Save for retirement in an RRSP or TFSA?

As the RRSP deadline approaches, some Canadians wonder where they should invest in a TFSA instead.

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by MoneySense staff
January 24th, 2012

Online only.

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RRSP or TFSA
Saving for retirement used to be simple. If you wanted to save on taxes, there was only one choice: the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP). It offers savers a great deal. You not only get a juicy tax rebate when you contribute, but your money grows tax-free until it’s withdrawn. Then in 2009 the RRSP got a little brother—the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA)—and suddenly long-term saving got more complicated. As of this year, the TFSA contribution room for most Canadians has grown to $20,000, so TFSAs are becoming a significant savings tool. In many respects they are similar to RRSPs, but in other ways, they’re very different. So picking the right account for the right savings goal isn’t easy.

Both the TFSA and the RRSP help shelter your investment returns from taxes, so both can help you grow your wealth faster. But there is a crucial difference, and it’s the key to deciding which account to use: With an RRSP, taxes are deferred on the money you contribute, which is why you usually receive a tax refund. However many people don’t realize that RRSP withdrawals are considered income, and you have to pay taxes on them. On the other hand, with a TFSA you do pay taxes on the money you -contribute (so you don’t get a tax refund), but you do not have to pay taxes on the money you withdraw.

Because of that difference, a TFSA generally works best in situations where you expect your income to be higher in the year you withdraw the money than in the year you put it in. Conversely, an RRSP works best if your income is high when you contribute, and lower when you make a withdrawal.

When should you use a TFSA?

TFSAs are more flexible than RRSPs, so they tend to be better for younger Canadians and short-term saving, such as when you’re saving up to buy a house, or a car. But in some cases, they can also be a better choice for retirement savings too.

For instance, many advisers recommend TFSAs as a retirement savings vehicle for savers who have a lower marginal tax rate. As a general rule, says Marc Lamontagne, a fee-only adviser with Ryan Lamontagne in Ottawa, if you’re making less than $41,000 a year, you’ll likely come out ahead over the long run with a TFSA. The best part is that when you take the money out in retirement, it doesn’t count as income, so you don’t have to worry about clawbacks to government retirement benefits, such as Old Age Security (OAS) or the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS).

Let’s look at the fictional example of Molly Reynolds, a 30-year-old child care worker in Ontario, to illustrate. In order to build up a nest egg for retirement, Reynolds wants to save $5,000 a year until she reaches age 65. She makes $35,000 a year, so she is in the 20% tax bracket while contributing.

Should she use a TFSA or an RRSP? Because she’s in a lower tax bracket during the years she contributes, she would come out ahead with a TFSA. If we assume a 6% annual return on her investments, her nest egg would be worth $395,290 after taxes if she uses a TFSA versus $383,270 in an RRSP (if she reinvests her RRSP tax refund each year). So she’ll be $12,000 ahead with a TFSA.

TFSAs also make great sense for those who have a good defined benefit pension plan at work, no matter how much they make. “In this case, it’s almost always best to contribute to a TFSA instead of an RRSP,” says Al Feth, a fee-only adviser in Waterloo, Ont. “Mandatory withdrawals required by RRSPs at age 72 could boost you into a higher tax bracket and result in clawbacks to your Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and OAS -payments in retirement. You won’t have that problem with TFSAs because when you take money out during retirement, you will never be taxed.”

Finally, if you’re a high-income earner and you expect to max out your RRSP contribution limits, a TFSA makes a great second savings vehicle.

When should you use an RRSP?

Despite the flexibility in TFSAs, RRSPs are still the best long-term retirement savings vehicle for many Canadians earning an income of $50,000 or more, especially as they reach their peak earning years in their 40s and 50s.

But keep in mind that one of the key advantages of using an RRSP is that you don’t pay taxes on the contribution—and that only works if you reinvest the refund. Talbot Stevens, a financial educator in London, Ont., notes that sadly, many Canadians mentally spend the refund even before receiving it. “That’s a negative, especially if it’s spent on non-productive expenses, such as travel and electronics,” says Stevens. “You have to reinvest the refund every year back into RRSPs to get the full benefit of these plans.”

Another benefit to using an RRSP for retirement savings is mainly psychological: Because you have to pay taxes on RRSP withdrawals, you’re less likely to take the money out unless you really need it. “For a lot of people TFSAs don’t feel like retirement savings,” says Stevens. “They’re more liquid and more vulnerable. So you have to be disciplined to really make TFSAs work as a retirement savings vehicle.”

Keep in mind that while these rules usually work, there are always exceptions. A good adviser can help by taking you through the options to ensure you make the right decision for your particular situation.

10 comments on “Save for retirement in an RRSP or TFSA?

  1. To help Canadians answer this question I built an online tool. Check out http://www.rrsportfsa.ca to learn which one you should put money into.
    It is one of the tools I built for my new book How to Eat an Elephant – One Day a Month to Financial Success. http://www.howtoeatanelephant.ca

    Reply

  2. Exactly why doesn't an RRSP work as planned if I don't reinvest the tax refund? If it was a TFSA, I wouldn't have a refund to invest at all, and that avenue would still work fine…
    Obviously I'll do better if I reinvest, but that's like saying that if I hold a TFSA I should reinvest my savings from not being taxed on withdrawal…

    Reply

    • Hi there, It helps to remember that the money in your TFSA is in after-tax dollars, while your RRSP is in pre-tax dollars. It's great to save in your TFSA and your RRSP, but if you have $1,000 in your TFSA you have $1,000 towards your retirement (or another goal). If you have $1,000 in your RRSP, you will be taxed on it when you take it out, so you only have, say $700 saved for your retirement.

      Yours truly, Sarah Efron, MoneySense

      Reply

      • Except that you will have paid some kind of tax on any interest earned on your TFSA, so you wouldn't have a full $1,000. But at today's interest rates, you wouldn't be earning much interest, so you wouldn't likely have to pay much tax on it. Likely still ahead in the overall $ with a TFSA, but with an RSP you get the tax reduction benefit overall. Guess it just depends on where you are in the continuum and what you have.

        Reply

  3. don,t forget the taxes that are defered on a rrsp you are making intrest on untill you start to use the rrsp. compound intrest

    Reply

  4. >If we assume a 6% annual return…

    In the future please assume a more likely return of 3-4%. Banks only offer 1% on savings, Canada Savings Bonds are less than 1%, and GICs are around 3%. If you know how to get a 6% APR, please let me know.

    Reply

    • No kidding. My financial advisor is still making retirement plans for me using number projections of 4.75%. Right. Haven't seen THAT in a while, and I don't think it's on the horizon now. I don't know why these financial advisors and writers persist in using percentages higher than any recent (or impending) reality.

      Reply

  5. I do not understand why things like ..: "she would come out ahead with a TFSA. If we assume a 6% annual return on her investments, her nest egg would be worth…" are used. The highest I have seen is 3%, so am I not looking in the right places?

    Reply

  6. What I don't understand is if RRSP's are so good (because they save on taxes during our working years) but when we retire and need all the money we can get -then they tax you?! Surely, most (a lot) of retired folk need the money then?!

    Reply

    • But you're taxed at a lower rate (in most cases) when you're retired than you were when you were working, and contributed the money.

      Reply

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