The registered retirement savings plan is fast approaching its 60th birthday. There have been many changes over that period and Canadians’ contributions have ebbed and flowed along with income growth, demographic changes and various tax changes.

A history of the RRSP

When the RRSP was created in 1957, contribution limits were 10 per cent of the previous year’s income to a $2,500 maximum. If an individual did not contribute in any given year, that year’s contribution room was gone forever. Canadians were underwhelmed. In 1968, the first year contribution data was available, only 172,000 contributed.

Read: Feds urged to boost group RRSPs through tax, rule changes

By contrast, 1990 was a huge year for RRSPs. Contribution limits increased to 18 per cent of the previous year’s income, the dollar limit was raised to $11,500 and the contribution carry-forward rule was introduced, allowing unused room to be carried forward seven years.

In 1996, the government starting indexing the dollar limit to annual wage growth. And the pension adjustment was introduced to level the playing field for contributors with employer pensions and/or deferred profit sharing plans. Finally, the seven-year carry-forward rule was replaced with an indefinite carry-forward.

The RRSP’s competition

Today, the RRSP is being challenged on two fronts. First, the tax-free savings account, introduced in 2009, has given Canadians a flexible savings option that avoids tax on income and withdrawals, and that can be used for any savings purpose.

Second, business owners must be paid a T4 income (i.e., salary) in order to be eligible to contribute to RRSPs, but the tax benefits of being paid dividends and investing within a corporation can be more attractive. As a result, many owners are forgoing salary and thus choosing not to contribute to RRSPs.

Read: CPP deal offers reprieve for group RRSPs

These headwinds mean that only about six million Canadians, or 23 per cent of tax filers, use RRSPs. This proportion has remained fairly consistent since 2009.

Yet the RRSP is still here, 60 years later.

Why the RRSP is great

As of 2014, roughly 24 million Canadians have combined RRSP room of more than $951 billion. That’s approximately $39,628 of unused room for every tax filer. Further, the median annual RRSP contribution is only $3,000. This presents a big tax savings opportunity that simply can’t be ignored – but how big?

Let’s do some simple math. The median marginal tax rate in Canada (combined federal and provincial) is currently 35.32 per cent. If Canadians en masse maximized their RRSPs, this could generate a combined tax savings of $336 billion, or approximately $14,000 per Canadian.

Sure, not everyone is eligible to contribute or has the funds to do so. But no other tax-planning strategy combines simplicity with tax savings quite like the RRSP.

Read: Ending Canada’s retirement woes must go beyond CPP: study

But wait, there’s more.

Other benefits of an RRSP include:

  1. It encourages long-term savings. The taxation of RRSP withdrawals can create a disincentive to use RRSPs for short-term needs and create a larger future nest egg when compared to a TFSA that can be tapped into at any time without tax costs.
  2. Canadians retire with lower income. Most retirees are in a lower tax bracket during retirement than during their working years. As a result, the net tax savings (tax deduction at a higher tax rate than the tax rate applicable on withdrawals) can garner higher asset balances in an RRSP as opposed to a TFSA, all other things being equal.
  3. Tax-deferred growth. The balance grows on a tax-deferred basis in an RRSP as opposed to being taxable annually when money is invested within one’s corporation or taxable account.
  4. Possible employer contributions. Employer RRSPs often mean matching contributions. I’m a big fan of free money, and every bit counts.
  5. U.S. tax reporting exemptions. For U.S. persons living in Canada, RRSPs are exempt from passive foreign investment corporation reporting. They are further exempt from Form 3520-A (annual information return of foreign trust with a U.S. owner). Finally, under the Canada-U.S. Tax Treaty, they are recognized as tax-deferred accounts for U.S. tax purposes.

Read: Canadians prefer TFSAs, RRSPs over CPP expansion

In recent years, the RRSP has lost some shine as new accounts and strategies have been introduced. But you have to admire the longevity of the RRSP. Sixty is a big milestone. And it has evolved in major ways since creation to remain a viable option for retirement savings. Maybe it is the nostalgia talking, but we should make 2017 the year of the RRSP.

Curtis Davis is director, tax and estate planning at Mackenzie Investments

This article was originally published on Benefits Canada‘s companion site, Advisor.ca

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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See all comments Recent Comments

Retail Investor:

Why does the misinformation continue?

(1)The RRSP’s main benefit – the only one that everyone gets – is its permanent sheltering of profits from tax. Growth is not ‘tax deferred’. It is tax free.

(2) And the second possible Bonus would be a Penalty for about 50% of workers, from a higher effective tax rate on withdrawal.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2636609

Saturday, October 08 at 1:33 pm | Reply

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