It’s been over 10 years since the federal government launched the Tax Free Savings Account, yet to many Canadians, it remains somewhat of a mystery. In all likelihood, that’s due to the terrible branding this government registered investment account received from the outset. I mean, it isn’t actually a savings account, after all.
In this article, I’ll do my best to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the TFSA. I’ll also show you how you can get the best use out of the account, and even cover some of the top TFSA investment options available today.
What is a TFSA?
It’s best to think of a TFSA as a ‘tax sheltered umbrella’ of sorts, under which you can invest your money any variety of ways. And while you actually can hold money in a savings account within a TFSA, it’s often more beneficial to use your ‘umbrella’ for investments that offer the potential for higher returns, such as stocks, mutual funds, or ETFs. To achieve a balanced portfolio, bonds and GICs are also available.
TFSA vs. RRSP
In a lot of ways, the TFSA is similar to the RRSP. For starters, both offer the potential for tax-sheltered growth. The main difference lies in the way you fund the accounts, and when you end up paying taxes on the money.
With an RRSP, you receive an immediate tax deduction on any monies deposited into the plan, and are taxed on the money when it’s withdrawn after retirement. With a TFSA, you don’t get the benefit of a tax deduction, but you won’t pay taxes when the money is withdrawn. Not only that, but you don’t lose your contribution room when you withdraw from a TFSA. You can deposit the same amount the following year, over and above your regular contribution.
Which is Better – TFSA or RRSP?
A popular point of discussion is whether it’s better to invest in an RRSP or a TFSA. The best answer is that it depends entirely on the individual. In general, higher-income earners will receive a greater benefit from the tax-deductibility of an RRSP, so that may be the better point of focus. I recommend that Canadians of all ages and income levels consider investing in both RRSPs and TFSAs, but tailor your strategy to what is most suitable for you.
Who Can Contribute to a TFSA
Any Canadian resident with a Social Insurance Number, who is 18 or older can contribute to a TFSA, providing they’ve reached the age of majority in his or her province. Unlike an RRSP, the contribution room isn’t linked to earned income.
TFSA Contribution Limits
For 2019, the annual contribution limit set at $6,000 and is indexed for inflation each year. The lifetime contribution limit is $63,500, for anyone who has been eligible to contribute since the TFSAs inception (2009). Your annual contribution room grows regardless of whether or not you are actively contributing.
The TFSA is unique from an RRSP in that withdrawals from the plan can be re-contributed the following calendar year. For example, if I withdraw $10,000 from my TFSA in 2019, I can re-deposit that amount as early as January 1, 2020, and still make my regular annual contribution of $6,000 that same year.
Penalties on TFSA Over-Contributions
One feature I love about TFSAs is having the ability to re-contribute any funds withdrawn in the current year, the following year. This adds to the TFSAs flexibility, making it easier to save for a variety of both short term and long term goals. However, you must use caution to avoid over-contributing to your TFSA.
More specifically, any contribution made to the TFSA beyond the maximum allowable amount is considered an over-contribution. If this occurs, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) will charge a penalty of 1% per month on the excess contribution until it is withdrawn.
For example, if you were to over-contribute by $6,000 for a period of 12 months, you would be facing penalties of more than $720. Staying within your contribution limit is your responsibility, and your financial institution isn’t equipped to keep track of this for you. That said, CRA does keep track, and you can verify your available contribution room any time, by accessing your CRA MyAccount profile online.
Transferring Your TFSA Between Banks
You can move your existing TFSA from one financial institution to another, by initiating the transfer from the receiving institution. Keep in mind that most FI’s charge a transfer out fee, which may or may not be reimbursed by your new provider. You also need to decide if you want to transfer investments ‘in cash’, or ‘in kind’. This may or may not be an option.
What Happens to My TFSA If I Die?
When you open a TFSA account, you’ll have the option of designating a beneficiary. The main benefit of doing so is to allow TFSA funds to go to someone you love, should you pass away, while avoiding costly estate taxes and fees. You can choose to name a single or multiple beneficiaries, who
would receive the funds from your TFSA when you die.
Married or common-law spouses also have the option of selecting their significant other as a successor holder, rather than a beneficiary, which provides some additional survivorship benefits.
TFSA Quick Facts
- Available to Canadians 18 and over
- TFSAs can hold just about any type of investment ie. stocks, bonds, ETFs, GICs
- The annual contribution limit is indexed for inflation ($6,000 in 2019)
- Lifetime contribution room is $63,500 (2019)
- Funds withdrawn can be re-contributed during the following calendar year
- Unlike RRSPs, earned income is not tied to contribution room
- Ideal for a variety of savings goals ie. (emergency fund, car, vacation)
- Spouses/common-law partners can each have their own account
Making the Best Use of Your TFSA Account
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, many Canadians use their TFSA account as an emergency fund of sorts, by placing the money in a high-interest savings account, or a GIC. This, however, is not the most efficient use of a TFSA as a tax strategy.
Since you do not pay taxes on TFSA withdrawals, and your money grows tax-free, it is more advantageous to allocate high yielding investments within your TFSA. Lower yielding investments would be better suited inside an RRSP or a non-registered investment account.
Where Should I Invest My TFSA
If you’re a fan of low cost investing like we are here at MapleMoney, I recommend the following two options to invest your TFSA.
If you value low fees but prefer a hands-off approach, you might want to consider the services of a robo-advisor. While the term itself may make some investors nervous, Canadians are becoming more comfortable with robo-advisors every year, thanks to companies like Wealthsimple.
Wealthsimple is Canada’s leading robo-advisor, with over 4.3B in assets under management. When you open an account with Wealthsimple, they will invest TFSA funds in a portfolio of consisting of low-cost ETFs that are aligned to your recommended asset allocation. With Wealthsimple, you’ll only pay .40% up to $99,999, and your initial $10,000 is managed for free.
If you prefer to make your own investment decisions, managing your own TFSA online through a discount brokerage can be a great option. A self-directed account from Questrade enables you to hold all of those high yield investments I mentioned earlier, like stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds.
What I love about Questrade is that they combine a state of the art trading platform with some of the lowest fees in the business. In fact, Questrade does not charge fees for ETF purchases, which alone is enough to make them #1 in my books. You can open a TFSA account with Questrade within a few minutes, from the comfort of your living room, and be on your way.
Final Thoughts on TFSA Accounts
If prior to reading this article, you were like many Canadians and found the concept of Tax Free Savings Accounts a bit confusing, my hope is that I’ve provided some much-needed clarity. I think that once you realize that the TFSA is more or less a tax shelter, inside which you can hold a wide range of investments, it makes everything that much easier to understand.