Optimizing Your RESP Contributions

Much of finance is like sex. Action now, with consequences later – many of which cannot be undone. Some people figure that out faster than others. Hopefully before getting an unwanted rash.

In this post, we will deal with one of those consequences – having to save for educating the fruit of your loins. We recently reviewed the Registered Education Saving Plan (RESP) as a means for doing that. This post will be focused on how to optimally contribute to your RESP to get the most out of it.

Fear not, fellow nerds, I have made an Excel-based RESP calculator to help us.

There are three main factors to optimize in building up your RESP:

  1. Front load as much as possible, while making sure that you won’t exceed the $50K lifetime contribution limit.
  2. Spread out contributions of at least $2500/yr over at least 15 years before your progeny turns 18 to maximize the Canada Education Savings Grant (CESG). To do this, you need to start as early as possible.
  3. Choose your investment mix to optimize returns for your level of risk tolerance.

The effects of Front-loading your contributions to your RESP

Let’s look at three scenarios for making contributions. All three have $50000 in lifetime contributions, the same CESG, and assume the same investment return of 7% with 2% inflation for a real return of 5% annually.

Strategy$2500/yr from birth$16500 first year, then $2500/yr for 13yrs, then $1000.$2500/yr for 11 years, then $15000 once, then $2500/yr for 2 more.
CESG Money$7200$7200$7200
Investment Income$38852$58500$42627
Total Value at Age 19$96052$115701$99827

As you can see by comparing A and B, front-loading your contributions and then spreading the rest out results in an extra 18K due to the longer period for investments to grow tax-free. It will also be taxed in the little hands of your offspring when it comes out (ie likely little or no tax) compared to your marginal rate.

Situation C is actually mine with my original clone. I did not realize the optimal strategy until researching this for the blog. It is not too late, I can still make an extra 3K by making a larger contribution this year. It also isn’t as bad as it seems because that money not put into the RESP was left invested in my CCPC. So, I made money on it, but it was not tax-free growth and it will be taxed in my hands rather than my daughter’s hands when I access it.

A valuable lesson in this. I have had four professional advisors in two different firms, none of whom pointed this out to me. It pays to learn about and mind your personal finances, even if you have an advisor.

The effects of spreading out your contributions to maximize your CESG

You generally only get a maximum of $500/yr CESG, but you can get $1000 if you did not get any CESG the previous year. Let’s plug in a few more scenarios into the RESP calculator.

Strategy$2.5K/yr from birth$16.5K first year, then $2.5K/yr for 13yrs, then $1K$50K contribution in year of birth$35K contribution at age 11, then $2.5K/yr for 6 years
Investment Income$38852$58501$77100$14649
Total Value at age 19$96052$115701$127611$68649

We have already seen that front-loading RESP B beats a totally spread out contribution like in RESP A.

However, if you had the money sitting around or gifted from a wealthy relative to put $50K in at birth, you may end up with slightly more money (RESP D), even though you miss out on the CESG. This is because of the power of compound returns. In our scenarios, we are assuming a 7% return on our investments. If you realize lower returns, then this advantage for D can disappear. For example, a 4% return would have both strategies pretty much even.

One big decider between strategy B and D is most likely to be whether you can access the big wad of money to put $50K in the first year. If you get it as a gift or find it in the crack of your couch – great. If not (which would be most of us!),  to access that kind of cash could cause you to pay alot of tax which you would need to factor into the equation.

The CESG is a guaranteed 20% return the year it is put in. That seems a pretty good deal to me. Like everything else in investing, risk and return are related and you need to balance them in your planning.

What the heck happened to poor RESP E – Well, that family of nerds got an Atomic Wedgie from the Trudeau Gang. How can this be???

Credit: Rockstar Games.

The parents of RESP E are professionals and have a CCPC. They kept the money that they were saving for Mini-me’s enrollment in Evil Medical School as retained earnings in their CCPC. They invested that, after paying the paltry 15% small business tax rate and were planning on paying their kidadult via dividends when it was time for them to go to school. Their genetically engineered clone could have received $35K/yr whilst paying only $750 in taxes.

Unfortunately, effective 2018, they are no longer able to pay their kidadult dividends unless they actually work over 20h/week in the CCPC. Now, they are stuck trying to save using an RESP and may never make up for the lost tax-free investment time or CESG money depending on their timelines.

This is a good example of “political risk” from concentrating your portfolio in one type of account. The government can unilaterally change the rules as they did in this case. They are likely to do so again, as they seek more revenue in the future. All we can do is operate under the current rules, but when there are multiple strategies with similar results, it may be wise to spread out your risk amongst different options as long as it is part of a cohesive overall plan.

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