Among the great dilemmas of modern-day Canadian life – finding the closest Tim Hortons, choosing which American NHL team to cheer for during the Stanley Cup finals, etc. – is deciding between TFSAs or RRSPs as the best savings vehicle for your money.

The good news is that you’re saving money and bucking a worrisome trend of Canadians saving less and less. The benefits of saving money can’t be overstated: savings can cushion you against life’s financial shocks, provide for your retirement years, and bring you closer to your major economic goals.

While it’s advisable to have both an RRSP and TFSA, there’s often only so many free dollars to spread around each pay period. If you’re in the position to choose one or the other, we’re going to help the decision by breaking down the difference between an RRSP and TFSA, including the benefits of each, the contribution limits, which is right for you and much more.

What is the difference between RRSP and TFSA?

When comparing TFSAs (Tax-Free Savings Accounts) and RRSPs (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) people like to say the latter is like the greying dad, while the former is the trendy youngster getting all the attention. Introduced in 2009, TFSAs quickly built up a loyal following as a flexible option to save – for anything; not just for retirement. TFSAs are younger, flexible and living for today, if you will.

RRSPs, on the other hand, have been around since the late 1950s and were designed specifically for the purpose of building a nest egg for those golden years. They are a long-term savings vehicle not intended for near-term savings goals like a car, vacations, or real estate. Withdrawals from an RRSP trigger taxes to discourage you from removing your money before retirement age, as opposed to a TFSA where withdrawals trigger zero tax.

Tax advantage of TFSAs vs RRSPs

You may have noticed the term “RRSP deadline” thrown around when visiting your bank around tax season. That’s because RRSPs can factor heavily in your yearly tax returns. RRSP deposits are deducted from your taxable income, which brings your taxable income down and can either be a boon on your tax return or lighten the burden of a tax bill. This is an area where RRSPs have a clear advantage over TFSAs, as a TFSA contribution, which is your after-tax income, does not earn any tax refund.

This TFSA vs RRSP comparison chart will help you differentiate the two options.

Quick Comparison

RRSP

TFSA

Tax-free withdrawal

No

Yes

Tax refund benefits

Yes

No

Contribution limit

Yes

Yes

Age limit

Yes

No

Withdrawal options for TFSAs vs RRSPs

Withdrawals from RRSPs vs TFSAs are a completely different beast when it comes to taxes. The enduring popularity of TFSAs is largely due to its ability to allow savers to withdraw their money anytime without a tax penalty. What’s inside the account is considered after-tax income, thus not subject to further tax.

For an RRSP, considered pre-tax income, withdraws are subject to a percentage to be paid immediately to the managing institution, such as a bank or fund manager, while the amount you withdraw counts as taxable income the year it’s taken out. That’s a double whammy. This structure is to encourage you to hold off withdraws until your retirement when your income is much lower. At 71, you must withdraw all cash from your RRSP or have it transferred to a Registered Retirement Income Fund.

There are only two ways to avoid those taxation triggers on RRSP withdrawals – the Home Buyer’s Plan (HBP) and the Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP). The HBP is a federal program that allows withdrawals up to $25,000 in a calendar year from your RRSP to buy or build a home. The government recently upped this limit to $35,000 in the 2019 budget in response to growing calls for more housing affordability. In theory, this will help first-time homebuyers get into the increasingly expensive Canadian real estate market. Keep in mind: all withdrawals using the HBP must be paid back anytime within 15 years.

The LLP allows you to withdraw from your RRSP to finance full-time training or education for yourself, spouse, or common-law partner. This also has to be repaid in due course.

Contributing to a TFSA

Because the government doesn’t want you socking away all your money tax-free, there is a yearly contribution limit for TFSAs. The limit amounts have been somewhat of a roller coaster over the years, depending on government objectives.

The TFSA was introduced in 2009 with a $5,000 yearly limit, but then bumped up for inflation in 2013-14 to $5,500. The limit was doubled in 2015 – an election year keep in mind – to $10,000, but restored back to $5,500 when the current government was elected. This year it has been raised again to $6,000. This gives us a cumulative total of $63,500 – the most you can currently have deposited in a TFSA.

Important reminder: unused contributions from previous years carry over. So that means you could deposit the full $63,500 this year if you’ve never contributed in prior years. If you’re unsure what your contribution limit might be, check with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

Year 

TFSA Annual Limit

Cumulative Limit 

2009-2012

$5,000

$20,000

2013-2014

$5,500

$31,000

2015

$10,000

$41,000

2016-2018

$5,500

$46,500

2019

$6,000

$63,500

2020

$6,000

$69,500

Contributing to an RRSP

RRSP contributions are less of a one-size-fits-all approach compared to TFSAs. RRSP contribution limits are calculated by your last reported income – up to a set maximum. For example, your yearly RRSP contribution limit is either the set max of $26,500 for 2019 or 18% of your reported income in 2018, whichever is lower. This information is made available to you by the CRA under My Account.

Like TFSAs, these contribution limits carryover through the years and accumulate if left unused. You have 60 days from the start of the tax year to contribute to an RRSP and claim the deduction on your prior year’s taxes. 

For example, if your tax rate is 35%, every $100 you invest in an RRSP will save you $35 in taxes, up to your contribution limit. Hence RRSPs are such an important tool during tax season. Contributing the limit can mean a sizable deduction on taxes paid and could mean a hefty tax return depending on your income level.

Remember: RRSP is for pre-tax dollars, TFSA is for after-tax dollars.

Investment options for TFSAs vs RRSPs

While both the TFSA and RRSP are savings vehicles at their core, both can be used within other investment structures. If you’re just starting to explore the basics of TFSAs and RRSPs, it may seem a little advanced at this point to discuss equities, ETFs, mutual funds, GICs and bonds.

Just know that both RRSPs and TFSAs offer several types of investment accounts with different levels of risk and return. Many employers offer Group RRSP options where your money is pooled with other employees in a mutual fund. Perhaps your employer matches some or all of your contributions? It’s not uncommon.

RRSP vs TFSA – which is right for you?

As you may have gathered by now there’s no simple answer to the question of TFSA vs RRSP because it depends on varying factors like age and your income level now versus what you expect to be earning near retirement.

The general consensus is if you’re young, with a lower income level, then a TFSA makes the most sense because you’re not looking for ways to reduce your taxable income. TFSAs offer a vehicle for long and near-term savings goals with the flexibility to pull your money when you need it. If you’re thinking about buying a new car, save for a down payment or take a really excellent vacation, then a TFSA makes all kinds of sense.

On the flip side, those hitting their peak earning years and already juggling multiple financial obligations, then an RRSP is probably the best choice. Not only will it give you significant tax benefits, but it will also help you sock away needed retirement savings at a time when you have multiple financial obligations. When the time comes to pay tax on an RRSP withdrawal, you should be hitting those senior citizen years with a small, less-taxable income. That’s when an RRSP can help put you in a good financial situation. 

Pro tip: The ideal scenario is to contribute to both TFSA and RRSP accounts. If you have those dollars to spread, consider making the max RRSP contribution each year and allocating that tax refund into your TFSA. Now you’re getting the best of both worlds. 

Best savings accounts in Canada for starting a TFSA or RRSP

Now that you’re loaded with information about TFSAs vs RRSPs, and which savings vehicle is right for you, it’s time to hit the market. If you bank with the Big 5 – CIBC, BMO, RBC, TD and Scotiabank – then starting RRSP and TFSA accounts will be no problem because they all offer both, plus it will be convenient when transferring funds from your pre-existing account.

The savvy investor, however, will shop around for the best interest rate and get the most return for their money. The smaller the bank or credit union, the better the rate usually. Websites like ratehub give you a comprehensive comparison of rates and promotional rates across various Canadian financial institutions.

Fresh Start Finance serves Canadians facing all types of credit situations with practical advice and credit-building solutions. We also offer quick-and-easy secured and unsecured installment loans to help you take those first steps to a better financial future. Apply today to see how we can help!