NITTY - GRITTY OF THE RRSP MODEL
Americans - think IRA or 401k when you see RRSP, and Roth when you see TFSA
Why you should read this page.
Below is a detailed argument, supported by math, proving that what you probable understand about 'how the RRSP system works' ... is wrong. It proves that the benefits of the RRSP don't come from the factors commonly claimed. It proves that RRSPs have four independent factors that must be evaluated and calculated separately. The account's benefit is the net of these factors.
|1) All profits earned in the plan are sheltered from tax, permanently, not taxed on withdrawal |
|2) Your marginal tax rate when withdrawing cash may be higher (or lower) than the rate at which you claimed the original contribution credit. Neither is guaranteed, or even 'most likely'. This creates a penalty (or bonus) equal to the amount withdrawn multiplied by the change in rates. |
|3) RRSP contributions (draws) may help (hinder) qualifying for government benefits like the GST rebate, child benefits, GIS, OAS. |
|4) Claiming the contribution tax deduction may be deferred until a later year, but there is a growing penalty that is likely larger than the cost of tax on profits in a normally taxed account.|
Amazingly, no one before has bothered to calculate the benefits of an RRSP vs. a taxable account, or developed the math for calculating the cost/benefit of each factor. See also the comprehensive list of RRSP attributes compared to the TFSA on the RRSP Decisions page. Each procedural rule could be considered a benefit or cost.
What are the mechanics of the RRSP system ?
Most Canadian know the mechanics of the RRSP system. The comparison following between an RRSP, TFSA and Taxable account is never disputed. It presumes that (i) when comparing the outcomes from using different accounts it is necessary to presume that all savings go into those accounts, (ii) when wages and living expenses are held constant between options, any option that reduces taxes should result in larger savings, (iii) the RRSP's benefits accrue only to the dollars in the account.
- Wage income is normally taxed on your personal tax return. Savings going into a TFSA or Taxable account are after-tax savings.
- Contributions to an RRSP can be claimed as a tax deduction. The resulting reduction in $tax, calculated at your marginal tax rate, is the contribution credit. This allows you to save with before-tax dollars - to fund the account with more dollars.
- Inside all accounts the savings grow. Profit are taxed in the Taxable account so an after-tax growth rate is used. Both the TFSA and RRSP grow tax-free.
- Savings can be withdrawn from the Taxable and TFSA without any tax. The RRSP withdrawals are fully taxed at your marginal tax rate.
The example above uses one set of input variables, but no other choice would change the generally accepted statement that outcomes from a TFSA and RRSP are equal when there is no difference between the tax rates at contribution and withdrawal. No one doubts the TFSA's benefit is from permanently sheltering profits from tax. The RRSP's main benefit, the only one that everyone receives, is from the same permanent sheltering of profits. It will always exactly equal the TFSA's benefit.
The math calculation of RRSP and TFSA benefits ($1,165) equals the difference between the future values of the after tax savings ($3,500) compounded for 10 years, at the nominal rate of return (10%) vs. at the after-tax rate of return (8.5%).
Some experts wrongly advise people against contributing to an RRSP with tax-free savings (e.g. insurance pay outs), claiming that will convert tax-free money into taxed money. This concept is false because it ignores the $1,050 refund from the $3,500 contribution at 30% tax (still using the example above). The choice is NEVER between $3,500 into a TFSA or Taxed account vs. $3,500 into an RRSP. The RRSP must be larger just to be equal.
|Taxed||+ TFSA ||+ RRSP||= After-tax |
|(A)||$3,500|| - || - ||$3,500|
|(B)|| - ||$3,500 || - ||$3,500|
|(C)|| - || - ||$5,000 ||$3,500|
|(D)||$1,050|| - ||$3,500 ||$3,500|
|(E)|| - ||$1,050 ||$3,500 ||$3,500|
The choices are between (A) leaving the $3,500 savings in a taxed account, (B) contributing it into a TFSA, (C) contributing it with the $1,500 gross up (discussed below) into an RRSP, (D) contributing it to an RRSP and leaving the refund in a taxed account, or (E) contributing it to an RRSP and putting the refund into a TFSA. All the options maintain your original $3,500 wealth. No one ever loses by moving after-tax or un-taxed savings into the before-tax RRSP. The cash in any normal bank account has no memory of 'where it came from'. Cash is cash. The 'what to do with it?' decision is forward-looking only.
Profits not taxed - Ever
It is easier to understand why these benefits are always equal by deconstructing the RRSP account into two conceptual parts. Shown below, one part is funded with after-tax savings just like the TFSA. The other part is 'the Difference' between RRSPs and TFSAs. It is funded by the government.
The Difference column shows why the contribution credit (aka 'the refund' or the 'tax $ reduction resulting from the tax deduction' = $1,500) is never a benefit. Nor is there any benefit from deferral of tax. The contribution credit grows tax free, like the account in total, but its resulting value ($3,891) is what funds the withdrawal tax. The 'Difference' column is always completely self-financing and creates no costs or benefits.
The withdrawal tax is an allocation of principal. Think of it like your best friend Bob gave you $1,500 of his money to add to your $3,500 investment account - for you to manage as you wish. At the start Bob's $1,500 was 30% of the resulting total. He continues to 'own' 30% of the account, and takes back his 30% of its resulting value ($12,969) when the arrangement is finished. You neither gain nor lose from the arrangement.
The RRSP's main benefit comes from what happens in the left column, where your after-tax savings grow tax-free and stay tax-free on withdrawal. None of the profits inside the account are ever taxed, not your portion nor the government's (although you only benefit from the sheltering of your own portion).
This shelter of profits from tax disproves the somewhat-common claim that "You can replicate the benefits of an RRSP by holding assets without ever selling, so that capital gains are only paid decades later." A deferral of taxes does not replicate the RRSP's 0% taxes. RRSP profits are permanently tax free, and tax free is always better than taxed, even when deferred and at preferential rates.
No benefit from deferral of taxes.
It is common to hear: "The RRSP's benefit is from deferring tax. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, so there is a benefit from the delay". But there is no benefit from deferring payment of a liability unless the income you can earn in the interim is greater than any increase in the liability. There is no benefit from the deferral when your $100 bill can be paid today or
This is the same situation in the RRSP. Your liability for the tax on wages that you did not pay at the start, grows at the same rate as your investment profits. You end up no better off from the deferral. This shows in the middle column of the model. The taxes paid on withdrawal equal the all the original $1,500 credit plus all the $2,391 income it earned.
- invested at 10% but your bill becomes $110 at the end of the year, or
- invested at 20% but your bill becomes $120 at the end of the year, or
- invested to lose 5% but your bill becomes $95 at the end of the year.
The contribution's tax deduction is not a benefit.
All the official sites falsely claim that the major reason to contribute to an RRSP is "to get the tax deduction / refund" i.e. to receive the contribution credit. The bigger the tax refund the better. You are told that you will have more savings earning more profits as a result. This thinking causes you to accept the face value of the RRSP account, and think it is all 'your money'. By now you should know that the contribution credit is never a benefit. It is a loan, not a gift. It is your best friend Bob's money he has given you to invest for him.
The illusion of this 'value fluffing' of the apparent size of an RRSP can be a problem, especially for people contributing at the top tax rate. For them, almost half the portfolio's value is due to the ephemeral credit. When periodically calculating your net worth, you should subtract a rough estimate of the taxes you must pay on withdrawal. Exactitude is not necessary.
The fluffed-up value in the RRSP leads to errors in asset allocation when assets are held in multiple account types. The RRSP wealth to be allocated should not be measured at it's account value. The estimated withdrawal tax should be deducted. See the discussion on the RRSP Decisions page.
The illusion of this 'value fluffing' causes people to think they can game the system. They contribute free cash into an RRSP, then use the tax credit to fund a TFSA. They wrongly think they have magically grown their savings.
The claim that 'the contribution tax credit is a benefit' leads to various wrong financial decisions;
- when choosing which type of account to save in - TFSA or RRSP with its extra funding,
- when choosing between paying down a mortgage vs. contributing to an RRSP - thinking the RRSP refund can repay the debt and kill two birds with one stone,
- when deciding to borrow the cash for a contribution - thinking the tax reduction will cover the interest of debt,
- when comparing the value of tax reductions from charitable donations (true benefit) vs. an RRSP's contribution credit.
- when arguing the merits of government's social policy regarding pensions, by counting the RRSP's contribution credit as a social cost instead of as the saver investing the government's money on its behalf.
- when comparing the RRSP's contribution credit (no benefit) to an RESP's 20% matching contribution from the government (true benefit) .
- when thinking that an RRSP's refund will offset taxes on additional income from a pension payout - making that income tax-free - mistaking cash flow for economic gains/losses.
What happens when tax rates change ?
When the tax rate at withdrawal is different from the rate at contribution, the RRSP creates a bonus or penalty, depending on whether the rate is lower or higher. By lowering the withdrawal tax rate from 30% to 20% in the next example, a bonus is created equal to 10% of the $12,969 withdrawn. The math to calculate the Bonus/Penalty is ...
= the amount withdrawn multiplied by the change in rates.
The total taxes paid on withdrawal can be thought of as the sum of (i) the tax levied at the contribution's tax rate, plus (ii) the tax levied at any difference in rates. This explains why the RRSP's main benefit from permanently sheltering profits (above) remains true always. The $3,891 portion is fully funded by the original contribution credit.
The difference in tax rates can be influenced at either end. You try to time your contributions to be at a higher rate, and you try to time your withdrawals to be at a lower rate. But be clear that just because you try to maximize the contribution credit does not mean the contribution credit is a benefit in itself. It is the difference in rates that generates the bonus/penalty.
The effect from changing tax rates is the major difference between TFSAs and the RRSPs. Rate changes have no effect on a TFSA. It is informative to calculate the RRSP's penalty/bonus as a percent of the resulting wealth from using an TFSA. In the situation above, the RRSP's bonus from a lower withdrawal tax rate resulting in 14.3% more wealth. The formula is
( Change in tax rate % ) divided by ( 1 minus tax rate on contribution )
10% / ( 1 - 0.30 ) = 14.3 %
Play with the variable inputs for the 'Tax Rates'. You will see that a same 10% difference in rates has a greater RELATIVE impact on people at the higher tax brackets. This is because the bonus is calculated on the account's balance - which will have been fluffed-up to a greater extent for high tax bracket earners.
This is a very regressive tax effect. The government could get rid of this problem simply by taxing all contributions and withdrawals at the bottom tax bracket's rate. Even during the pension reform discussions after the 2008 credit crunch there was NO discussion regarding this regressive tax or calls for change. It is likely that policy was written specifically to benefit the high income earners while hoping the poorer classes never find out.
Reconcile the different RRSP understandings.
Many readers will still be arguing that the traditional way of looking at the RRSP makes more sense to them. There is a generally accepted list of RRSP attributes from which individuals and organizations feel free to pick and choose. The government sites, publicly-paid education sites, and industry sites all choose from the following claims. (reference screenshots)
- The tax reduction on contribution is a benefit.
- Profits are tax deferred, not tax free (meaning not taxed at the time, but taxed at full rates on withdrawal).
- The deferral of taxes is a benefit (meaning that savers get to keep the profits earned by the contribution credit).
- Tax rates will / may be lower on withdrawal (but higher rates are ignored).
The analysis above dis-proves those claims.
- The tax deduction is never a benefit. The tax savings at contribution fund the eventual withdrawal tax.
- Profits earned in the RRSP are never taxed. The withdrawal taxes are an allocation of principal, not a tax on profits.
- There is no benefit from deferring taxes on the original wages because the liability for withdrawal taxes increases at the same rate as the returns earned by the assets.
- Below it will be argued that there is no probability, much less guarantee, that tax rates on withdrawal will be lower. A higher rate will create a penalty.
Where do they go wrong? In their model the withdrawal tax is applied to the total $12,969 withdrawn - which itself is the sum of the original $5,000 contribution plus the $7,969 profits earned. So both the contribution and the profits are taxed on withdrawal. Therefore profits are taxed on withdrawal. Case closed.
Not so fast.
If the withdrawal tax includes the $1,500 tax on the original $5,000 contribution then the first claimed benefit must be wrong. The $1,500 contribution credit is the tax not paid on the contribution. It cannot be a benefit if the same $1,500 is paid back on withdrawal. Together they always have a $0 impact.
What about the claim of benefits from the deferral of that tax? The value of deferral equals the profits earned in the interim. In this case the $1,500 contribution credit earns $2,391 before it is repaid on withdrawal. But this claimed benefit will always exactly equal and offset their model's $2,391 'tax on profits'. Together they always have a $0 impact.
It is common to hear a defense of the 'benefit from deferral' along the lines of - 'There is a benefit from deferral of taxes because you will be in a lower tax bracket at the later withdrawal date'. This argument tries to justify the false claim of a deferral benefit by using it as a label to describe the bonus from a lower withdrawal tax rate.
The word 'deferral' refers to the passage of time. If there is a benefit from deferral then that benefit must increase with time, but ... (i) The only way to explain the penalty from a higher withdrawal tax rate would be if time moved backwards - unlikely. (ii) The size of the bonus from a lower withdrawal tax rate does not increase with time. A 20% bonus can be created within one year at the point of a change in marginal rates. Or, no bonus or penalty may result even after 50 years when tax rates don't change.
The industry's model fails to explain any benefits because some RRSP steps always cancel out each other. Most importantly their model totally ignores what is happening in the left column where profits are permanently sheltered from tax - the only benefit that everyone gets. Their model fails.
.............. Wrong advice results .................
The false idea that profits are taxed on withdrawal, and at full rates, results in common wrong choices. Eg. Many buy-and-hold investors chose to never use an RRSP because they compare capital gains deferred 30 years and taxed at preferential rates in a Taxed account, to an RRSP where those same deferred gains are taxed at full rates after 30 years. Eg. In the Asset Location decision many choose to make capital gains and dividends the first income to get kicked out of the RRSP when contribution room is constrained, because they compare their taxation at preferential rates in a Taxed account, to an RRSP where those profits are taxed at full rates on withdrawal.
The false idea that there is a benefit from deferral causes 'experts' to claim it is better to delay RRIF drawdowns as long as possible, even while ignoring any higher tax rate that may apply later. The false idea that the contribution's tax credit is a benefit results in the most common wrong choice - to contribute to a RRSP 'to get the refund', when a TFSA would be better. The false idea that retirees will face a lower tax rate on withdrawal, wrongly entices people into an RRSP when it is likely the clawback of GIS benefits will result in higher effective tax rates at withdrawal.
All the industry players have been challenged to disprove this website's logic and math, and to provide the math to support their own claims. This list includes the big banks, the Investor Education Fund, the Get Smart About Money website, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Investopedia, the Competition Bureau of Canada, the issuers of the CFP designation, the CAs, the Canadian Bankers Association, and Ryerson University. None have attempted the challenge. They simply ignore and dismiss.
What are the unknowns that will determine a tax rate change ?
The effect (positive and negative) of a change in tax rates is an unknown until the time of withdrawal. It is a risk. Anyone telling you that you will certainly withdraw at lower tax rates is a snake-oil salesman. The only people in a position to 'assume' a bonus are those contributing at the top marginal rate.
One way to deal with the unknown withdrawal tax rate is to make it the 'conclusion' instead of the 'given' in your analysis. Make your best guess for all the other variables, then play with the withdrawal tax rate variable until both choices are of equal value. Then ask yourself "what is the probability of the future tax rate being larger/smaller than that variable?"
Some people say you should never assume your tax rate will rise on withdrawals because you could always withdraw the funds first, before your rates rise. There are two problems with this. First, most of the unknowns listed below will be unknown until they happen - too late. Second, withdrawing funds early could be shooting yourself in the foot - taxing decades of future profits, when they could have been tax-free.
Other people claim you should never assume your tax rate will rise because you should stop working and amassing wealth before that happens. Do you really need to told how silly that argument is? Some people will spend $100 to save $1 in taxes.
Variables that determine your tax rate on withdrawal....
- Your total income when withdrawing.
- When you die the total RRSP balance gets taken into income at once. That can push a lot of it into higher tax brackets. The bigger the account, the bigger this problem.
- Large draws can push you into higher tax brackets. E.g. if you need money to pay for long-term care, or to take an around-the-world cruise.
- Couples with one spouse earning little income can lower the tax rate rate on RRSP draws by splitting the reported income between the two.
- Many heavy users of RRSPs also have defined benefit pensions that replace normal wages. Incremental RRSP draws in retirement are taxed at the marginal rate above that pension.
- The size of your RRSP account.
- The more you save the bigger the resulting fund and the larger the required draws.
- The larger profits earned by your savings, the bigger the fund at retirement.
- Your savings in a Taxable account will generate profits that push your marginal RRSP draws higher in the tax structure.
- You inherit a large sum.
- You realize a large gain from the sale of your principle residence.
- You realize profits from flipping real estate.
- You amass poker winning.
- You arrive as an immigrant with wealth.
- Your qualifying Earned Income is small, but you save extra because you are thrifty.
- Government programs.
- Any income received from Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, etc, should be considered as taxed first at the lower rates. The greater the government benefits, the higher in the tax structure RRSP draws are pushed.
- Government programs providing income assistance in retirement (GIS, OAS) have clawback provisions that reduce those benefits when your income exceeds certain limits. This has the effect of increasing the effective marginal tax on any RRSP withdrawals.
- Tax rates can be changed by the government at any time.
- The general economy, government deficits, and aging populations will determine political realities. Someone will have to pay.
- The power of lobby groups to influence tax decisions may wane.
- The width of tax brackets (how much income is taxed at each level before you get bumped up to the next tax rate) may increase with inflation, or not.
There are only two relatively safe assumptions that can be made from all these unknowns. Those who contribute at the top marginal tax rate are pretty certain to take money out at lower rates. Therefore they benefit from the rate change. Those who contribute at the bottom tax bracket are pretty certain to take money out at higher rates. Therefore they lose from the rate change. This reality is what prompted the government to create the TFSA.
Many government support programs are means-tested. Their level of benefit depends on your income. Reducing your income with an RRSP contribution may increase the Canada Child benefit or the GST Credit. It may reduce the clawback of Unemployment Insurance benefits. Increasing your income with RRSP withdrawals may reduce OAS , GIS, or the Age Tax Credit. Your taxable income can also determine your costs for long term care or subsidized community housing. How you deal with this depends on how entitled you feel to the benefits.
A huge fuss is made by those in retirement now, who had no TFSA option when they were saving, about the clawback of Old Age Security benefits. There needs to be a reality check. The average total income of retired people, including government transfers, was $44,500 in 2019. Anyone earning more than $77,600+ (at which OAS only starts to be clawed back in 2019) is far above 'normal' and certainly not deserving of taxpayer support, especially when the workers footing the bill earn less than the people they are supporting. Consider how you feel about people who refuse to get a job because the paycheque earned will be offset by a reduction in welfare benefits. Do you think these people are doing 'good financial planning'? Or do you think they are abusing the system? Do you see the analogy?
Do you feel blessed to not qualify for benefits because you are wealthy? If so, just ignore the loss of benefits.
For young people it is different. they have a choice to save in a TFSA instead of an RRSP. Two people in the same 'blessed' situation will now face very different outcomes because of their choice of account for savings. Ignoring the impact on government benefits is not logical. But it is not the clawback of OAS that matters to the vast majority. It is the clawback of GIS, where the RRSP withdrawal income creates $1 claw-back for every $2 drawn. Cash from a TFSA creates none.
The diagram above shows the tax bracket $ levels and tax % rates in the left column. The middle column shows the typical income in retirement. GIS is not taxed so it is shown below the bottom of the lowest tax bracket. OAS is taxed, but not counted as income that causes a clawback of GIS. CPP benefits replace about 20% of wages earned while working, up to a maximum. RRSP draws would fall in the box of Other Taxable Income. The following presumes there is no personal taxable income other than RRIF draws.
The median employment income of Canadians working full time was $54,500 in 2019, above the top of the first tax bracket at $47,600. But many do not work full time. So it is reasonable to concluded that for half of all workers there is no lower tax bracket for withdrawals in retirement. On the first $10,000 draws, the 50% GIS clawback makes for an effective withdrawal tax rate of 72.5%. The promotional and educational RRSP material that fails to even mention a higher withdrawal tax rate and its resulting Penalty is unethical. The average RRSP draw by seniors was $11,600 in 2019.
The 72.5% rate gets reduced by larger RRSP draws as the GIS clawback is diluted. But still, assume you can save up $364,000 by retirement (in today's dollars). That would create a $20,000 yearly draw at the regulatory 5.5% rate. What tax $ would be paid on the RRSP draw? At the statutory 22.5% rate = $4,500. But add the GIS clawback still outstanding and it become $9,800 - 49% of the $20,000 draw.
The take-away here is ..... for those expecting a small RRSP account balance at retirement (and small draws), and who will not have other taxed income to trigger the GIS clawback, depleting the account early into a TFSA instead is critical - especially for those contributing at the bottom tax bracket.
It is common to hear experts say that assets with expected high returns should have low priority for inclusion inside RRSPs. They reason that ... "Assets with higher returns will grow the account size faster ... which will create larger RRIF draws in retirement ... which will be taxed at higher marginal tax rates ... creating the Penalty from withdrawals at tax rates higher than at contribution".
Their logic has errors.
- There are many factors that go into determining the ending size of any RRSP account. How much $$ is originally contributed is a critical factor. This factor is largely controllable. Stop contributing if / when it appears that the marginal net RRSP benefit is negative. Use the Decision worksheet
- While tax rates on withdrawal are still lower than at contribution, and a Bonus is expected, a larger account will maximize that Bonus. A larger account is a good thing.
- As shown in the example above, the clawback of GIS creates huge effective tax rates on withdrawal. But the larger the account and bigger the RRIF draw, the greater the dilution of this clawback's impact. Tax rates are reduced by larger draws from larger accounts. A larger account is a good thing.
The Asset Location choice for high-return assets should be based on probable outcomes, not fears of doom and gloom.
Notice in the diagram above how the clawback of OAS only increases your marginal tax rate by an additional 9% or 10%. You may have expected 15%, because 15 cents of OAS is clawed back for every dollar of income. But the OAS was originally taxed, so not getting the benefit means not paying tax on that benefit. The clawback increases your marginal rate on withdrawal by the after-tax benefit lost. So while in the 2nd tax bracket the net tax effect = 15% * ( 1 - 30.8%) = 10.38%.
You many not have ever heard of the clawback of Employment Insurance (EI). This adjustment also has its after-tax value added. Income over $66,375 (2019) claws back previously paid benefits at 30%, so reducing your income with an RRSP contribution will increase IE by 30%clawback * (1-30.8%tax) = 20.76%. The effective tax rate for the RRSP contribution would be 30.8% +
20.76% = 51.56%. Not to be ignored if you are in this situation.
The Canada Child Benefit (CCB) is also income dependent, but not taxed, so the adjustment added is the straight clawback rate. For those at the top end of the bottom tax bracket, increased income reduces the benefit for one child at 7%. For two and three children it grows to 13.5% and 19%. Add this to the 22.5% statutory rate for an effective RRSP contribution rate between 29.5% and 41.5%. Use the government's calculator to calculate the difference in $tax for your own income assumptions.
Some may contribute to an RRSP expecting to withdraw the funds in a future year of no income, e.g. when going to school or taking time off for a baby. The expectation is that they could withdraw at 0% tax within the range of the Personal Exemption. Married couples may not see that benefit. A low income allows the spouse to claim the spousal support credit anyway. The RRSP withdrawal income would reduce that credit at the 22.5% bottom tax rate. So from the couple's joint perspective the RRSP funds would be taxed at 22.5%.
Delay Claiming The Tax Deduction ?
The RRSP administrative rules do not force you to claim the tax deduction in the same year you contribute. Since the contribution credit is calculated at your top marginal rate, it seems intuitively better to delay the claim when you predict your marginal rate will rise in a few years. After all, a $400 refund (40% tax credit on $1,000 contribution) is better than a $300 refund (at 30%).
But the real question is "If you predict a higher tax bracket soon, should you make the contribution in the first place?" The first step in answering that question is to measure and understand the cost of any delay in claiming the deduction. It is common sense that the sooner you collect what is owned to you, the better.
To understand the cost of delay in claiming the contribution's tax deduction, revisit the analysis above where the RRSP was conceptually split into two - the TFSA part and the Difference part. It is repeated in the (A) chart. Compare that to the (B) chart with a one year delay in claiming the contribution credit.
The Difference column in (B) grows for only 9 years instead of 10.
Instead of growing to $3,891, it only reaches $3,537. It is missing $354. This equals one year's 10% profits on $3,537. This smaller balance is not sufficient to fund the withdrawal tax. The shortfall comes out of the saver's pocket (although the resulting $248 penalty is 30% smaller than the $354 missing profits because the government eats its 30% share). The longer the delay, and the larger the rate of return realized by the investments, the more profits are missing and the greater the penalty.
So what do you do when you expect your marginal tax bracket to rise in the future? The decision to contribute to an RRSP, but delay claiming the tax deduction, should consider all the alternatives. It will rarely be the optimal choice. The optimal choice will always be to stash the funds in a TFSA for the interim. But maybe you have no TFSA contribution room. Your other choices are between using a Taxable account for the interim, or using the RRSP while claiming the deduction right away. This decision is modeled on the next webpage for RRSP Decisions.
............. The Gross Up .............
The most common place to find people delaying claiming the contribution credit has nothing to do with any expectations of higher tax rates in the futue. It is where, in the example above, you earn $5,000 wages from which $1,500 taxes are withheld at source. You save the after-tax $3,500 and put it into an RRSP. You claim the contribution on your tax return and get a $1,050 refund (= $3,500 * 30%). You add this refund to the RRSP account.
But you need $1,500, not $1,050. This sequence of events results in a delay in claiming the full refund. Next year you claim the original $1,050 refund as a contribution, recover its $315 refund, and add the $315 to the RRSP account. The 3rd year you claim the $315 contribution and claim its $94.50 refund. It takes you 3 years to collect $1,459.50 (of the total $1,500). Each subsequent year the additional $$ get smaller.
There are three ways to deal with this problem. Maybe the easiest is to NOT put the original $1,050 refund into the RRSP. Inside the RRSP you changed after-tax dollars into pre-tax dollars. Instead invest the money in a TFSA until you make your next year's RRSP contribution. Or spend it on normal living costs as discussed below in the section Spend the Refund.
The next option is to fill in the government form T1213 that gives your employer permission to withhold less income tax from your pay cheques, based on your undertaking to make RRSP contributions. This changes a part of each pay cheque into before-tax dollars. The extra dollars allow you to make larger RRSP contributions during the year (the $5,000 instead of the $3,500) in exchange for not being able to claim any refund when filing the tax return.
The third way is to make a second Gross Up contribution of $1,500 in late February before the deadline. Everyone's emergency fund should be able to finance this temporary loan. Now the expected refund will be 30% of $5,000 (= $3,500 + $1,500), or $1,500. This refund repays your emergency fund loan. The math to figure out the size of the Gross Up (x) so that the refund will repay its full amount is .....
x = $3,500 after-tax-savings * 30% tax rate / (1 - 30%)
x = $1,500
Spend the refund if you like.
It is common to hear ... "The tax refund from an RRSP contribution should not be spent. It should be either added to savings in the RRSP or TFSA, or used to repay debt, or put to some other good use". This false belief starts from the right place, but ends up in a wrong conclusion.
It makes no difference how you spend any refund resulting from an RRSP contribution ... as long as you do not increase your spending as a result of it. The word 'increase' is important. When the comparison of accounts was first presented (above) the presumptions listed for an apples-to-apples comparison included ... "(ii) when wages and living expenses are held constant between options, any option that reduces taxes should result in larger savings". But that does not mean that any RRSP refund must be the source of that additional savings.
You have $5,000 extra cash in your chequing account.
Your marginal tax rate is 30%.
You expect any tax refund in 3 months.
In 3 months you will spend $1,500 on a vacation.
Question - how much would you contribute to an RRSP vs a TFSA?
1) You would put $3,500 into a TFSA and keep the remaining $1,500 to pay for the vacation. Or ...
2) You would put $5,000 into an RRSP and use the tax refund to pay for the vacation.
Because you would take the vacation anyway, you have not increased your spending just because you pay for it with the RRSP refund. The values in the two accounts are equal because the larger RRSP balance allows for its withdrawal taxes.
There is a second point to be made. In the example you may have spotted a slight timing difference. The TFSA could have been invested for 3 additional months (vs the RRSP) because of the delay in recovering the RRSP's Contribution Credit.
Common sense says it is better to collect $$ owed to you sooner rather than later. How, and how fast you collect the value of the Contribution Credit is your personal decision, not an attribute of the system itself. If you delay collection then you will pay a penalty for that delay. See Delay Claiming the Deduction above. Choose the most speedy collection.
And a final point. Many detractors who dismiss the model presented above, do so on the grounds that ..."It wrongly presumes that the refund is deposited in the RRSP." Hopefully the arguments made above show that this model makes no presumption about the use of any refund. It does not even presume a refund is received. It DOES presume there is a contribution credit created by all contributions. This is always a true fact. How, when, and in what form, you collect that contribution credit is your business and makes no difference to the model, or how the RRSP benefits are created. You can even contribute at a 0% tax rate, but you still get the contribution credit = $contribution * 0% tax.
Are the Tax Benefits of Investment Losses Lost ?
It is common to hear that the tax-recovery benefit of investment losses is lost when the loss is inside an RRSP. There is some truth to that, but not a lot.
First off, no one invests with the intention of losing money in the long run. And in the long run markets go up, so most everyone earns some kind of profit. In a taxable account both profits and losses generate tax effects, but over time you only pay tax on the net profits - profits minus losses. Neither the TFSA nor the RRSP is taxed, so their benefit equals their shelter from that same net tax. Losses have the same effect on profits taxed and profits sheltered.
But some loss of tax benefits may happen when market returns swing wildly from large losses to large gains (or vice versa). This is because tax effectively dampens returns. It reduces both after-tax profits and after-tax losses. Volatility reduces long-term returns. The box below shows the math. One year of 100% profits and the other year of 50% losses for a 0% cumulative return. It shows both the TFSA and RRSP ending up smaller than the taxable account. The taxes paid on profits reduce the principal exposed to the following year's losses. The recovery of taxes on losses increases the principal exposed to the following year's profits.
But there are huge qualifications to this idea that investment losses have more value in a taxable account.
First - if the profit were 50% and the loss 25%, the tax shelters would have beaten the taxable account - still a volatile return but with a net benefit over the period. The volatility must be very, very extreme before it wipes out the tax shelters' benefits.
Second - the math depends on the taxes being paid from the investment account. But are they? In real life taxes are paid from your chequing account. A smaller chequing account may result in your spending less, without any effect on additional savings. Maybe the differential savings go into the RRSP and not the taxable account. A reduction in a chequing account may impact your decision to add additional savings to the investment account, but it will not impact the existing value at risk in the investment account. There are a lot of maybe's.
Third - the math depends on the taxes being paid each year as profits are earned or lost. But they aren't. In real life an investment may be held for many years as its price increases. By the time the market tanks, that loss may retrace only part of the gains, leaving the stock price still higher than at purchase. There will be no tax loss.
Fourth - even if a loss takes the stock price below where it was purchased, claiming a capital loss in Canada will not generate at tax refund unless you have paid taxes on capital gains during the prior three years. Buy-and-hold investors who rarely trade may be out of luck.
Fifth - the math shown is reasonable for a single security. But a portfolio of assets will have some losses offset by some gains. Taxes paid are paid on the net gains of all the assets. Portfolios are are lot less volatile than individual stocks.
The appropriate conclusion should be to not worry about any lost benefits in an RRSP from capital losses. It is a theoretical idea unlikely to exist in reality.
What tax rates do you use in the analysis ?
The tax rate for contribution and withdrawal, used as variables in the Deconstruct Benefits spreadsheet is not the marginal rate of the next dollar of income. Rather, it is the rate applied to the total RRSP contribution or withdrawal. First calculate your tax bill without any contribution or withdrawal. Then calculate it again with the contribution/draw. Subtract for the difference. Divide the $tax difference into the $contribution/withdrawal to get the marginal tax %rate.
(Difference in Tax $$ Paid) / (Contribution or Withdrawal $$)
The lower (higher) taxable income resulting from RRSP contributions (withdrawals) may change your qualification for other government programs, like GST rebates, OAS and GIS. The difference in expected $benefits should be included in the numerator of the calculation above. Some on-line tax calculators already include the OAS difference.
When using the Decision spreadsheet for practical RRSP decisions, the tax rates will change over time. For young people with little wealth, the future withdrawal from that small portfolio would be taxed in the bottom bracket. But as your wealth accumulates, both inside and outside tax shelters, higher tax rates should be presumed for both profits earned by assets kept outside tax-shelters and RRSP withdrawals.
Remember also that RRSP withdrawals qualify as 'pension income' that can be split between couples in whatever proportion they choose. This may lower the effective withdrawal rate. Spousal RRSPs also allow for anticipated withdrawals at lower tax brackets than faced by the contributor.
The tax rate on investment profits is a bit complicated. The statutory marginal tax rate for the type of income at your marginal tax bracket is just the starting point. You can look that up on the Tax Rate spreadsheet. Most people's portfolios generate interest, dividends and capital gains income in different proportions. Use the 'Weighted Average Tax Rate' tab on the same spreadsheet to find the portfolio's average rate.
Capital gains may be realized each year, or delayed decades. If you turn over your holdings yearly, the rate needs no adjustment. But if you hold stocks for (say) 10 years, the effective yearly rate is lower. Use the 'Effective Capital Gains Rate' tab to find a 'good enough' calculation. This is the rate for capital gains to use on the 'Weighted Average Tax Rate' tab.
The Decision spreadsheet includes two variables for the tax rate on investment income - for the periods (i) before retirement (while you are working) and (ii) after. While you are working, investment income earned outside an RRSP would be taxed at increasingly higher marginal rates as your salary rises (hopefully), and also the size of a taxable portfolio increases. By the time you retire both can be very high. There is no one correct variable input because it will be changing. See the effects of different inputs. After retirement, depending on the size of your CPP and other pensions, your effective tax rate will change. Remember that profits from investments held in Taxable accounts will trigger clawback of GIS, just like RRIF draws, resulting in the same huge effective tax rates.
Other retirement savings accounts
Canada has a number of schemes to encourage retirement savings with tax sheltering. They can be broken down by their legal basis between RRSPs and Registered Pension Plans (RPP). The compliance rules of pension plans are more onerous for companies, but they offer companies more flexibility in the plans' rules. This article won't detail those relative costs and benefits. Employers sometimes keep both a group RRSP and a RPP going at the same time. Employee contributions go into an RRSP so they have free access to their own funds, but employers fund the RPP, allowing them to restrict withdrawals and impose vesting periods. The chart below will help employees see what their own rights and responsibilities are under different types of plans. Right click to enlarge.
Tax Return T1 General
T1213 request for reduction of income tax withholding
RRSP Contribution Room running tally Schedule 7
Pension Adjustment Reversal form T10, to reverse past PA when employee leaves before benefits vest. Do not do anything with it � the gov�t gets a copy and makes the adjustment to increase your contribution room.
RRSP and Other Retirement Plans
Pooled Registered Pension Plans
Pension Adjustment Guide
Pension Plan Administration at Revenue Canada
Retirement Compensation Arrangement (RCA)
There is a little known tax shelter supposedly for people with incomes too large to be replaced by RRSP contributions. I created a seperate RCA pdf