Kevin Greenard: 50 questions to consider before making an RRSP contribution

Kevin Greenard

An RRSP could be an important vehicle in reducing the amount of tax you pay in your lifetime.

However, an RRSP may not be for everyone.

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Last week, we reviewed marginal tax brackets and took a mathematical approach to determine whether you should contribute to an RRSP. Incomes below $39,676 in 2018 could save between zero cents and as much as 20 cents on each dollar contributed. Incomes above $205,842 save 49.8 cents on each dollar contributed.

Many individuals have taxable income above $39,676 and below $205,842. We will refer to this as the grey zone. The mathematical approach has many shortfalls.

Below are fifty questions to help those in the grey zone determine if making an RRSP contribution is right for them.

1) How old are you?

Typically the younger you are the longer you have tax deferral. Tax deferral is the number one benefit of an RRSP, not the immediate tax deduction for the contribution. A 40 year old could have over 30 years of deferral. A 65 year old has six years.

2) What is your income level?

If your income is very low then it may not make any sense to contribute. If you are in higher marginal income tax brackets, then the income tax savings can be significant. Last week we outlined the math for those will regular forms of income.

3) Does your income level fluctuate year to year?

Certain professions have income levels that fluctuate year to year. With some years being so low that dipping into savings is necessary. The greater the fluctuations in income the more important it is to have some emergency funds outside of an RRSP.

4) Do you have future large income tax years?

In cases where clients have moderate levels of income today but intend on selling an asset such as a rental property for a significant capital gain in the future, building up and saving the contribution room or building an “unused” component, to offset the large income tax years can often be a good strategy.

5) Are you looking to purchase a principal residence?

If one of your goals is to purchase a principal residence then the majority of your savings should be done in either a non-registered account or a TFSA for easier access. The one exception could be the RRSP Home Buyers Plan (see below).

6) Are you eligible for the RRSP Home Buyers Plan (HBP)?

First time home buyers can participate in the RRSP Home Buyers Plan(HBP). Under this program, allows you to withdraw up to $25,000 in a year from your RRSP towards a qualifying home. If your income is higher and you do not yet have $25,000 in an RRSP then contributing to an RRSP up to this level and then withdrawing the funds under the HBP can be a good strategy for new home owners. A RRSP can not only help you save for retirement — it can also help you save for your first home.

If you and your spouse both borrow the same amount from your RRSP accounts you can put up to $50,000 combined towards a down payment. The HBP enables you to get access to the money you saved, the investment growth, and receive the tax savings.

With the HBP you are essentially borrowing from yourself. You have to pay the amount you borrowed back within 15 years. If you took out $25,000, you must pay back into your RRSP $1,666.66 annually. If you miss these repayment amounts then you will be taxed on the missed payment.

7) Have you contributed to an RESP for any minor children?

Often I see parents not taking advantage of the Canada Education Savings Grant (CESG) linked to RESP contributions. The government matches 20 per cent on the first $2,500 contributed annually per child, up to age 18.

8) How old are your children?

If cash is limited, often at times an RESP contribution is a better use of funds, especially if the children are approaching 18 and have not yet obtained the lifetime maximum of $7,200 CESG.

9) Have you set up a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) for a minor or adult child with a disability?

The RDSP has benefits even for those who do contribute. The government also give funds under a matching program which is dependent on the beneficiary's family income. If funds are limited then Contributing to an RDSP often is a better option.

10) Do you have a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA)?

Individuals with lower income today are generally better off to contribute to a TFSA. If income levels rise then you can always move the funds out of the TFSA and contribute to an RRSP in the future.

11) Have you maximized contributions to your TFSA?

An RRSP contribution can assist you in reducing the current year income but will eventually be taxed when the funds are pulled out. On the other hand, the TFSA grows tax-free but does not assist you in deferring any of your earned income in the current year. By taking a longer term view, the TFSA for those with lower income, and amounts to save, should seriously consider a TFSA over an RRSP.

12) Are you, or dependents, attending post-secondary education?

Often at times these costs can help with lowering your taxes payable. Obtain an estimate of all potential deductions and factor this in when determining what amount, if any, to contribute to an RRSP.

13) Are you claiming any disability deductions and credits?

The disability tax claimed either for self, or others, can significantly lower your income tax liability. It is important to factor these credits in when making RRSP contribution decisions.

14) Did you know that your RRSP can help you get an education?

The RRSP program is called Lifetime Learning Plan (LLP). Your RRSP can help pay for the education and training you may need to build a new career or make a change.

The LLP enables you to take out up to $10,000 per year ($20,000 maximum) from your RRSP to pay for tuition for you or your spouse.

With the LLP you are essentially borrowing from yourself. You have to pay the amount you borrowed back within 15 years. If you took out $10,000 you must pay back into your RRSP $666.67 annually. If you miss these repayment amounts then you will be taxed if you miss a payment.

15) Do you have family, child care, and caregiver expenses?

If you have these types of expenditures then you may be eligible for deductions and/or credits on your income tax return. These deductions and credits should be factored in when looking at the amount of RRSP contributions to make. It is important to know that some credits are non-refundable and contributing to an RRSP in some situations may not be as worthwhile from a deduction standpoint.

16) Do you have significant medical expenses in the current year?

If you had an unusually high level of medical expenses in a current, or a 12 month period, you should advise your financial adviser. It may be that these medical expenses have already helped reduce your projected taxes payable to an acceptable level that making an RRSP contribution is not necessary in the current period.

17) Do you have excess cash in the bank?

If you have excess cash that would otherwise be invested in a non-registered account and generating T3 and T5 income then an RRSP can help reduce two forms of income. By investing these funds in an RRSP you will not be receiving a T3 or T5, or have to report the capital gains on dispositions. These savings along with the deduction can make sense if the cash in the bank can be committed to retirement.

18) How did you intend to fund the RRSP contribution?

If you do not have money to fund the RRSP then that sometimes helps with the decision-making. Clients have asked me whether it makes sense to borrow money to put into an RRSP. Interest on RRSP loans are not deductible. Historically, there have been a lot of articles that discuss how to use a short term RRSP loan in February that can be partially paid back (provided you get a refund) once your tax return is filed and assessed. If the funds can be paid back quickly, with minimal interest costs, then it can make sense.

19) Do you have a spouse to name as the beneficiary?

If your spouse is named the beneficiary of your RRSP then you have less risk of an adverse tax consequence if you were to pass away (see question 50). Contributing to an RRSP, with your spouse named as the beneficiary, has two benefits in my opinion. The first obvious benefit is that it assists both of you in retirement should you live a normal life expectancy. The second benefit is that it provides assistance to your spouse in retirement in the event that you were to pass away before retirement.

20) Where can you find out how much you can contribute?

The most common approach is to look at last year's Income Tax Notice of Assessment (NOA). The RRSP deduction limit table will provide these numbers. If you are unable to find the NOA then you can log into CRA My Account.

21) Are you aware of the different types of investments to put into your RRSP?

An RRSP is a type of an account and not a type of investment. The options for what you can put into an RRSP can vary significantly. Putting the cash into the RRSP is only the beginning. The most important part is ensuring the capital is protected and invested appropriately to grow for the decades ahead. We encourage you to do some research. Next week we will outline investment options for your RRSP.

22) If you make an RRSP contribution, have you estimated how much tax you will have deferred in the current year?

Many online RRSP calculators can compute the tax savings for a contribution. This works great if you have regular forms of income, such as T4 employment income. If you have certain other types of income, such as dividend income from a corporation, then it is best you have your accountant do the projections for you.

23) Are you aware that you can contribute to an RRSP and save the deduction (considered “unused”) for future years?

One might ask, “why would I contribute money into my RRSP and not immediately claim all of it as a deduction in that year?” Perhaps the best way to answer this is by looking at a real scenario where a couple may have worked hard for over 20 years to pay off their mortgage and become debt free. During all those years of focusing on paying down debt they accumulated a significant RRSP deduction limit. Unexpectedly this same couple receives a significant inheritance. They decide to move $50,000 into an RRSP account. By moving some of these funds into an RRSP they have immediately tax sheltered and obtained deferral of the income and growth. They have a goal of retiring in five years and have mapped out a plan of deducting $10,000 of the unused each year for five years.

24) Are you a member of any Registered Pension Plans?

If you are a member of an RPP then you will see a Pension Adjustment (PA) calculation on your annual Income Tax Notice of Assessment. Depending on your income level, and the quality of your RPP, some or nearly all of your RRSP deduction limit will be reduce by the PA. An RRSP was primarily design for individuals without an RPP. Those without an RPP should consider an RRSP more closely. Even those with an RPP, an RRSP is definitely worth considering if you have both the deduction limit and cash flow.

25) Do you have non-deductible debt?

A mortgage on your principal residence is normally non-deductible unless you have a business component operating from your home. Credit card charges and personal lines of credit are also normally non-deductible. The more non-deductible debt you have the less attractive committing your savings to RRSP contributions. Any high interest credit card or other debt expense should be a top priority to tackle before making RRSP contributions. This is especially true if the debt is non-deductible.

26) Do you have any deductible debt?

If your interest costs are deductible then these costs also help lower your taxable income. If with your excess savings you choose to pay off deductible debt then this would result in lower interest costs for you (which is good) but also results in a lower interest expense deduction. If funds are dedicated to an RRSP then you have the benefit of both the interest expense deduction and the RRSP deduction.

27) What are the balances of all lines of credit, loans, and mortgages?

Looking at your pre-payment options and the interest rates on each form of debt is important. Also important is to focus on paying down the non-deductible debt before the deductible debt. If all the debt levels and interest rates are reasonable then considering an RRSP contribution can provide you the balance of both real estate and financial assets.

28) Have you made any significant donations?

If you have made, or are planning to make, a significant charitable donation then you should factor this into the amount to contribute to an RRSP. Both federal and provincial charitable tax credits are available which would reduce income taxes payable.

29) Were you intending to borrow funds to contribute to an RRSP?

Interest on a loan for an RRSP is not tax deductible. If the RRSP loan is at a good rate and you feel you can pay the loan off within a reasonable period of time (i.e. with tax refund) then it may make sense in higher income earning years.

30) What are the rates on your non-deductible and deductible debt?

When I meet with clients and they have questions about where to put the excess cash, TFSA, RRSP, paying down debt. One of the first items I'll ask for is the terms of any existing debt (i.e. interest rates, prepayment privileges, and whether or not the debt is deductible.) Sometimes we are able to propose a series of transactions to make more of your interest costs tax deductible.

31) Should I set up a spousal RRSP?

A spousal RRSP contribution may make sense if there is a disparity between taxable incomes in the long term. I like to look at longer term projections and try to equalize taxable income throughout retirement to lower taxes as a household. Care has to be taken to ensure attribution rules do not kick in with withdrawals.

32) Do you and your spouse work?

One of the pitfalls to an RRSP for single people is the loss of employer or a financial emergency comes up. Two income families can weather this risk often at times without having to dip into RRSP funds to pay the bills.

33) Are you intending to become non-resident of Canada in the future?

The strategy with respect to an RRSP can be impacted if the long term intention is to retire in a foreign country. Any withdrawals out of an RRSP if you are non-resident will be subject to a flat 25 per cent withholding tax or at a reduced rate pursuant to the tax treaty with the foreign country. If you are normally in the highest tax bracket, becoming non-resident before any withdrawals can work to your advantage. If you had planned to have retirement income within the first income federal income tax bracket then you are likely to pay close to twice the normal tax if you're non-resident.

34) When are you planning to retire?

Providing details on your retirement to your financial advisor will also help with determining if an RRSP contribution makes sense. In some cases, your RRSP deduction limit can be used to roll in retirement allowances and offset a high income final employment year.

35) What is your ratio of non-registered funds to registered funds?

Prior to entering retirement, it is advisable to also have investments in a non-registered account and funds in the bank. If all of your investments are currently in an RRSP then you should talk with your advisor about TFSA and non-registered accounts. Ideally you should have the ability to adjust your cash flow needs without having adverse tax consequences in retirement. The non-registered account is often at times the solution to deal with these fluctuations.

36) Do you have a corporation where income can be tax sheltered?

The ability to tax shelter funds within a corporation has historically come with many benefits. In past years many accountants have advised small business owners to keep excess cash within the corporation and avoid RRSP contributions. Cash flow to the shareholder was often done in tax efficient dividends. Recent changes in tax rules has resulted in many business owners meeting with accountants to determine the best strategy going forward, including RRSP contributions.

37) Have you spent the time to invest the funds appropriately?

Investment options within an RRSP vary considerably. The choice of investments should reflect your risk tolerance, investment objectives, and time horizon. It goes without saying that if RRSP funds are invested appropriately you will achieve your retirement goal sooner. Next week we will discuss the various investment options within an RRSP.

38) Do you have the discipline to keep the funds invested through to retirement?

One of the biggest mistakes young investors make is pulling funds out of an RRSP early. RRSP withdrawals become taxable income when they are withdrawn. The RRSP room is lost indefinitely and cannot be replenished. Prior to making a contribution, you should determine if you can commit the funds for its intended purpose. If in doubt, you should consider a TFSA or non-registered account.

39) Are you aware of the pre-authorized contribution (PAC) approach to RRSP savings?

One approach to saving for an RRSP is to do forced savings every month. For a lower income client who still wishes to save within RRSP, coming up with a lump sum amount of cash can be difficult. If that client were to pay themselves $500 every month then slowly over time they would build up an RRSP nest egg. It is important with a PAC that you always keep an eye on your contribution limit and adjust the PAC accordingly. The benefit of a once a year lump sum is that you can always ensure that the amount contributed is equal, or below, your deduction limit.

40) Do you know the consequences for putting too much into an RRSP?

All over-contributions of more than $2,000 above your deduction limit will incur a penalty of one per cent per month. To avoid receiving brown envelopes from CRA, take extra care to not exceed your allowable contribution limits.

41) Does it make sense to have more than one RRSP account?

The Income Tax Act does not put a limit on the number of RRSP accounts you may have. For all intents and purposes we recommend having only one or two RRSP accounts. Having one RRSP account with an advisor will help them manage your asset mix, sector exposure, geographic exposure, and position size on each investment. If you have the option of a group RRSP that is matching then having two RRSP accounts makes sense.

42) How do I combine my RRSP accounts?

Unfortunately combining RRSP accounts comes at a cost most times. Nearly all financial institutions will charge a transfer out fee. An example of the fee may be $125 + tax. Let's say Jack rushes to make a last minute RRSP contribution for $10,000. He is so rushed that he also agrees to put the funds into a two year GIC at two per cent. The next year Jack does the same thing but at a different financial institution. When I met Jack the first thing he said to me was he was not making a lot of money on his RRSP accounts. Jack showed me four different RRSP accounts at different financial institutions. Jack had intended on doing the right thing each year but had slowly created a bit of a mess that was not performing above inflation levels. I explained to Jack that we could diarize to consolidate the GICs once they mature. I also explained to Jack that this will come at a cost. The relinquishing institutions will each charge him $125 + tax wiping away over half of the interest amount he had made. In my opinion, having one well managed RRSP with all investment options available is the best approach.

43) When do I have to convert my RRSP to a RRIF?

The Income Tax Act states that your RRSP must be collapsed by the end of the year you turn 71. Most clients choose to convert their RRSP to a Registered Retirement Income Fund, or RRIF. Other options are to de-register the full account. This option may be okay for small accounts when your other income is low. Normally, this is not advisable as the entire value of the RRSP becomes taxable in one year. Another option, is to purchase an annuity.

44) How long can I have an RRSP?

In British Columbia, the age of majority is 19. An RRSP has to be collapsed at age 71. Mathematically, one could have deferral for 52 years within an RRSP and continue most of that deferral even further within a RRIF. The reality is that many do not start contributing as early as age 19 and many have collapsed their RRSP accounts before age 71.

45) Is it possible to contribute to an RRSP after the age of 71?

You may contribute to your own RRSP until December 31 of the year you turn 71. You can also contribute to a spousal RRSP until December 31 of the year your spouse or common-law partner turns 71. If your spouse is younger then you, and you still have RRSP contribution room, then you may contribute.

46) Should I participate in a Group RRSP plan?

The primary purpose of a group RRSP plan is to encourage you to save some of your hard earned dollars. Your employer may offer this option by enabling you to contribute through payroll deductions. Often at times the investment options are limit to those offered by the group provider. In some situations, your employer may offer a matching program where you put in a set percentage of your pay and they will match up to a maximum level. In nearly all cases when an employer is willing to match your contributions it is worth participating in the Group RRSP.

47) Do I have to wait until I retire to transfer part or all of my Group RRSP plan to a self-directed RRSP?

Not all Group RRSP plans are the same. In most Group RRSPs you are permitted to transfer the investments to another RRSP account provided the plan does not have any provisions preventing the transfer. In most cases we recommend that when a sufficient amount has accumulated in the Group RRSP that the amount is transferred to your other RRSP account.

48) What is one of the most common errors you see with RRSP accounts?

I think all too often individuals are so focused on wanting to save as much tax in the current year that they forget to look at the big picture of minimizing tax during their life time.

49) What happens if I need cash out of my RRSP before retirement?

The standard withholding rates are 10 per cent for amounts up to $5,000, 20 per cent for amounts over $5,000 and below $15,000, and 30 per cent for all amounts over $15,000. The actual level of tax that you pay will be dependent on your other forms of income and if you have any deductions or credits.

50) What happens if I passed away with money in an RRSP?

I left this question for last for a reason. If your spouse is listed as a beneficiary then your RRSP would be combined with the surviving spouses RRSP and you would have complete deferral of immediate tax on the first passing. For all others, single people and widows, the tax deferral ceases on the second passing. Canada Revenue Agency is likely to collect nearly half of the amount you have remaining in your RRSP.

The above is just a sample of the potential questions that could be asked as the RRSP conversation unfolds. Understanding the reasons for the above questions can help both you and your adviser make informed decisions.

Kevin Greenard CPA CA FMA CFP CIM is a portfolio manager and director of wealth management with The Greenard Group at Scotia Wealth Management in Victoria. His column appears every week in the Times Colonist. Call 250.389.2138. greenardgroup.com

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