There’s little likelihood that the average Canadian taxpayer can fail to notice that it is, once again, registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) season, given the number of television, radio, and online RRSP-related advertisements and reminders which invariably appear at this time of year. This year taxpayers must, in order to deduct an RRSP contribution on their income tax return for 2016, make that contribution on or before Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The maximum allowable current year contribution which can be made by any individual taxpayer for 2016 is 18% of that taxpayer’s earned income for the 2015 year, to a statutory maximum of $25,370.
Those are the basic rules governing RRSP contributions for the 2016 tax year. For most Canadians, however, those rules are just the starting point of the calculation, as millions of Canadian taxpayers have what is termed “additional contribution room” carried forward from previous taxation years. That additional contribution room arises because the taxpayer either did not make an RRSP contribution in each previous year, or made one which was less that his or her maximum allowable contribution for the year. For many taxpayers, that additional contribution room can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and the taxpayer is entitled to use as much or as little of that additional contribution room as he or she wishes for the current tax year.
It’s apparent from the forgoing that determining one’s maximum allowable contribution for 2016 will take a bit of research. The first step in determining one’s total (current year and carryforward) contribution room for 2016 is to consult the last Notice of Assessment which was received from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Every taxpayer who filed a return for the 2015 taxation year will have received a Notice of Assessment from the CRA, and the amount of that taxpayer’s allowable RRSP contribution room for 2016 will be summarized on page 2 of that Notice. Taxpayers who have discarded (or can’t find) their Notice of Assessment can obtain the same information by calling the CRA’s Individual Income Tax Enquiries toll-free telephone line at 1-800-959-8281. An automated service at that line will provide the required information, once the taxpayer has provided his or her social insurance number, month and year of birth, and the amount of income from his or her 2015 tax return. Those who don’t wish to use an automated service can speak to a client services agent, who will also request such identifying information before providing any taxpayer-specific data. Finally, for those who have registered for the CRA’s My Account service, the needed information will be available online.
One question that doesn’t often get asked by taxpayers is whether it actually makes sense to make an RRSP contribution. The wisdom of making annual contributions to one’s RRSP has become an almost unquestioned tenet of tax and retirement planning, but there are situations in which other savings vehicles — particularly the Tax-Free Savings Account, or TFSA — may be the better short or long-term option or even, in some cases, the only one available.
Determining which savings vehicle is the better option for a particular taxpayer will depend, for the most part, on the purpose for which the funds are being saved, and on the taxpayer’s current and future tax situation, as well as their particular sources of retirement income.
Taxpayers who are expecting their income to rise significantly within a few years (e.g., students in post-secondary or professional education or training programs) can save some tax by contributing to a TFSA while they are in school and their income (and, therefore, their tax rate) is low, allowing the funds to compound on a tax-free basis, and then withdrawing the funds tax-free once they’re working, when their tax rate will be higher. At that time, the withdrawn funds can be used to make an RRSP contribution, which will be deducted from income which would be taxed at that higher tax rate. And, in a need for funds should arise in the meantime, a tax-free TFSA withdrawal can always be made.
Taxpayers who are saving toward a shorter-term goal, like next year’s vacation or even a down payment on a home should direct those savings into a TFSA. While choosing to save through an RRSP will provide a tax deduction on that year’s return and, possibly, a tax refund, tax will still have to be paid when the funds are withdrawn from the RRSP in a year or two. And, more significantly from a long-term point of view, repeatedly using an RRSP as a short-term savings vehicle will eventually erode one’s ability to save for retirement, as RRSP contributions which are withdrawn cannot be replaced. While the amounts involved may seem small, the loss of contribution room and the compounding of invested amounts over 25 or 30 years or more can make a significant dent in one’s ability to save for retirement.
Taxpayers who are currently in the workforce and who are members of a registered pension plan (RPP) may find that saving through a TFSA is their only practical option. As outlined above, the starting point for calculating one’s current year contribution limit maximum amount which can be contributed to an RRSP is calculated as 18% of earned income for 2015. However, the maximum allowable contribution is reduced, for members of RPPs, by the amount of benefits accrued during the year under that pension plan. Where the RPP is a particularly generous one, RRSP contribution room may, as a result, be minimal, and a TFSA contribution the logical savings alternative.
Canadians aged 71 and older will find the RRSP vs. TFSA question irrelevant, as the last date on which taxpayers can make RRSP contributions is December 31st of the year in which they turn 71. Many of those taxpayers will, however, have converted their RRSP savings to a registered retirement income fund (RRIF) and anyone who has done so is required to withdraw (and be taxed on) a specified percentage of those RRIF funds every year. Particularly where required RRIF withdrawals exceed the RRIF holder’s current cash flow needs, that income can be contributed to a TFSA. Although the RRIF withdrawals made must still be included in income for the year and taxed as such, transferring the funds to a TFSA will allow them to continue compounding free of tax, and no additional tax will be payable when and if the funds are withdrawn. And, unlike RRIF or RRSP withdrawals, monies withdrawn in the future from a TFSA will not affect the planholder’s eligibility for Old Age Security benefits or for the federal age credit.
RRSPs and TFSAs are the most significant savings vehicles available to Canadian taxpayers, and both have a place in most financial and retirement plans. To help taxpayers to make informed choices about their savings options, the CRA provides a number of dedicated webpages about both RRSPs and TFSAs, and those can be found on the CRA website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/rrsp-reer/menu-eng.html and www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/tfsa-celi/menu-eng.html.