Case Study: Figuring Out Your Optimal RRSP/TFSA Contribution

In the last article, Ed Rempel discussed the steps to creating your optimal RRSP/TFSA contribution. Here is a case study to help put the steps into practice.

Case Study: Optimal RRSP/TFSA Contributions for John and Mary Smith

To understand the interplay between these six factors, lets look at an example.

John Mary
Income $100,000 $60,000
Marginal tax bracket 43% 33%
RRSP contribution room $ 50,000 $ 50,000
TFSA contribution room $ 25,500 $ 25,500
Existing RRSPs $100,000 $100,000

Note also:

  • John and Mary have $15,000 cash on hand.
  • Neither has opened a TFSA yet.
  • Based on their retirement plan, they need to invest $23,000 per year to have the retirement they want.
  • They plan to retire in 25 years and have worked out a specific retirement lifestyle, for which they will need 56,000 per year each (in today’s dollars). That means they will probably be in the 33% tax bracket in retirement (at today’s tax rates).
  • Neither of them has a pension.
  • Their tax refund is normally $1,500, excluding the RRSP portion of their refund.
  • They have a line of credit with an available limit of $30,000.

Let’s look at each factor individually and then figure out the optimal RRSP/TFSA contribution:

  1. Needed to have the retirement you want– They need to contribute a total of $23,000 between them to their RRSPs and/or TFSAs.
  2. Optimal RRSP contribution based on tax bracket– John can contribute up to $19,000 in the 43% tax bracket and Mary can contribute up to $17,000 in the 33% tax bracket. Contributions above these amounts will receive small tax refunds.
  3. RRSP or TFSA?– Based on their retirement plan, we expect they will retire in the 33% tax bracket. John should contribute the first $19,000 to his RRSP because he is now in the higher 43% tax bracket. After that, he will be in the 33% tax bracket, which is the same as in retirement. Mary is in the 33% tax bracket both now and in retirement, so the benefits of RRSP and TFSA are about even for her. When the benefits are about even, we usually give a slight edge to the TFSA because of flexibility, unless the tax refund is specifically needed for something.
  4. Optimal based on lifetime contribution room– John has $50,000 of room and gains $18,000 additional room each year. That is a total of $500,000 over 25 years. To maximize it, he would need to contribute $20,000 per year.

Mary has $50,000 of room and gains $10,800 additional room each year. That is a total of $320,000 over 25 years. To maximize it, she would need to contribute $12,800 per year.

Maximizing is a very good idea for John. He will have a 10% tax gain by receiving refunds of 43% of his contributions, but will only have to pay 33% tax when he withdraws from his RRSP after retiring. Maximizing RRSP contributions is less critical for Mary.

Both have $25,500 of TFSA contribution room and gain $5,500 additional room each year. That is a total of $137,500 over 25 years. To maximize it, they would each need to contribute $6,520 per year to their TFSAs.

  1. Needed to get the refund you want– They have no specific use for their tax refund.
  2. Cash or borrowed funds available– They have $15,000 in cash. Contributing $19,000 to John’s RRSP would give us a tax refund of about $9,500, including their other tax deductions and credits. If Mary’s contribution is to an RRSP, then the tax refund will be about $11,000. They also have $1,000 per month available cash flow after all expenses, which could be used to make payments on an RRSP loan or for next year’s RRSP contribution.

Putting together their optimal strategy

For John and Mary, let’s start with their retirement goal. They need to invest $23,000 per year to have the retirement they want. That is the key target figure.

Adjusting for their tax brackets, contributing to RRSP for John is the most beneficial for the first $19,000. We can contribute the remaining $4,000 for Mary, since they will be in the same 33% tax bracket after John’s $19,000 RRSP contribution.

RRSP or TFSA? This additional $4,000 for Mary could be either to her RRSP or TFSA, since she is in the 33% tax bracket and we also expect they will retire in the 33% tax bracket. We will lean towards the TFSA, since it is more flexible.

Adjusting for John’s lifetime contribution room, John needs to contribute $20,000 per year to maximize his lifetime room. John’s optimal contribution based on his tax bracket is only $19,000, which will not quite maximize his lifetime contribution room. Any additional contribution would be in the lower 33% tax bracket. Since this difference is small, it is best to only contribute $19,000 and keep the additional $1,000 room in case John’s income is higher in a future year.

Adjusting for their cash and borrowed funds available, they have $15,000 cash, so they are short $8,000 from being able to contribute their $23,000 goal. If they use the RRSP Gross-up Strategy and contribute $15,000 from cash and $8,000 from their credit line, they will be able to pay off their credit line with their tax refund. Their tax refund will be $9,500 if Mary’s contribution is to a TFSA and $11,000 if it is to her RRSP. We can use $8,000 to pay off their credit line from the RRSP gross-up and have either $1,500 or $3,000 cash left over.

For next year, the numbers will probably be similar and they should probably contribute another $23,000. If they start contributing their available $1,000 per month, they will have contributed $12,000 and be $11,000 short. This could come from their tax refund next year, if they do the RRSP Gross-up strategy again and all $23,000 next year is to their RRSPs.

Working out a plan like this can be very precise, but in reality we need to leave some room for error, so that their cash flow is not too tight. This looks like it will work for them, but leaves them with hardly any extra cash available. We would generally prefer the TFSA for Mary’s contribution, but we might use an RRSP just to get a bit more tax refund to give them a bit of a cash flow buffer now. They do have a $30,000 available credit line for emergency purposes, however.

Note that John’s $19,000 contribution should be $9,500 to John’s RRSP and $9,500 to Mary’s spousal RRSP in order to try to keep their retirement incomes about the same.

After weighing all these factors, the optimal contributions for John and Mary are probably:

This year Future years
John’s RRSP $ 9,500 $11,500
John’s contribution to Mary’s spousal RRSP $9,500 $7,500
Mary’s RRSP $4,000
TFSA contribution (for either) 4,000
Total contributions $23,000 $23,000

I hope this example gives you a sense of how to integrate the 6 key factors to determine your optimal strategy.


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