The Millennial’s Ultimate RRSP Guide

I just realized that although I have written many articles on how great RRSP is when it comes to allowing your dividend investment grow tax-deferred, I have never provided any information on the RRSP. So I decided to write this millennial’s ultimate RRSP guide. Another reason for writing an RRSP guide is because when I first started working and started receiving earned income, the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) was something that caused a lot of confusion for me. I didn’t understand how the contribution room was calculated, I didn’t know the RRSP contribution and withdrawal rules, and I didn’t know anything about RRSP tax implications. It wasn’t until after spending lots of time reading books and articles, I finally figured out why the RRSP is so sexy and awesome. As an “older” millennial myself (Although I still get ID’d, so I guess I still look like I’m 19 ha!), I hope the millennial’s ultimate RRSP guide will be helpful.

What is the RRSP?

The Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) is what the name suggests, it is a retirement savings account that you establish with a financial institution. Any RRSP contribution that you or your spouse or common-law partner made can be used to reduce your tax.

Note: During the RRSP season (every February) a lot of people would say that they are “buying RRSP.” Sorry, this is completely wrong. RRSP is not an investment. RRSP is simply an account that holds other investments. So you can’t buy RRSP, instead, you can buy an investment in the RRSP account to which you contribute. A lot of people get this mixed up, I hope this is now clear.

RRSP Contribution Guideline

  • The amount of RRSP contribution room you have is calculated based on your previous year’s earn income. You can find out this information by logging on your CRA account, calling the Tax Information Phone Services (TIPS) at 1-800-267-6999, or check out your Notice of Assessment.
  • If you are one of the lucky ones that have a pension plan at work, your annual RRSP contribution room is reduced.
  • Your RRSP contribution room is either 18% of your previous year’s pre-tax earned income less your previous year’s pension adjustment, or the annual maximum of $25,370 in 2016, whichever is lower. The annual maximum is adjusted each year.
  • RRSP contribution room can be carried forward to subsequent years. If you are unable to maximize your contribution, the unused room can be carried forward indefinitely. This is a way to grow your RRSP contribution limit (It’s usually best to maximize your RRSP contribution which I will talk about later in the article).
  • You have 60 days after the end of the year (usually until March 1, or February 29 in a leap year) to make your RRSP contribution for the previous year. Therefore, for the 2016 tax year, March 1, 2017, is the RRSP deadline.
  • There’s no minimum age to set up an RRSP and you can continue contributing to an RRSP until the end of the year in which you turn 71 (wow that seems very far out for me). Once you hit 71, you must convert your RRSP into one or a combination of the three following options:
    •  A Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF).  If you set up an RRIF, there are specific withdrawal rules.
    • Buy an annuity. This will allow a set amount of monthly income for life.
    • Withdraw it in cash. This is highly undesirable as you will be taxed for your entire RRSP portfolio value.

Different Types of RRSP

Before we dive deeper, please note there are 4 different types of RRSP accounts.

  • Individual RRSP – This is registered in the name of the contributor. Typically managed by a financial institution.
  • Self-directed RRSP – This is similar to individual RRSP but it’s a DIY account that allows you to hold a wide range of investments. Be careful when you open a self-directed RRSP with financial institutions. Some financial institutions charge an annual “maintenance” fee unless you reach their minimum amount requirement.
  • Group RRSP – If you don’t have a pension at work, typically you would have a Group RRSP available. The employee could contribute money to the group RRSP from their pay cheques and the employer would match the contribution up to a certain amount. When you do this, you see tax savings immediately. There are some limitations to Group RRSP though as typically you can only invest in mutual funds or GICs.
  • Spousal RRSP – If one of the spouses has a higher income, spousal RRSP is a great vehicle to use for future retirement income splitting. Basically the higher-income spouse (A) would make the contribution and get a tax deduction. The money in the spousal RRSP would be owned by the other spouse (B) and cannot be withdrawn until 3 years after the contribution. When money is withdrawn from the spousal RRSP, it’s taxed at the spouse’s (B) rate that owns the spousal RRSP. Why is this a good idea? For example, consider you’re the only one with an RRSP account. Imagine in retirement you withdraw $50,000 from your RRSP and get taxed at say 30% ($15,000 tax). If spousal RRSP is utilized, both of you would withdraw $25,000 each from your RRSP and the spousal RRSP and get taxed at a lower marginal rate.

RRSP Tax Benefits

  • You make RRSP contributions using pre-tax dollars. Whatever you contribute, you will get a tax credit at your marginal rate. For example, if you contribute $1,000 and your marginal tax rate is 25%, you will get a $250 tax credit/refund.
  • All investments within an RRSP account can grow tax-free until you withdraw from the RRSP. At the time of the withdraw, the amount is taxed as earned income.

What Can I Invest in my RRSP?

I thought you would never ask! For the average person, most investments can be held in an RRSP so this include:

  • Cash
  • GIC’s
  • Stocks
  • ETFs
  • Bonds
  • Mutual Funds
  • Option contracts
  • Investment-grade gold & silver bullion
  • Shares of small business corporations

Since RRSP is for long-term investment, I would recommend not to hold cash or buy GIC’s with your RRSP contributions. Think long-term, so typically people tend to buy mutual funds, ETFs, stocks, and bonds with their RRSP contributions. In case you’re wondering, here are some top Canadian dividend stocks, top Canadian dividend ETFs, and top US dividend ETFs you might want to consider investing inside of your RRSP.

If you want to go with the ETF route, don’t want to hold individual stocks, and don’t want to re-balance regularly, you may want to take a look at one of the all-in-one ETFs. If you want to hold 100% stocks and want the asset and geographical diversification, you may want to look at one of the all equity ETFs.

RRSP Withdrawal Rules & Limitations

To utilize RRSP effectively, we need to understand the withdrawal rules.

  • There are only two ways to withdraw money from RRSP without paying taxes.
    • The Home Buyer’s Plan (HBP). In HBP you can withdraw up to $25,000 from your RRSP to buy your first house tax-free. You’ll have 15 years to pay back whatever amount you withdrew into your RRSP in equal annual installments. Unfortunately, you won’t get tax refunds for these annual re-payment contributions.
    • The Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP). In LLP you can withdraw up to $20,000 from your RRSP to head back to school. You then have 10 years to pay back whatever amount you withdrew into your RRSP in equal annual installments. Again you won’t get any tax refunds for the re-payment contributions.
  • If you decide to withdraw from your RRSP before age 71, you will get hit by a withholding tax upon withdrawing. The table below shows the different tax rates. One important thing to remember is the amount after withholding tax is then taxed again at your marginal tax rate. Hence early withdrawals are highly undesirable.
Withdraw Amount​Withholding tax rate (except Quebec)​Withholding tax rate in Quebec
​Up to $5,00010%5%
​Between $5,000 and $15,00020%10%
More than $15,00030%15%

When Should You Not Contribute to an RRSP?

I think about 95% of the time it makes sense to contribute to an RRSP. It’s a great idea to have money growing tax-free in your RRSP and take advantage of the power of compound interest. Now, what are the 5% of the time that makes sense to not contribute to an RRSP?

  • If your income is low that you won’t see any benefit of the tax reduction. For example, in 2016 if you make less than $11,635 ($11,474 in 2017) you won’t benefit in RRSP tax reduction.
  • If your income in a year or two will put you in a higher tax bracket. As indicated earlier, the RRSP contribution provides you with a tax credit that you can use to reduce your overall taxable income. For example, if you will move from 20.5% to the next tax bracket of 26% in a couple of years, it might make sense to save your RRSP contribution room. Even if you’re in this category, it might be tough to decide whether to contribute RRSP now or wait. You definitely need to do some calculations in terms of tax savings vs. investment rate of return.
  • If you have too much money in your RRSP already. Remember that RRSP withdrawals are taxed as earned income and you must convert your RRSP into RRIF once you turn 71? RRIF has specific withdraw rules so if you have too much money in your RRSP, you will be forced to withdraw a large amount of money each year. This, of course, can result in clawback on your Old Age Security (OAS) payments so you won’t receive as much money from OAS.

What Happens If I Over Contributed RRSP?

If you automatically contribute to your RRSP every pay cheque then top up the remainder of your RRSP contribution room by the RRSP deadline, it could happen that you end up contributing more than you are allowed (i.e. calculation error). Unlike TFSA where there’s a hard contribution limit (and you will hear from the CRA if you over-contributed TFSA), there’s a bit of buffer for RRSP. There’s an over contribution limit of $2,000 for RRSP. This limit is there to provide some buffer in case you make an honest mistake.

Believe me, this $2,000 buffer has come in handy as I have accidentally over contributed in my RRSP a few times. I believe it’s actually a good idea to use this $2,000 over-contribution limit to take advantage of the tax-free growth and power of compound interest. But watch out that you don’t go over the $2,000 over contribution limit or you will get charged a 1% penalty tax for each month you are in excess of the contribution limit. You must withdraw the over contribution amount immediately (note: this will trigger withholding tax, double whammy!!!) then fill out a T1-OVP Individual Tax Return for RRSP Excess Contributions. Lesson learned? Don’t ever go over the RRSP $2,000 limit.

If you decide to utilize the $2,000 RRSP over-contribution room, make sure you have some sort of earned income in future years because if your available contribution room is a negative amount, you may have to pay tax on any excess contributions.

The Millennial’s Ultimate RRSP Guide – How to use the RRSP

Ah… we have finally got to the meat of this millennial’s ultimate RRSP guide. I believe RRSP is best to use for retirement savings as the name suggests. A few points:

  • While the idea of withdrawing money from your RRSP to pay for your first house (HBP) or education (LLP) is attractive, I would recommend against withdrawing for HSB or LLP. Why? Because you will be losing many years worth of compounding. See table below for a visual illustration of the difference you will see at end of 30 years. Note: We are assuming you will contribute the same amount each year for both scenarios. At end of 30 years you will see a difference of over $86k.
Not withdrawing for LLPWithdrawing for LLP
Initial RRSP Amount$20,000$0
Equalized re-payment$0$2,000
Annual Contribution$7,000$5,000
Interest Rate5%5%
Years to grow3030
Future Value$574,764.38$488,325.23
  • Use RRSP as a savings vehicle for your retirement. Think long-term rather than short-term. Try to maximize your RRSP contribution every year if you can.
  • When you make RRSP contribution, you get a tax refund from the government. Best way to use this tax refund? Put it in your RRSP as part of your next year’s contribution.
  • If your work offers Group RRSP matching, SIGN UP!!! Never, ever say no to free money!!! I am always shocked to hear people that do not sign up to take advantage of the employer’s RRSP matching. Imagine getting your employer contributing $1,500 extra each year over 40 years. At 5% interest rate, that will result in $190,259.64, that’s over $130,000 worth in interests alone! Don’t be a dummy, always say yes to free money!
  • If you have a spouse, work together on your RRSP investments. Utilize Spousal RRSP to ensure that both of you have roughly equal amounts of income in retirement. With some simple planning, you can effectively reduce both of your income taxes in retirement and ensure that you can both receive maximum allowable OAS without clawback.
  • Find out where you should invest once you maxed out your RRSP.

Why Millennials should invest in self-directed RRSP accounts

  • I highly recommend setting up self-directed RRSP accounts (for you and your spouse), especially if you have a significant amount of money in your RRSP. Why do I recommend self-directed RRSP?
    • Lower management fee. If you are enrolled in individual RRSP and invest in mutual funds, switching to a self-directed RRSP and invest in index ETF or dividend stocks will result in a much lower management fee.
    • Financial education. Since this is your retirement and not mine and not your financial advisor’s, I think it’s important that you take some accountability for your own retirement. The first step is to do learn a thing or two about investing. The best way to do this is to manage your own RRSP. If you’re uncomfortable with managing your own RRSP, you can utilize a robo-advisor like Wealthsimple to lower your fees first and still learn about investing.
    • Product selection. There are more products/investments available for a self-directed RRSP compared to a Group or Individual RRSP. Self-directed RRSP simply gives you more choices.
    • Asset management. This is related to the previous point. A self-directed RRSP makes it easier to keep track of your investments and also allows you to maintain your desired asset mix (for example, having 5% in cash, 20% in bond, and 75% in stocks).

My RRSP Story and Plans

  • Since I started working full-time 10 years ago, I have made the tradition of maximizing my RRSP contribution room every year. Although I knew my earned income would increase over time, I didn’t delay my RRSP contributions. To make life easier I would just claim the entire RRSP contribution amount in my income tax filing. I never bothered to save the contributions for later use.
  • I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize how powerful spousal RRSP is until recently. Since I’m the high-income earner in our household, after some quick calculations, I realized how important it is to ensure our retirement income is roughly the same (especially when we will be tapping into RRSP once we are financially independent). Therefore I have started a spousal RRSP under Mrs. T’s name. The goal is to have my RRSP and her RRSP values to be roughly the same once we start withdrawing.
  • RRSP and TFSA will a big part of our income once we are financially independent. We plan to withdraw less than $5,000 from our accounts each year. For that reason, we probably will collapse our RRSPs prior to the age of 71.
  • Whenever we get a tax refund from our RRSP contributions, we put the refund back into our RRSPs. I want my money to work hard for me now instead of me having to work hard for money now and later.

What do you think about this millennial’s ultimate RRSP guide? Did I miss anything? Do you have any other tips I should include?

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11 thoughts on “The Millennial’s Ultimate RRSP Guide”

  1. What your thoughts about people who are about to buy a home and want to utilize the HBP but they use the HBP “hack” (for lack of a better word) to take advantage of the tax refund. I’ll explain.

    I read an article (and apparently this is well known and utilized a lot, but I just found out about this year) where people who have $25K cash sitting in their account ready to be used as a downpayment, will put the $25K into their RRSP for a minimum of 90 days to trigger the tax refund, then withdraw the $25K as the HBP and use the $25K as their downpayment as they had intended all along, and then this can garner about a $10K tax refund (or $20K if used with spouse, i.e.. husband $25K + wife’s $25K).


  2. Do you have any suggestions for investments in an RRSP account over the long term? Currently have the Balanced Growth portfolio in a TFSA at Tangerine.

    Thinking about where to move my RRSP to as DIY isn’t really an option for me and I’ll probably be opening an RDSP account to hold TD’s e-series in there since there aren’t many (any?) RDSP options.

    • Hi Y,

      Tangerine’s investment portfolio options are great if you don’t want to do any DIY. If you want to do DIY, you can certainly look into index ETFs. Canadian Couch Potato has quite a number of model portfolios you can pick from. You can take a look from there. Once you get more comfortable you can start thinking picking your own stocks.

  3. Hi, I have a question about the withholding tax . Is the withholding tax an amount that we can get back in full if our yearly income is low? Let’s say I start withdrawing from my RRSP when I stop working.

    I have a yearly dividend income of $15 000 and I withdraw $5000 from my RRSP. In this case, since my revenue is fairly low at $15 000 (dividend income), will I get the 10% withholding tax of $500 back?

    Renewed investor

  4. I would add to transfer a potion of your RRSP into a RIf before age 71 and withdraw $2000 per year when you stop working to get the pension credit. Plus I think that that in some real estate markets, it may make sense to take out $50,000 to buy a home when house prices have been going up more than in the stock market.

    • Good point on transfer a portion of RRSP into a RRIF before age 71. That’s something we’ll have to look into more for retirement planning.

      Regarding performance between house price and stock market, it really depends on where you live.

      • I bought a house in Toronto and rent it to my daughter, the value has increased by $250,000 in less than three years. Vancouver has taken a hit but long term, these two cities will continue to be popular.

  5. Nice article.

    Let’s say I already maxed out my contributions for 2016.
    Do you know if any contributions made on the first 60 days of 2017 can eventually be applied to the 2017 contribution room or we need to wait until March, 2017 to start contributing for next year?

    • Hi Daniel,

      Nice. Yes can you. So if you made contributions the first 60 days of 2017, the contributions can be applied to the 2017 contribution room if you only use these for your 2017 RRSP deduction.


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