Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSP) Basic Anatomy

The registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) is well-known face of retirement planning. Every little kid can point to their eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. However, a little look beneath the surface shows facial anatomy to be a bit more complex. The same applies to the RRSP. Let’s dissect it.

Learn about the one-two punch of RRSPs to reduce your current tax bill, and potentially increase your future after-tax retirement income. I say potential because you may need to pay attention to not punch yourself in the face by accident.

Main Features:

  • RRSPs can come in a few different flavours: Individual RRSP, Spousal RRSP, Group RRSP, and Pooled RRSP.
  • Anyone under age 71 can open one as long as they have previously filed T4 income. Those under the age of majority (usually 18) will require a parent or guardian for signing authority.
  • You accumulate contribution room each year based on 18% of your earned income, up to a maximum limit set each year by the government, and adjusted downwards to account for other pensions you may have (more below).
  • When you make a contribution, it then gives you a tax deduction that you can apply against your taxable income.
  • You don’t need to claim your deduction in the year of the contribution. You can carry it forward to use in a year when you are in a higher marginal tax bracket.
  • Investments in the RRSP account can grow tax-free.
  • When you withdraw from the RRSP, it is taxed as earned income (the least favourable tax rate, but hopefully in a lower tax bracket than when you contributed).
  • You can no longer contribute after Dec 31 of year you turn 71 and it needs to have been cashed out, converted to a Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF), or annuity before then.

Let’s dissect each of these features in some more detail.

What are the different flavours of RRSP

Individual RRSP:  This is an RRSP for an individual into which they make the contributions for which they get the tax deduction.

RRSP tax
T2 – “I’ll be back….. for your taxes.”

Spousal RRSP: This is an RRSP into which an individual contributes to a plan for their spouse out of contributor’s contribution limit. The contributor gets the tax deduction and if the money stays in for 3 years, it is taxed in the spouse’s hands when it comes out. Don’t tell Trudeaunator 2, but you can use a spousal RRSP for income splitting to reduce your family tax bill.

Group RRSP: This is an RRSP arranged via an employer where the employer has contributions deducted directly from your paycheck and put into your RRSP. The main advantage is that it reduces your tax deduction from your paycheck right away instead of annually at tax filing time. The employer may also make contributions, but that is not mandatory and they would be a taxable benefit. It also means you are stuck with whoever is managing the group RRSP and their associated fees. Be careful, fees kill. Sometimes you may have lower fees from the efficiency of a larger plan and a great manager, but you may not, depending on who the plan is administered by. The group plan could also limit your ability to withdraw money from the fund.

Pooled RRSP: These were introduced in 2011 by the Federal Government as an RRSP option for the self-employed and small businesses too small to warrant the costs of group RRSP on their own. It is a group RRSP administered via an institution, like a bank, rather than an employer. This makes it portable between employers. They have not really taken off as an option at this point. Only Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia have passed the legislation to enable them so far.

How to open an RRSP

It is opened via a financial institution such as a bank, brokerage, credit union, or trust. This would be via your work’s plan administrator if a group RRSP. I don’t endorse any specific institution, buy generally an investment account is the way to go. The account can either be self-directed (if you manage your own portfolio) at a discount brokerage or via your advisor’s brokerage. An RRSP is not a special mutual fund sold by an institution. It is an account and you can put all sorts of investments into that account.

What you can have in your RRSP

An RRSP can hold anything that a TFSA can hold. This includes cash of any currency, equities, bonds, trusts, preferred shares, and certain debt obligations (like some fancy mortgage maneuvers).

How to figure out your contribution room

You accumulate contribution room each year based on 18% of your earned income (T4 income, non-CPCC self-employed income, CPP disability, net rental income) to a maximum set each year by the government. The max for 2018 is $26,230 which corresponds to an income of $146K.

If you have a Registered Pension Plan (RPP) or Deferred Profit Sharing Plan (DPSP) at work, then the amount contributed gives you a pension credit. This pension credit reduces your RRSP room by the same amount and is called the Pension Adjustment. Basically, this means you have the same tax deferral with a pension contribution as an RRSP.

In contrast to the TFSA, when you take money out of an RRSP, you do not get that as contribution room to put it back in. The exceptions to that are the Home Buyer’s Plan and Lifelong Learning Plan withdrawals where you can access money for these specific purposes, and then pay them back in order to avoid triggering the taxes.

To find out your actual room accounting for your previous contributions and withdrawals, you can look on your Notice of Assessment from the CRA that you get after doing your taxes each year or you can use the My CRA Tool.

Contribution Deadlines

RRSP deadline

To get the tax deduction for a given tax year, you need to have made your contributions either in that tax year or the first 60 days of the following tax year. While you can wait until the deadline, procrastination costs you money.

That money could have been growing tax-free for the previous year. To make that even more of a shame, that lost growth compounds over time. If you get a regular paycheck, consider making monthly contributions.

If you get paid in erratic lumps sums, like I do in my business, consider contributing as early in the year as possible.

Certified Couch Divers

If you made a one time contribution of $26,010 at the beginning of the year you turn 30yrs old rather than the end of that year, that one extra year of compound returns of 8% (6% after inflation) would be a difference of $37K in today’s dollars at age 65.

If you have the money, then get off your butt and do it. If I dropped $37K down the crack of my couch, I’d get off my butt, and couch dive for it faster than my dog after a lost piece of aging cheddar. You can also use your RRSP refund to fill your TFSA to boost your retirement saving.

The One-Two Punch of an RRSP

RRSP tax deferralRocky IV, 1985, United Artists.

The Jab – Tax Deferral

At its core, retirement planning is about deferring the spending of some of your income today to have it to spend later when you aren’t working. The RRSP is well matched to that goal and is basically a tax deferral vehicle.

When used to maximum advantage, you are deferring taxes from a time when you make higher income and pay a higher marginal rate to one where you make less and pay a lower rate.

  • This can be in or close to retirement when you are working less or not at all.
  • It could be to fund a parental leave or sabbatical.

The other aspect of tax deferral is that it allows your investments to grow in your RRSP without paying tax annually.

  • This allows for more compounding over time for investments that would trigger frequent taxes like interest and dividends for example.
  • It also avoids the eating away of capital gains from triggering tax, if you sell investments and realize those gains frequently.
Rocky IV, United Artists, 1985.

The Hook – Tax Credit

The item that hooks people into the RRSP is that you get some money back right away as a tax credit.

  • When you contribute, you get a dollar for dollar tax credit deduction from your taxable income.
  • You can carry the deduction forward to use in a year when you are in a higher tax bracket. For example, if a resident doctor contributes to their RRSP, they should delay claiming the credit for a few years until they are an attending and in a much higher tax bracket.

The Secret Move – Income Splitting

Shhhhh! Don’t tell T2, but the spousal RRSP is actually a tool for income splitting. I would love to see a redo of this match now, after JT and Mourneau’s recent attack on small businesses for their “unfair” ability to income split.

A higher income spouse can contribute money to a spousal RRSP to income split with a lower income spouse. After three years, that money can be removed by the lower earning spouse and taxed in their tax bracket.

Special Moves – Home Buyer’s Plan (HBP) and Life-long Learning Plan (LLP)

The HBP is a way to remove money from your RRSP to help with the purchase of your first home:

  • You need to follow a specific procedure and you can withdraw up to a maximum of $25K.
  • The withdrawal does not trigger income tax.
  • Your are required to start making a minimum annual payment after the 2nd year and it must be repaid before 15 years. You can repay it faster than that.
  • If you do not make the annual repayments, then the amount owing gets added to your income and taxed that year.

The LLP is available to remove money from your RRSP for full-time enrollment in an eligible programme:

  • You need an offer of acceptance from a qualifying programme and institution before March of the following year.
  • You can withdraw up to $10000 in a calendar year to a maximum of $20000.
  • If you contributed to your RRSP in the 90 days before using the LLP, you will not get deduction credits for those contribution. This is to prevent people from setting up an RRSP to use for the LLP.
  • When you are no longer a full-time student, you need to repay 10% of the loan amount per year and have it paid back you 10 years.
  • If you do not make the repayments, then the amount owing gets added to your income and taxed.

RRSP Beneficiaries: Sometimes bad stuff happens that you didn’t plan for – like you die. Well, hopefully you do plan for it just in case.

  • If you die and the heir to your fortune is not your spouse, common-law partner, or a financially dependent or disable child/grandchild, then when you die, your RRSP is considered sold and tax is paid as if it was all income. This would likely be a big tax bill to eat up your RRSP savings.
  • If you have one of the above named eligible beneficiaries, then your RRSP can be rolled over to the beneficiaries RRSP without using the beneficiary’s contribution room and the tax is deferred. If you did not name them as your beneficiary on your RRSP registration, it can still be rolled over, but is a more involved process – best to take care of this in advance.

Be careful not to punch yourself in the face.

Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself…

RRSP Pitfalls: The are a few potential situations where the tax treatment of RRSPs can hurt you or at least attenuate some of the RRSP advantage.

  • If you buy and hold investments with no capital gains without selling them, then you may not gain as much advantage from this tax deferral since you aren’t triggering tax anyway.
  • If you claim your RRSP deduction in a low income year and take the money out of your RRSP at a higher tax rate later, then you pay more tax than you would have otherwise. Generally, people are in a lower tax bracket when they take the money out later in life, but that is not a guarantee. Promotions and career advancement can bump your income. Marginal tax rates can also go up even if your income does not (mine went from 48% a few years ago to 54% now). Think it can’t go higher? Some countries have a top marginal rate ~60% and it was 72% for a while in Netherlands. Do you think that governments will be needing more tax revenue in the long-term future or will they muster the political will to decrease services and entitlements?
  • How you hold foreign investments that pay dividends in your RRSP can also have a small impact due to the withholding taxes, depending on the country. This one is complicated, but fortunately small. We’ll explore it in another post.
  • If you use an investment loan or an advisor, the costs of those are deductible for a taxable account, but not for an RRSP.

Given the above potential pitfalls, how and when you withdraw from your RRSP is critical.

  • If you build a large RRSP, then you may want to “melt down” your RRSP rather than take it out in big chunks.
  • If you still have money in your RRSP at age 71, you will need to roll it into a Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) that will pay out at least 7% of your RRSP balance per year.
  • That income may bump you up into higher tax brackets and/or affect your Old Age Security benefits.
  • These may or may not be issues for you, but thought and planning of your exit strategy is required in advance.


  1. To open an RRSP there is no minimum age. Anyone’s aged under 71 can open an RRSP subject to his or her earned income. Minimum age 18 years is required for opening a TFSA.

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