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RRSPs, TFSAs and RRIFs explained

RRSPs and TFSAs are tax effective ways to save for retirement. RRIFs draw down RRSP assets.

Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) and Tax Fee Savings Accounts (TFSAs) are both tax sheltered ways to save and invest. A Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) is a required conversion of your RRSP when you are 71.

The difference between RRSPs and TFSAs lies in their tax treatment, but they are really mirror images of each other. With a TFSA you make the contribution in after-tax dollars. With the RRSP you get a tax break now and pay the tax later when it is converted to a RRIF.

How RRSP’s work

When you make an RRSP contribution, you get a tax deduction, which at the average rate is 42.5 cents per $1. At that rate, putting $1,000 into your RRSP gives you a $425 tax deduction.  Your investments grow tax-free inside the RRSP,  but you pay tax when money is withdrawn.

rrsp eggThe withdrawal begins at the end of your age 71st year when RRSPs must be converted to a RRIF. A RRIF is essentially an RRSP in reverse.  The rules require you to withdraw a certain amount each year based on a formula. More on RRIF’s below.

How much can you contribute to an RRSP?

The amount depends on your earned income for the previous year. For 2020, the contribution is limited to 18% of your 2019 earned income, to a maximum of $27,230 plus any carry-forward contribution room you may have.

As an example, if you do not have a company pension and earned $100,000, you could contribute $18,000 in the 2020 tax year.

How TFSA’s work

The name confuses many Canadians because they think a TFSA is a savings account. But a TFSA can hold bonds, stocks and ETFs, as well as cash.

Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) were introduced in 2009.  The contribution is made with after tax money and like an RRSP, the money grows free of tax inside. Amounts withdrawn in any year can be added back, but only in the next calendar year.

tfsaSuppose you had $100,0000 in your RRSP on Jan. 1 2019 and withdrew $10,000 on June 1, 2019. You could not put back the $10,000 until Jan. 1, 2020. In this case your contribution for 2020 would be: $10,000 plus the $6,000 annual contribution.

What is the 2020 contribution limit?

TFSA contribution limits rise in $500 increments based on inflation. The limit was last increased on Jan. 1, 2019 to $6,000, which is the 2020 limit.

Someone who has never contributed will have a cumulative contribution room of $69,500 in 2020.


Which of these vehicles is better?  It depends on your age and stage and investment goals. These should be discussed with your advisor.

How RRIFs work

Your RRSP is a savings plan, while a RRIF gives you income by cashing out your RRSP. It is the most popular and simple way Canadians turn their RRSPs into income streams.

The minimum withdrawals  for RRIFs were relaxed in the 2015 federal budget. The changes recognized that Canadians are living longer and rates of return on investments are much lower than they were.  The changes reduced the required amount of withdrawals each year.

money rrif rrsp  investHowever, the basic rules stayed the same. When you convert the RRSP to a RRIF, you have several options:

  • You can take the money out of your RRSP as a lump sum;
  • You can keep the same investments and sell them bit by bit;
  • Or you can convert your RRSP into an annuity that pays a monthly amount for life.

Each has a tax liability. If you choose the second or third option, there are strict requirements about how much you have to take out of your RRIF each year.

 What can you hold in a RRIF?

There are no restrictions on the type of investment you can hold in a RRIF. You can keep the RRSP holdings as is and sell the appropriate amounts. You can hold any combination of stocks, bonds, GICs, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

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