Retail Investor .org

NITTY - GRITTY OF THE RRSP MODEL

Americans - think IRA or 401k when you see RRSP, and Roth when you see TFSA





Spreadsheet resources


Why you should read this page.


What are the mechanics of the RRSP system ?


Profits not taxed - ever.


No benefit from deferral of taxes.


The contribution's tax deduction is not a benefit.


What happens when tax rates change ?


Reconcile the different RRSP understandings.


What are the unknowns that will determine a tax rate change ?


Government Benefits.


Delay claiming the tax deduction ?


Are the tax benefits of investment losses lost ?


What tax rates do you use in the analysis ?


RRSP decisions and choices.




Spreadsheet resources


Why you should read this page.

Below is a detailed argument, supported by math, proving that what you probable understanding about 'how the RRSP system works' ... is wrong. It proves that RRSPs have five effects that must be evaluated and calculated separately. No one before has bothered to calculate the actual benefits of an RRSP over investment in a taxable account, or developed the math for calculating the cost/benefit of each effect.

CORRECT:
1) The tax reduction resulting from claiming the RRSP contribution as a tax deduction (called here "the contribution credit") is not a benefit. It is a loan from the government - a loan you must pay back along with all the income earned by it. You should not consider the whole account to be 'your own' money. The part funded by your after-tax savings is 'yours', but the part funded by the contribution credit is 'the government's'. All the profits earned by the contribution credit belong to the government, not you. This is no different from your best friend Bob giving you his money to add to your own, for you to invest for him. If his money makes up 40% of the account's value at the start, he continues to own 40% of the account, and must be repaid 40% of the account's value at its closure. The taxes paid on RRSP withdrawals are an allocation of principal between its two owners, you and the government, not a 'deferred tax on the profits earned'.
2) All profits earned in the plan are sheltered from tax, permanently. You benefit only from the sheltering of your after-tax savings - the portion of the account that is 'your own' - not the government's loan. This benefit exactly equals the benefit from a TFSA.
3) One's marginal tax rate when withdrawing cash may be higher (or lower) than the rate at which one claimed the original contribution credit. This creates a penalty (or bonus) equal to the amount withdrawn multiplied by the change in rates. There is no generality that can be made beyond ... Those who contribute at the top marginal tax rate have a pretty good chance of taking money out at lower rates and receive a benefit. Those who contribute at the bottom tax bracket, have a chance of taking money out at higher rates and pay a penalty.
4) Canada has a variety of programs available to retired people whose benefits decrease as one's income increases. By deferring income recognition until retirement, the additional taxable income created by RRIF withdrawals at that time may reduce those benefits. It is a subjective decision whether to consider this disqualification for benefits 'caused' by the RRSP or by your good fortune. Conversely, RRSP contributions may help qualify younger people for benefits like the GST rebate.
5) Claiming the contribution tax credit may be deferred until a later year, but there is a penalty that grows with the length of the delay. The penalty roughly equals the future value of the income the tax credit would have earned during the delay. The benefit from delaying (to claim at a higher tax bracket) may be more than wiped out in just a few years by this cost.


FALSE:
1) The contribution credit is a benefit. So ...
a) The person contributing at the 40% tax bracket gets a larger benefit then the person contributing at the 20% tax bracket.
b) The tax credit can be compared to benefits from other programs, like the RESP's 20% matching contribution.
c) You can multiply your benefits by using the tax refund to (eg) make a donation that generates a deduction for charitable donations, or contribute to a TFSA, or paydown debt.
2) The RRSP's benefit comes from the deferral of taxes. You get to keep the income earned by the contribution credit during the interim.
3) Income earned inside the RRSP is taxed on withdrawal at full tax rates. So ...
a) Dividend income that would be taxed at lower rates in a taxable account is wasted within an RRSP. And the dividend tax credit is lost.
b) Income already taxed at top rates in a taxable account (like bond interest) should be prioritized in an RRSP.
4) Your investments in an RRSP grow on a tax-deferred basis - not permanently tax sheltered. So ...
a) When choosing between contributing to an RRSP vs a TFSA, the TFSA (where profits are tax-free) should be the default choice.
b) The only important RRSP benefit comes from maximizing the bonus from withdrawals at lower tax rates.
5) Most people's marginal tax rate in retirement will be lower than when they were working.
6) You should delay claiming the contribution's tax deduction when you expect your marginal tax rate to be higher in the future. There is no cost to the delay.


There are also benefits/problems of an RRSP not covered on this page. Each procedural rule could be considered a benefit or cost. See the list of attributes discussed relative to the TFSA on the RRSP Decisions page.


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%).


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.

Or think of the Contribution Credit like a loan from the government. The withdrawal tax is the loan repayment, along with all the income it earned. There was no benefit from a deferral of tax because all the income earned by the tax reduction on contribution goes back to the government on withdrawal.

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 or the government's, but you only benefit from the sheltering of your own portion.

This shelter from profits 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 zero% taxes. Compare outcomes using the assumptions in the first box above where the different accounts are compared. Keep the RRSP assumptions the same. Change the growth rate in the Taxable account to be tax-free at 10% for 10 years, and capital gains taxed at a preferential 15% only at the end.


TaxableRRSP
Contribution$3,500$5,000
10% Profits Tax Free$5,578$7,969
Balance after 10 Years$9,078$12,969
Capital GainsTax at 15%<$836>
Withdrawal Tax at 30%
<$3,891>
Spend$8,241$9,078

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

  • 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.
This is the same situation in the RRSP. Your liability for the tax on wages that you didn't pay at the start, grows at the same rate as your investment returns. 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 credit plus all the income it earned.


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" (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.

A bigger contribution credit (refund) means you have actually saved less $$. A $10k contribution generating a $4k contribution credit means the person has really only saved $6k. The same $10k contribution generating a $2k contribution credit means the person has really saved $8k. $1,000 saved does NOT equal $1,000 saved - not between RRSP and TFSA accounts, and not between individuals at different tax brackets.

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 both RRSPs and taxable accounts or TFSAs. 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 value leads to various wrong financial decisions;

  • when choosing between long term TFSA or RRSP funding,
  • when choosing between saving for a real-estate purchase in an RRSP, TFSA or taxable account.
  • when choosing between paying down a mortgage or contributing to an RRSP.
  • when deciding to borrow the cash for a contribution.
  • when comparing the value of tax reductions for charitable donations vs. RRSP contributions.
  • when arguing the merits of government's social policy regarding pension taxation.
  • when comparing the RESP's 20% matching contribution from the government .
  • etc.

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.

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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 in relation to the resulting wealth from using an TFSA. In this case 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 makes contributing into a spousal plan (where the spouse will be withdrawing at a lower tax rate) more powerful for high wage earners.

This possible bonus 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 benefits 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 claimed benefits. (reference screenshots)

  1. The tax deduction on contribution.
  2. Profits tax deferred (meaning not taxed at the time, but fully taxed on withdrawal).
  3. The deferral of taxes. (Tax ‘on what’ is unstated – on the original wages.)
  4. A lower tax rate on withdrawal than at contribution.

The analysis above dis-proves those claims.

  1. The tax deduction is never a benefit. The tax savings at contribution fund the eventual withdrawal tax.
  2. Profits earned in the RRSP are never taxed. The withdrawal taxes are an allocation of principal, not a tax on profits.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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, dismiss and stonewall.


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 would 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....

  1. Your total income when withdrawing.
    • When you die the total RRSP balance gets taken into income in one year. 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 create added income.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Government Benefits

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 Child Tax Credit or the GST Credit. Contributions made after age 65 but before 71 may increase GIS and OAS benefits. Increasing your income with RRSP withdrawals may reduce Old Age Security benefits, the Guaranteed Income Supplement 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.

For example, a huge fuss is made about the clawback of Old Age Security benefits. People need a reality check. The mean income in Canada is about $40,000. Anyone earning more than $60,000+ (at which OAS only starts to be clawed back) is far above 'normal' and certainly not deserving of taxpayer support, especially when the taxpayers are earning 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.

Young people now 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-type. Ignoring the loss of benefits is not logical in the choice between account-types for new savings.

It is not the clawback of OAS that matters to the vast majority of us. It is the clawback of the GIS. While the RRSP withdrawal creates $1 claw-back for every $2 withdrawn, cash from a TFSA creates none.

The diagram above shows the tax bracket levels and rates in the left column. The middle column shows the typical income in retirement. GIS is not taxed so it starts below the bottom of the lowest tax bracket. OAS is taxed, but not counted as income that causes a clawback of GIS. CPP is roughly 20% of someone's ending wage ($40,000 is assumed here). RRSP draws would fall in the box of Other Taxable Income. The first $10,000 RRSP draws would clawback GIS at 50 cents on the dollar, so their marginal tax rate would be the sum of the statutory 22.5% plus the 50% clawback - total of 72.5%. Since all these are adjusted for inflation the relationship between them will stay constant.

The median income earned by working Canadians is roughly at the top of the first tax bracket, so there is no way for them to withdraw RRSP funds in retirement without paying a higher tax rate than they contributed at. Fully half of all workers will pay the Penalty from a higher withdrawal tax rate. The claim that you will withdraw at lower rates is false. The promotional and educational RRSP material that fails to even mention a higher withdrawal tax rate and the resulting penalty paid, is unethical.

There is no economic justification for the different outcomes, RRSP vs. TFSA. Given a choice the government should prefer people use an RRSP because it provides governments with cash at the time they need it. The obvious solution to this inequity is to re-write the qualification rules (for benefits). The income measure used to qualify for GIS could include a deemed income from any TFSA balance. Multiply the RRIF's Minimum Required Withdrawal % by any existing TFSA balance, and add this to the taxpayer's other actual income.


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.

(A)

(B)

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.

Some people dismiss this conceptual model right from the top, because their personal choice is to delay receiving the benefit of the tax deduction until they get a refund on filing their prior year's tax return. The cost of that choice is this measurement. Their objection does not invalidate the model.


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 some 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 profit over the period. The volatility must be very, very extreme. In reality markets trend. After a year of profits the taxes in a taxable account will reduce the principal earning profit in the second year (and thus the net profits), not as the example shows the taxes reducing the following years losses.
• 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 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. Maybe additional savings go into the RRSP and not the taxable 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.

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 In Or Out spreadsheet for practical RRSP decisions, the tax rate on withdrawal should be the incremental tax rate on withdrawal resulting from only the additional amount being considered for contribution. For example, a young person in the bottom tax bracket would expect to also withdraw those savings in retirement also in the bottom tax bracket, assuming government benefits use up the 0% tax bracket. But after 10 years of contributions and great rates of return, the account will have grown in size, The Minimum Required Withdrawals of the existing account are now expected to use up all the bottom tax bracket. Any additional contributions will be incrementally taxed at the second tax bracket on withdrawal. It is the second tax bracket's rate that should now be used for the decision to make an additional contribution.

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.

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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 In Or Out spreadsheet includes two variables for the tax rate on investment income - for the periods (i) before retirement (while you are working) and (ii) after mandatory RRIF withdrawals. 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 tax rate can be very low.


RRSP Decisions and Choices

After the list of decisions grew too long, it was given a page of its own at RRSP Decisions.