Here’s my latest column from the print edition of MoneySense magazine, written right after the federal budget: Get the new TFSA limit to work for you.
Click on the link for details, but in a nutshell — and has been extensively reported in the media, such as this piece by Gordon Pape (subscribers only) — there’s no reason why you can’t add another $4,500 to your Tax Free Savings Account right now, in addition to $5,500 you may have contributed anytime on or after Jan. 1, 2015. (Note to American readers: the TFSA is the equivalent of Roth IRAs, providing no upfront tax deductions but which let you eventually withdraw money tax-free in Retirement or for other purposes).
That means a whopping $20,000 per couple. Now while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau seems to think only “rich” people have that kind of money available, the fact is that many hard-working middle class people have been saving and investing for the better part of two or three decades, and built up substantial non-registered or “taxable” portfolios. Even though they may have paid income tax to acquire the capital in the first place, over those decades they have been paying annual taxes on interest, dividends and (often) capital gains generated by that capital.
As the column points out, those who have built such “open” portfolios don’t have to use new cash to put $10,000 per annum into their TFSAs. They merely have to start transferring their non-registered securities into their TFSAs. This is called a “transfer-in-kind” but as I have pointed out here and elsewhere (see for example last Friday’s piece in the Financial Post: The Million-Dollar Tax Problem), the tax rules are complex. In a blog I wrote this week for Motley Fool Canada, we also look at How to make an extra TFSA contribution if you don’t have $4,500 lying around. Read more
Its headline is Can the Family Tax Cut Entice Families to Work Less? Read more
Our sister site, the Financial Independence Hub, attempts to be a North American portal running content that may interest readers on either side of the 49th parallel.
This isn’t always easy; sometimes it runs blogs from people like Roger Wohlner, The Chicago Financial Planner and perforce the content (like this blog he adapted for the Hub) will be mostly US-specific: touching on topics like IRAs, 401(k)s, Roth IRAs and all the rest of it.
By the same token, its Canadian contributors often write about things like the TFSA or Tax Free Savings Account, which is the equivalent of America’s Roth IRAs and variants of same.
As fate would have it, the Financial Post (my former employer until 2012), asked me to contribute an article comparing the tax and retirement systems of the two countries. You can find it here under the headline Canada vs. the US: Whose Retirement grass is greener?
Findependence is legitimate cross-border topic
I was happy to take the assignment because I’ve been grappling with US/Canadian tax and retirement issues ever since I wrote the book that spawned this and other web sites. The original edition of my 2008 financial novel, Findependence Day, was meant to be a transborder financial love story, covering the tax and retirement topics of both countries through the eyes of characters residing in both countries.
My feeling was then and remains that when you get right down to it, the main lessons of Financial Independence are pretty similar in the two countries. The Post article addresses the similarities and differences head on.
As I explained when we launched the site, we do not perceive the Hub as being a tactical personal finance site: such sites do need to be specific to one country or the other. Nor is it a Retirement site per se: it covers the entire life cycle of investing starting with Millennials graduating with student-loan and credit-card debt and moving all the way up to Wealth Accumulation, Encore Careers, Decumulation & Downsizing and finally Longevity & Aging. These are universal topics not restricted to being on one side of the border or another. In fact, I play a lot of Internet bridge and most of my partners are Americans: it never occurs to us that the border makes a scrap of difference.
Asymmetry in US and Canadian financial content
However, when it came to marketing the book, I soon realized that while Canadians are happy to read US personal finance books, it doesn’t work in reverse. The US is after all a country with ten times more people and is arguably the most important economy in the world. Most Canadians have significant investments in US stocks and if we loaded up when the loonie was near parity, we’re glad we did: with the loonie now near 80 cents US, our retirement accounts are 20% larger to the extent they hold investments denominated in U.S. dollars.
But on the other side, I find with a few exceptions Americans have little reason to bone up on Canadian investments: Canada makes up only 4% or so of the global stock market, compared to close to half for America.
All of which explains why I decided to publish an all-American edition of Findependence Day in 2013. I challenge readers to find a single reference to Canada! Plus, last fall, I released two short Kindle e-books that are summaries of the book, and which cost just US$2.99. I describe A Novel Approach to Financial Independence as a kind of “Cliffs Notes” summary for American readers, and in Canada it’s a “Coles Notes” summary. Again, just like the retirement systems, citizens in both countries grew up with yellow-and-black “cheat” sheets to help us get through school: Cliffs and Coles are almost identical concepts.
When the original book was published, we billed it as a “North American” edition, since it would mention things like RRSPs and IRAs in the same breath. But with the launch of the all-US edition, we now call the original book the Canadian edition. I hope to do an all-Canadian edition on the Kindle sometime the next year or two.
… contributing as much as $5,500 to your TFSA (Tax Free Savings Account) if you’re Canadian. Launched at this time in 2009 and behaving somewhat like America’s “Roth” IRAs, it’s hard to believe this is already the seventh time you can contribute. By my calculations, that means $36,500 of collective contribution room plus any investment growth. That’s four years at $5,000 and now three years at $5,500: the maximum was boosted by $500 as an inflation adjustment for calendar 2013.
So if you’re one half of a couple, that means $73,000 in joint contribution room, even if you left it in interest-bearing investments paying almost zero. If you’ve been investing mostly in equities (either stocks or equity ETFs), it’s likely your TFSA had reached $40,000 or more by year-end, so it’s quite conceivable that some couples now have close to $100,000 invested in TFSAs between them.
Thursday, Jan. 1 was of course a holiday. While Friday, Jan. 2, 2015 is likely to be a quiet day for most, there’s no reason why you can’t contribute the next $5,500 to your TFSA that day, particularly if you use online banking and/or discount brokerages.
Good place for equity ETFs
What to invest in? In retrospect, those who invested in US investments with unhedged exposure to the US dollar would have done best up till now. Our daughter’s TFSA is more than half invested in US tech stocks and broader ETFs and the exposure to the greenback has boosted her TFSA to several thousand more than our own TFSAs with more exposure to the loonie.
Generally, I think a Couch Potato approach to investing in TFSAs makes the most sense, using broadly based ETFs from firms like Vanguard or iShares. Those closer to retirement may want a healthy exposure to Canadian dividends: foreign dividends will lose a bit of withheld tax in a TFSA and are better held in RRSPs for that reason. But for younger investors it may make sense to hold non-dividend paying US tech stocks in a TFSA for both the extra growth potential and the exposure to a strong US dollar that is showing no signs of weakening.
I still say the TFSA and Roths are the best games in an over-taxed town. While it’s true that many had hoped the 2015 limit would be more than $5,500, remember that unlike RRSPs, you can continue to contribute to TFSAs well past age 70 or 71: in fact, if you live that long you could still be contributing if you’re a hundred or more.
The key is to get the money in there as soon as you can and let it grow. And that means early January each and every year. While I think the benefit is particularly powerful for the young, they should balance the growth potential with debt repayment. There’s not much point in paying close to 20% a year in credit-card interest if you’re only earning 2% interest in a GIC or cash equivalent contained in a TFSA.
For more, see my latest MoneySense blog just posted here.