stock options vs rsu

When you take a new job, your salary is probably not your only form of compensation. You’ll likely also get benefits, vacation days and, possibly, some form of stock in the company. This will likely come in one of two forms: restricted stock units (RSUs) or stock options.

Each of these two possibilities has its own pluses and minuses. You’ll want to make sure you know which you are getting and use that knowledge to adjust your financial plans. If a lot of your compensation is tied up in some form of stock award, you also might want to find a financial advisor who can help you navigate your compensation — especially if you have the option of stock options vs RSU.

Stock Option Defined

stock options vs rsu

A stock option lets you purchase equity in a company at a determined price within a certain window of time. You do not have any obligation to purchase the shares, but you are given the chance if you think it is a smart decision. Generally, one stock option contract represents 100 shares of the firm that you are buying into.

The term stock options generally refers to the employee stock option, as described above. You take a job at a company and get the opportunity to buy stock in the firm as part of your compensation. This often involves a vesting schedule, where you have to work at the company for a certain period of time, often one year, before you can purchase the stock. This is to prevent people who only work at the company for a short period of time from ending up with potentially valuable stock.

One of the biggest pluses to stock options is that you get to buy them at a specified price that may end up being much less than what the stock is worth on the market when the option actually vests. The stock options may vest according to a specific schedule. For instance, you may be able to exercise 250 shares per year for a total of 1,000 shares. There may also be an expiration date after which you are no longer able to exercise your right to stock options.

RSU Defined

Restricted stock units (RSU) came in vogue in the ’90s and early 2000s. They are a bit simpler than stock options in that there is no transaction or stock pricing involved.

Instead, the company simply commits to giving an employee stock in the company when a certain requirement is fulfilled. RSUs can be awarded for meeting performance requirements or for being at the firm for a set length of time.

Once you’ve met the requirements, the company will give the RSUs either in actual shares or the cash equivalent based on what the stock is worth at that point. The company may dictate whether the employee gets actual stock or the cash equivalent. Or, it may be up to the employee to decide.

Stock Options vs. RSUs: Which Is Better?

stock options vs rsu

There are both pluses and minuses to stock options and RSUs. If you’re able to choose, your choice will depend largely on your personal preferences, as well as a few outside factors.

Taxes are an important factor to consider. Only income tax applies to RSUs, meaning the capital gains tax is not a factor. Two types of stock options exist: non-qualified stock options (NSOs) and incentive stock options (ISOs). For NSOs, you are taxed on the difference between the market price and the grant price. This is called the spread, and it is taxed as regular income. This means it is subject to income tax and payroll taxes like Social Security and medicare. The spread on ISOs, meanwhile, isn’t subject to payroll taxes. It is a preference item for the alternative minimum tax calculation. The alternative minimum tax — a parallel tax system separate from regular tax laws — can be complicated, so getting a tax professional’s help may be a good idea.

The other factor to consider is how you think the company will be doing in the future. Stock options are only valuable if the market value of the stock is higher than the grant price at some point in the vesting period. Otherwise, you’re paying more for the shares than you could in theory sell them for. RSUs, meanwhile, are pure gain, as you don’t have to pay for them.

For this reason, companies tend to offer fewer RSUs than traditional stock options. If you have to choose, think about whether you want to risk the share prices getting high enough to make taking the risk on stock options worthwhile or if you prefer the relative safety of RSUs.

Stock Options vs. RSUs RSUs Stock Options Grant Date Dated on issuance Dated on issuance Exercise Price No exercise price Set based on full market value of underlying security Vesting Can be vested anytime for any milestone Can be vested anytime for any milestone Payment Stock or cash Stock Taxation Taxed on vested, treated as regular income (capital gains if stock held for more than a year) NSOs treated as regular income; ISOs as preferred items for alternative minimum tax
The Bottom Line

Stock options are when a company gives an employee the ability to purchase stock at a predetermined price at a given time. This may occur on a vesting schedule, where a number of shares become available each year over a series of years. Restricted stock units, on the other hand, are grants of stock that a company gives to an employee without any purchase. Employees get these either as shares or a cash equivalent.

Choosing stock options vs. RSUs is a tough decision, as there are positives and negatives to both. Generally, it boils down to fact that RSUs are less risky, as they don’t involve spending any money to get the stock.

Investing Tips
  • If your employer is offering you stock options or RSUs, it might make sense to talk to a financial advisor about which option is right for you. SmartAsset can help you find a financial advisor with our free financial advisor matching service. You answer a few questions and we’ll match you with up to three advisors in your area. We have fully vetted our advisors and none have disclosures. Your advisor matches will then reach out to you to answer any questions you may have.
  • When you think about investments over a long period of time, don’t forget to factor in inflation. SmartAsset’s inflation calculator shows how the buying power of a dollar changes over time.

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