate planning or taxes or am I rich enough to do this (yet!), but it highlights how different parts of tax law can come together to something (likely) unintended.

As far as I can tell, the origin of this framework (or at least the fun name) comes from Professor Edward McCaffery of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. It’s outlined on his site People’s Tax Page on Tax Planning 101: Buy, Borrow, Die.

This strategy has three parts – buy, borrow, and die.

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There are also several free online will makers you can use instead.

Table of Contents
  1. 1. Buy
  2. 2. Borrow
    1. This is NOT a 401(k) Loan
  3. 3. Die
  4. Is There A Catch?
  5. This Isn’t That Crazy of an Idea

1. Buy

First, you buy something.

You have a big slug of money and you want to invest it in appreciating assets so you can retire forever. It’s also important that those appreciating assets do so tax-free (or more accurately, tax-deferred).

You’ll want to put this money into the stock market, real estate, or another asset class that appreciates. Buying a car would be a bad idea for this because the value of a car goes down over time. It’s also better if you pick an asset class that enjoys the tailwind of inflation pushing up its nominal value.

Real estate is almost perfect for this because:

  • its value tends to go up,
  • it is not volatile
  • you can depreciate it, which reduces your income tax
  • it’s easily accepted as collateral.

And the collateral is important for the second step. You want to pick an asset that can be used as collateral for a loan. Investing in your friend’s business is bad for this. Investing in your own business would be better, but not as good as real estate.

A bank may not want to use your business as collateral but they’ll all take real estate.

2. Borrow

Next, you borrow against your asset.

Typically, if you are asset rich and cash poor, you might sell some of your assets for cash to live. When you do, it triggers capital gains.

To avoid this, you don’t sell your assets to get cash. Instead, get a loan from the bank with your assets as collateral. By keeping the assets as they are, where they keep growing value, you don’t trigger a taxable event. You still get cash, it’s just a loan.

The best part about this is that when you get a loan, it’s not considered income. Since you’re borrowing against an asset, you’ve received cash in hand but you are also holding a loan that you must repay.

Use some of the proceeds of the loan to make the loan payments.

This is NOT a 401(k) Loan

If this sounds a little like taking a loan from your 401(k), it’s not the same. When you take a loan from your 401(k), you’re reducing the value of the account by the amount of the loan. You pay interest to yourself, which is kind of nice, but you miss out on any gains (or losses) that occur when the money is out of your 401(k).

We avoid any capital gains taxes because of the 401(k)’s tax-deferred status.

With the Buy Borrow Die strategy, your assets are used as collateral and never touched. It can continue to appreciate.

You get your cake and eat it too! (though you have to carve off a little slice to the bank as interest – so there’s no free lunch)

3. Die

Every good plan requires a good exit strategy and this one relies on the ultimate exit strategy – death.

You die.

When you die, your estate goes to your heirs. The loans are paid off with the assets and then the assets get a step-up in (cost) basis when they pass to your heirs. When your beneficiaries get those assets, their current cost basis in that asset is the current market price (at the time of your death). That step-up can save your heirs a ton in taxes.

For example, if I bought shares of Apple for $15 in 2011 and I died today (with it priced at ~$126), my beneficiaries get the step-up in cost basis. If they sell those shares today at $126 each, they will pay no capital gains tax because they had no gains. (They may have to pay estate taxes as a result of getting those shares.)

What about the loan? You pay it off with the proceeds of the sale.

Is There A Catch?

No catch.

Well, the catch is that your assets have to keep appreciating. And you have to die, but we all eventually do and that part is in the name of the strategy so no surprises there.

The advantage of this strategy is that when you borrow money from the bank instead of selling an asset for the cash, you pay the bank some interest and the government doesn’t get its capital gains tax. You have to go through a few more hoops because of the loan. Selling an asset and reporting the sale on your tax return is easy and requires no application – but you pay taxes.

The other consideration is that it might not be the most efficient way of acquiring an asset in the first place. You can typically own real estate by paying a fraction of the cost of buying it. You can get a piece of property for a 20% down payment (sometimes less).

Finally, this strategy works so well because of the stepped-up in basis “loophole.” If that didn’t exist, this plan isn’t as effective (but is still helpful from a tax planning perspective). The step-up in basis removes a potentially huge chunk of gains from taxes.

If the step-up in basis were removed, you still benefit a little bit because you still get cash while retaining the asset so it can appreciate. You just have to keep paying the loan’s interest rate in the meantime so you need the asset to appreciate more than the interest rate on the loan. It’s really no different than borrowing money to invest, which is not unheard of, but you’re doing it in a way that avoids capital gains.

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This Isn’t That Crazy of an Idea

If the strategy sounds like a really crazy idea, it isn’t – we actually do this already with our homes.

You buy a home, which is generally an appreciating asset, and you can get a loan against the value of the home (home equity loan). When you go to sell, you can ignore $250,000 of gains as long as it was your primary residence (similar to step-up in basis). If the loan is still outstanding when you sell, you can pay back the home equity loan with the proceeds and it doesn’t impact the cost basis on your home.

Ever refinance the loan on your home after it’s appreciated? Cash out refi? It’s basically this same strategy.

The only thing missing is that you can’t depreciate the value of your home and use it to offset your income. 🙂

There are over $263 billion revolving home equity loans according to The Federal Reserve (data is from July 9th, 2021):

Source: FRED Economic Data

Home equity loans are simply loans taken out against the equity in your home. Buy Borrow Die is just a riff off this very popular idea.

The only wrinkle is that most people don’t take home equity loans for everyday spending money – they typically do it for major purchases but money is fungible. It doesn’t matter what you use it for.

Want to do this with your stock portfolio? Some, but not all, brokerages offer this. For example, Schwab calls it a Pledged Asset Line.

Now you know the Buy Borrow Die Strategy!

Go impress your friends at the country club. 🙂

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

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  1. Bob Smith says

    So you borrowed say 300,000 of gains in 2021. And you spent it. Now it is 2022 and you have to pay principal and interest on it. Where does that money come from?

    Then in 2022 you borrow another 300k . And you spend it. Now you are paying principal in an interest on 600K.

    Seems like you are soon going to be having all money to debt service.

    • Jim Wang says

      I believe the idea is that you don’t spend it all – you borrow $300,000 but you spend it over time and not all at once. The $300,000 can pay for the debt service while you are using it. Plus during all this time, your assets (hopefully) appreciate and you can “double dip” (spend some while the balance still grows).

  2. Rahul says

    May not be as simple as it sounds. For example, the interest on the loan that you borrow is paid “each” year. So let’s say that even if you borrow $100k at 3% instead of paying 15% capital gains, and you keep rolling over the loan, soon (within 5 years) you will have paid 15% on your original amount. In this situation, you would have been better off paying 15% capital gains in the first place.

    • Jim Wang says

      Paying 3% a year for five years is better than paying 15% in year one – also because your investments are still invested in the market for those extra five years.

    • robert quintal says

      I am curious about your thoughts on a reverse mortgage. A LOC version of a jumbo seems to fit your strategy nicely.

      • Jim Wang says

        I think a reverse mortgage seems like it offers too many bells and whistles (and costs and requirements), which make it a slightly less appealing option. For example, if you were to use a home equity conversion mortgage (HECM), there are requirements that you are over 62 years old, have it be your principal residence, mostly paid off (or completely), etc. In return, you get a line of credit that you don’t have to make regular payments on but you also have to pay an upfront insurance premium (usually 2% of your house’s value) and origination fees, etc.

  3. Richard Schlosberg says

    Hey Jim, I have this nagging question about this strategy, I haven’t found an answer yet…. If I take a 300k loan out against 300k in invested assets to avoid taking any taxable cash out, how do I repay the loan without selling assets (or earning a salary) that will be taxed? Am I missing something here? you can just borrow 300k and then sell 325k in assets to pay the loan back…. you’d have to pay taxes on the 325k you liquidated right?

    • Jim Wang says

      You pay it back with the money you received from the loan. In your case, you pay taxes on the gains on the assets.

      Let’s say you have $300,000 in assets and you borrow $100,000 against those assets. You keep paying interest on the $100,000 loan but you can use the loan proceeds, the $100,000, to pay that interest.

      At some point, you may want to sell your $300,000 in assets. When you do, you owe taxes only on the gains. If you purchased those assets for $300,000 then your gain is zero. You owe nothing in taxes.

      If you bought them for $250,000 then you owe $50,000 in gains which are taxed based on your holding period and your tax bracket.

      The loan has nothing to do with the taxes you pay on the sale of the assets.

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