An Annual Conundrum: RRSP or TFSA

An Annual Conundrum: RRSP or TFSA

022616_Thinkstock_137234817_lores_KKAs the clocks stroked midnight on January 1, Canada ushered in a new year, got the ball rolling for its 150th anniversary and kicked off the 60-day RRSP season.

Until March 1, 2017, you can continue to contribute to your Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSP) and deduct the money on your 2016 tax return. The current annual contribution limit is the lesser of 18% of your 2015 earned income, or $25,370.

Keep in mind that contributions to your employer’s pension plan reduce the amount you can invest in your RRSPs and unused contribution room (annual contribution limit minus contributions paid) can be carried forward. The exact amount of your contribution limit will be included in the “RRSP Deduction Limit Statement” section of the Notice of Assessment you’ll receive from Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

Qualified Investments

Of course, RRSPs aren’t the only vehicle where you can stash your retirement dollars. Every year during RRSP season, many Canadians wrestle with whether to add savings to their RRSPs or to Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs).

For the most part, whatever investments are allowed in an RRSP can go into a TFSA. That includes cash, mutual funds, securities listed on a designated stock exchange, guaranteed investment certificates and bonds. You can contribute foreign funds, but they’ll be converted to Canadian dollars, which can’t exceed your contribution room.

The lifetime contribution limit for a TFSA is $52,000 in 2017. That amount reflects an annual limit of $5,000 for each calendar year from 2009 through 2012 and $5,500 for 2013 and 2014. For 2015, the annual limit was raised to $10,000 and then trimmed back to $5,500 for 2016, where it remains for 2017. The limit is indexed to inflation. There is no deadline for TFSA contributions.


Unused contribution room in your TFSA can be carried forward indefinitely while unused RRSP contribution room can be carried forward until you’re 71 years of age.

You can open accounts at a bank or credit union, investment dealer, discount broker, mutual fund company or life insurance company. While you can own more than one account, the overall limits still apply.

If you live abroad, you can contribute to either plan provided you have primary residential ties to Canada. If you become a nonresident, you can keep your current account, but contribution room will no longer accumulate. This is a complex issue; discuss it with your tax advisor.

If Flexibility Is Your Goal

Generally speaking, TFSAs are more flexible than the average RRSP. A TFSA is more accessible if ever money is needed. If you run into an emergency of some sort, you can withdraw money without any tax consequence, because contributions are made with after-tax money. Be wary of this advantage however. It may tempt you to raid your plan and fall behind in your savings strategy.

RRSP contributions, on the other hand, are made with pre-tax dollars. The savings are tax-deferred until you start making withdrawals. That money is then taxed. Early withdrawals are subject to withholding tax. Your financial institution will hold back the tax on the amount you take out and pay it directly to the government. The withholding tax rate is between 10% and 30%, depending on how much you take out of your RRSP. (In Quebec, the rate is between 5% and 15% and provincial tax is also withheld.)

The investment income — including capital gains — earned in a TFSA isn’t taxed, even when you withdraw it. And the full amount of your withdrawals can be redeposited in future years. If you decide to re-contribute all or some of the money you withdraw in the same year, you can do this only if you have available contribution room. Otherwise, you must wait until January 1 of the next year.

Overcontribution Penalties

If you overcontribute, the penalty is 1% of the highest excess in the month, for each month your account has an excess. It’s a good idea to make a TFSA withdrawal before the end of a year. That way you can pay it back the following year. Note that depositing large amounts in the same year that you make a withdrawal from your TFSA could mean that you’ll exceed your current year’s contribution limit and you’ll be subject to penalties.

There’s a special provision for RRSPs that allows an over-contribution of as much as $2,000 before penalties accrue. The penalties generally are 1% a month on the amount over $2,000.

TFSAs allow you additional room to invest if you’ve maxed out your RRSP contributions for the year. And unlike RRSPs, if you dip into your TFSA, the withdrawn amount is added back into your contribution room in the following year.

Financial Circumstances

Among the considerations when choosing between an RRSP and a TFSA are the specifics of your financial circumstances.

For example, TFSA payouts aren’t considered income by the federal government, so they don’t:

  • Trigger the Old Age Security (OAS) or Guaranteed Income Supplement claw-backs,
  • Reduce bonus payments for children of low-income families, or
  • Affect income-tested student aid, pharmacare or other subsidies.

Another consideration is age. December 31 of the year you turn 71 years old is the last day that you can contribute to your RRSP. After that, you must convert the plan to a Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) or an annuity. If you convert to an RRIF, you must withdraw a minimum amount each year. In contrast, you can own a TFSA for the rest of your life.

Two Special Plans

RRSPs offer two plans that don’t come with TFSAs:

  1. The Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP) that lets you make withdrawals to finance full-time training or education for you, your spouse or your common-law partner. You must repay 1/10 of the total amount you withdrew until the full amount is repaid.
  2. The Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP) that allows you to withdraw as much as $25,000 in a calendar year to buy or build a qualifying home for yourself or a related person with a disability. Generally, you have up to 15 years to repay the money.

You can make “in-kind” transfers to both RRSPs and TFSAs from a non-registered account. But if you’re contributing a security with an accrued capital gain, a disposition is triggered and you’ll pay a capital gains tax in the year of the transfer. If you contribute an asset with an accrued loss, the CRA will deny the loss.

Investment Decisions

Both RRSPs and TFSAs can hold a variety of investments, but you’ll want to discuss the possibilities with your advisor. For example, you may want to avoid speculative investments. You won’t get any benefit from a loss if the investment’s value drops. Also, be cautious when contributing GICs. If you make less than 1% on a GIC, there isn’t much benefit from the tax sheltering aspect of the account.

If a stock pays foreign dividends, you could find yourself subject to a withholding tax. In a non-registered account you get a foreign tax credit for the amount of foreign taxes withheld, but if the dividends are paid to your TFSA, that credit isn’t available. (There’s an exemption from withholding tax under Canada’s tax treaty with the United States, but it doesn’t apply to dividends paid to a TFSA.)

When You Might Avoid TFSA Contributions

If you are considering putting money into a TFSA, there are four situations where you might want to consult your advisor with the idea of placing your money elsewhere:

  1. You’re in a high tax bracket and have RRSP room available. Contributing to the RRSP will help you lower your tax bill.
  2. You’re in a group savings plan at work and want to take full advantage of a company matching contribution.
  3. You have high-interest consumer debt such as credit cards or unsecured lines of credit. If you pay down the debt, you’ll have more to save in the long run.
  4. You plan to finance your children’s education but haven’t maxed out all the available contribution room for their Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) contributions ($50,000 max for each account).

Consult with your accountant for guidance on which account best suits your situation.

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