What is the RRSP?

I’m being transparent when I say that I’d been searching all week for good stocks that would make good candidates for the Transparent RRSP Challenge…and I found nothing that really made me want to take action. I have this is saying that has helped me throughout my trading career: When in doubt, stay out. 

It’s hard not to feel some regret if something that I checked out looked like a mediocre setup and ended up working out. I learned the hard way that if I always took action on so-so setups, I would lose more in the end. For your retirement account, you want to make decisions with a bit more care.

Waiting a while for the next good opportunity is totally fine and normal. You don’t always need to buy and sell stocks. In fact, doing that too much will really add up in commission fees. Until then, I will just keep looking for stocks, building a watch list of potential candidates, and watching the sectors and markets.


I actually know people considered middle-aged who haven’t yet opened their first RRSP account. This year’s March 1 deadline to claim a tax deduction won’t have any meaning to them. Not only could they be building their retirement fund, they could also be getting back a bigger tax return if they deducted their RRSP contribution amount from their income.

If you don’t have an RRSP anymore or haven’t opened one yet, please don’t be embarrassed. The only shame would be to never take advantage of these wonderful registered investment accounts as they have so many benefits that will save you money and help you keep more of your earnings.

Below is an excerpt from Loonie to Toonie about investment accounts, specifically the RRSP and TFSA. Please have a read or forward this to anyone you think would benefit from learning about registered accounts. All the terms in bold are defined in the Financial Terminology page.


INVESTMENT ACCOUNTS

When you first open a bank account, you’re usually given two choices of either a savings account or a chequing account for standard day-to-day banking transactions. Investing is a longer-term strategy which is not intended for regular banking activity, so you will need to have a separate investment account as a place for you to deposit your investment money, hold your gains, transact your investments, and track your portfolio’s performance. Investment accounts are either registered or non-registered. You may open these up at any financial institution.

Accounts that are linked to registered plans with the federal government come with tax advantages to encourage saving and investing. There is a limit to the amount you can invest towards registered plans, since beneficial taxation can only go so far. A non-registered account is not in a registered plan with the government and does not offer any tax advantage. You should be primarily investing in registered accounts, but once you’re at or near your registered plan limits, then it makes sense to invest the rest in a non-registered account which has no investment limit.

There are different types of registered accounts. Two types which every investor will use at some point because of their tax-reducing benefits are the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) and the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA). Money you invest in a registered account is often referred to as your contribution. You may only hold qualified investments in registered accounts. Some examples of qualified investments are GICs, bonds, stocks, and mutual funds. There are no restrictions on the type of investments for non-registered accounts, but it’s best to hold tax-favoured securities such as stocks in these accounts.

REGISTERED RETIRED SAVINGS PLAN (RRSP)

The RRSP isn’t necessarily a specific ‘plan’, but it’s meant to be comprised of your investment portfolio which makes up your retirement fund. Investing in your RRSP has two key benefits which last for as long as the money stays in your RRSP account: 1) RRSP contributions may be deducted from your income to reduce taxation, and 2) gains from the investments in your RRSP are not taxed. When you take money out of your RRSP account at a later time, you will be taxed on the amount you’re withdrawing. This amount will be taxed as regular income, even if some of that money comes from capital gains. 

If you invested $2000 in mutual funds to go into your RRSP, you may reduce your taxable income by $2000 for the 2016 tax year by claiming a deduction for that amount. In 2045, that investment and its gains are worth $5,500. If you sell your mutual funds and withdraw that $5,500 in 2045, then $5,500 will be added to your income for that tax year. At that point, you’ll be taxed according to your tax bracket.

The above example is a tax-deferring benefit you should take advantage of during your active earning years. You defer paying taxes on some of your income and investment gains. It’s a better time to withdraw when you’re making less, such as during retirement. If you make any lump-sum withdrawal from your RRSP before retirement, your financial institution withholds a minimum percentage. This withheld amount is a portion of your income tax which goes to CRA. When you file your taxes, you pay the remaining difference based on your income tax rate for that year.

Contributing to Your RRSP

Every year you’re allowed to contribute up to a certain amount called your deduction limit or contribution room. If you look at your income tax’s Notice of Assessment for 2015, it will tell you what you can contribute up to in 2016 – this amount is also the most you can deduct from your income. Your deduction limit is calculated as a percentage of your net earned income in the previous year. You can contribute 18% of your earned income in 2015 up to a maximum amount of $25,370. This maximum amount changes annually. Also added is any RRSP contribution room carried forward from previous years. If you are enrolled in a retirement plan at work, whatever was contributed towards the plan that year is subtracted. This amount is known as the pension adjustment. After everything has been added and subtracted, you have your RRSP deduction limit for the following year.

You’re able to exceed your contribution room by $2000, but if you contribute more than that you will be taxed on that exceeding amount at one percent per month until it’s taken out. Once you take out the excess, it’s then taxed as income. It’s important to keep track of how much you’re contributing. If your numbers aren’t adding up with what you see on your Notice of Assessment, then contact CRA to clear things up. You may also make a contribution during a year when your income is lower and choose to hold off and claim your RRSP deduction during a different year when your earnings are higher, as long as you’re within your deduction limit.

You may open your RRSP account after you start working and filing your income taxes. You can only make contributions until the year you’re 71. After that, your RRSPs collapse and you either suffer from a tax attack on your entire retirement fund all at once or you may opt to transfer your RRSPs into other tax-deferring options involving smaller annual withdrawals or regular payments. We will explore this further when we discuss retirement.

Some Additional RRSP Features

There are additional RRSP features to help you pay for important things without permanently taking money out of your retirement fund. When you make a withdrawal from your RRSP, your contribution room won’t increase and allow repayment with the exception of the following circumstances. Under the Home Buyers’ Plan, you can use up to $25,000 of your RRSP savings to put towards your first home. You won’t have to pay taxes on this withdrawal, but you must pay back the funds over a 15-year period. Any amount not paid back after those 15 years is treated like a plan withdrawal. This amount is added to your income and you’ll be taxed accordingly. The Lifelong Learning Plan behaves similarly, but you’re allowed to use up to $20,000 towards higher education for you or your spouse and your repayment period is 10 years.

The Spousal RRSP allows a spouse to contribute to the other spouse’s RRSP and still get a tax deduction. If your spouse earns less than you and can’t contribute much to his or her plan, you may contribute to both of your RRSPs and deduct up to the full total of your contributions from your own income. However, your own contribution room doesn’t increase by contributing to your spouse’s RRSP, so be sure to not exceed your limit.

Withdrawals from your spouse’s RRSP will be taxed to your spouse at his or her lower tax rate. If your contributions remain in your spouse’s plan for less than three years, however, any withdrawals on your contributions will be taxed to you. This spousal plan is especially advantageous if you’re 71 and can no longer contribute to your RRSP, but you may still claim a deduction on your income by contributing to your spouse’s RRSP as long as he or she is younger than 71.

TAX-FREE SAVINGS ACCOUNT (TFSA)

There are two main benefits to the TFSA: 1) TFSA contributions don’t result in tax deductions from your income, but any gains from your investments will not be taxed – ever; and 2) withdrawals from your TFSA are not taxed as income – ever. The only time you will get taxed is if you exceed your contribution room. At that point, you’ll be hit with a penalty tax of one percent on the excess amount which will be applied monthly until you get rid of the excess. 

Contributing to Your TFSA

TFSA contribution limits are set at a certain dollar amount every year. You are able to start contributing once you turn 18, the age at which you’re allowed to open a TFSA. The contribution limit is not based on your earned income as it is with the RRSP. Since 2009, every Canadian citizen and resident age 18 and over has been granted an annual contribution limit. This dollar limit is decided by the federal government. So from 2009-2012, the contribution limit was $5000 per year. From 2013-2014, the contribution limit was $5,500 per year. For 2015, the contribution limit was $10,000. For 2016, the contribution limit is $5500. If you haven’t yet contributed to your TSFA, your contribution room to date is $46,500. If you turned 18 in 2015, then the most you can contribute so far is $15,500. 

Your contribution room accumulates and is carried forward, similar to RRSPs. Once you start contributing, you will be notified in your Notice of Assessment of how much contribution room you have available for the current year. The TFSA differs from the RRSP in that if you make a withdrawal from your TFSA one year, that amount will be re-added to your contribution room the following year and can be carried forward. Unlike the RRSP, you’re allowed to repay funds you’ve withdrawn from your TFSA without requiring special circumstances.

Another benefit is that you don’t ever have to collapse your TFSA the way you do the RRSP when you’re 71. Your TFSA and any contribution room will follow you to the end. Because of the ease of depositing and withdrawing from TFSAs, these are ideal for shorter-term goals, but they can be useful for longer-term goals too.  

Investing in TFSAs in conjunction with RRSPs will truly help maximize your money as an investor. You may hold multiple TFSA and RRSP accounts as long as you don’t exceed your respective contribution room limits.


If you found the above information useful, please read the rest of the book!

New to Investing? Everyone Was at Some Point

Everyone who invests had to start somewhere.

Folks who have invested for much longer than a new investor started at a time when investing looked a lot more different. I’ll tell you about my investment journey that began over 20 years ago. I’ll also give some tips intended to give you things to think about as you read on.

The ’90s vs. Now: GICs and Term Deposits

20+ years ago, I opened an RRSP and my first investments were term deposits and GICs. These did all right as I was only interested in saving part of my pay cheques and not spending the money. This was at a time when interest rates were better. They were paying me 4.5% to 5%. It made sense for me to start out this way.

Now, putting your money in these is mainly just to lock it up. Interest rates are very low and these only offer a better rate with longer investment terms. It’s safe from you when you have spending urges, but not safe from inflation. If the inflation rate is 1.13% and your investment is paying you at 1.20%, then you’re not getting much of a return. If inflation rises to 1.5% during the term of your investment, you’ll find out the meaning of “inflation risk” the hard way!


If you’re new and nervous about investing and like the guaranteed aspect of GICs, you could get a variable rate GIC if current interest rates are low. You could also get an escalating rate GIC, particularly if you wanted to keep the money invested for a while, like up to five years. If you’ve always wanted to get into the stock market but was nervous, you could get a market-linked GIC. If the market goes up, you can make more money too (although there’s usually up to a maximum amount that you can get). If the market goes down, you get your principal back and you don’t lose any money, just time.

Because the returns aren’t that great with these cash investments, investing in an RRSP at least allows you to claim your contribution and get back more on your tax return.


The Early 2000s vs. Me: Mutual Funds

As my savings grew, I moved onto mutual funds. I had:

  • a Canadian bond fund
  • a Canadian index fund
  • a monthly income fund
  • a Canadian blue chip equity fund
  • a balanced growth fund
  • and a dividend growth fund.

These did all right, but I felt my portfolio should be doing better. I was regularly putting money into my RRSP – these additions seemed to mask the actual mediocre performance of my mutual funds. Little did I realize it was the high MER fees that were negatively affecting my returns.

When I asked an advisor about rebalancing the funds so that they could perform better, he told me I shouldn’t because he’s seen people doing much worse than my portfolio. Wow! That didn’t help me or encourage me. He just said he wouldn’t change anything – besides, I’d lose money from all the load fees I’d have to pay if I did move things around.

I was so frustrated because my online account made ‘switching mutual funds’ look commission-free and as easy as clicking a button. I didn’t know the difference between one fund from another. That’s why I went to the bank to ask for help. Advisors are supposed to be more helpful and if not, at least informative, right? So, I went to another branch and saw another advisor who was even more useless and uninterested in my concerns. It was so different from my experience when I had a big chunk of savings that I didn’t know what to do with. I had received such great service then. After I made the investments, it seemed no one wanted to assist me. 

I was much more angry with myself because I didn’t even know how to have the conversation that I wanted to have when I met with these advisors. I lacked the knowledge and vocabulary to know how to drive the conversation to get what I really wanted. I couldn’t tell you what a bond was. I didn’t know what “equity” meant. Is it an advisor’s job to teach me? Or was it more advantageous for them if I knew nothing? I don’t mean to rag on mutual funds and advisors. It really was just a situation that I outgrew and became frustrated with. Sometimes growth just ain’t pretty.


I actually think mutual funds are great for new investors who don’t have much in savings yetIt’s great to be able to buy shares or units in a fund and co-own assets (wait–does that explain the essence of the term “mutual”?) that you wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. As you grow your money, you’ll be able to afford to buy the actual assets directly. Until then, take advantage of automatic deposit options to enjoy the compounding effects of regular investing.

Mutual funds are so easy to get at your bank. The advisors can help you find the right balance of funds based on your risk tolerance. Just be sure to ask about the fees! Only opt to pay lower fees, but preferably go with the no-load fee options. If you’re deciding between two similar funds, choose the one with lower MER fees. I think mutual funds are best in the RRSP, not just because of the bigger tax return you could get for claiming contributions, but also because if some of your funds have US stocks, the dividends aren’t taxed in your RRSP.


The Late 2000s to Now: In Love with Stocks

I was frustrated enough to cash out my mutual funds and say sayonara to my bank. I parked my money in a discount brokerage and took the free stock trading program that came with opening an account. I took business and financial courses, including the Canadian Securities Course, to become more educated about money. I badly wanted to know what the financial industry knew and how the world of money worked.

The more I learned the more stoked I got about investing, particularly in stocks. While I’m still working on where I want to be financially, I now see my long-term financial goals happening a lot sooner thanks to stocks. And I’m still educating myself and trying to learn.


If you’re new or too busy to know what stocks to buy, get an index ETF for the Canadian and US markets. If you want a bit of diversification, get a sector or international ETF. If you want income, get a fixed-income or dividend ETF.

If you’re new but ready for more than just ETF investing, you can pick blue chip stocks that pay a nice dividend. As your financial knowledge increases, you can build a nice diverse portfolio with a suitable balance of cyclical and non-cyclical stocks.

If you have a US ETF or stock, invest it in an RRSP so the dividends aren’t subject to withholding tax. If your financial goal is more short-term and you’ll want the money in a few years, invest in the TFSA so you can withdraw the money without getting taxed. You can invest your money between both the RRSP and TFSA according to your different goals and needs. If you run out of contribution room, then hold your Canadian equities in a non-registered account to benefit from the favourable taxation on capital gains and dividends.


The 2010s: Educating Others

Once people knew that I was really getting into the markets, the inquiries starting pouring in. I didn’t feel that what I knew was applicable to my friends’ various situations, though. As much as I believe everyone should own even just some stocks, stocks aren’t ideal or applicable to everyone and for every situation.

I began to ask at my bank (not the one I ditched) questions on behalf of my friends. The advisors were so friendly and receptive. Sometimes they’d sit down with me if they felt the questions were more involved. Other times, we’d all be just talking about investment options. I was always impressed with what they knew, how willing they were to answer questions – even if I wasn’t going to invest my own money – and how much more focused they were on the client relationship aspect.

I’m not sure if the great random service I was getting at any given branch was the bank itself, if it was because I knew what I was talking about which led to better, more informed conversations, or simply because financial advisors now are supposed to be more focused on building relationships with clients for their VARIOUS needs, rather than just selling them investment products.

I actually wrote my book for my friends. I wanted the information to be easy enough to access and understand so that even if they had a general concept of how investments worked, they could seek and get incredible assistance from the pros. My book is meant to help liaise between the client and the financial industry and ultimately help investors navigate their available options.

I still get questions from my friends, mainly the ones who haven’t read my book yet! That’s okay. As my confidence over my own investments grows, so does their willingness to learn from me about how their money can make them money.