How to get the most out of your Tax Free Savings Account
By Susan Down, Toronto Star
Every so often, the government gives you a tax break. It doesn’t happen very often, so it’s all the more reason to take advantage of it when it comes your way.
In 2009, Ottawa introduced the Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) with a $5,000 annual limit. In December 2012, Ottawa announced the limit will rise to $5,500 in January 2013. In 2015, the maximum annual contribution is increased from $5,500 to $10,000.
These accounts are a good way to save money. Here are 10 things you need to know about them:
1. How do they work?
The TFSA was launched in January, 2009 and can be defined by what it is not.
Unlike a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), the contributions are not tax deductible. So you deposit after-tax cash into it, but you can withdraw it tax free. Putting money in RRSP savings accounts gives a tax deduction when you deposit it, but you later pay tax on what you take out. So a tax-free savings account, as the name suggests, is a tax-free savings haven rather than a tax-deferred shelter.
2. Forever tax free
You never pay tax on the money inside your TFSA, so you can invest in interest-bearing options like bond funds and GICs, or aim for growth in the form of investments like stocks. You can’t deduct the interest if you borrow money to invest in your TFSA, but the other benefits are attractive. When you take it out, it’s still tax free and it won’t affect your eligibility for income support programs based on earning levels.
3. What can go inside
The investments allowed in a TFSA include everything from GICs to mortgages. In addition to making cash deposits to buy investments, you can make in-kind contributions by transferring shares and mutual funds you already own into a TFSA. The rule is that the investment must be arm’s length from you (for example, personal debt is not allowed). You must set one up through a financial institution, but you can make it a self-directed account and manage it on your own.
4. Beware of over-contributing
You can carry forward the unused portion to the next year. But be careful. Many Canadians have been confused by the rules and face penalties as a result. They withdrew money from their tax-free savings account in, say, January, and then put the amount back in June. They were shocked to discover that the redeposit was considered a double payment and subject to a hefty tax penalty.
5. Save and save some more
If you need spending money, go ahead and dip in. The chunk you take out gives you equal contribution room the next year. So if you remove $3,000 for a vacation, you can contribute that same amount (in addition to the maximum) the following year for tax-free savings. Just be careful not to reinvest during the same calendar year.
6. Contributions carried forward
You can take advantage of your unused portions of the annual limit at any time in your life. You may be one of those people who starts saving early (you have to be over 18 years old), even when you don’t have an income that allows you to save the maximum annual amount. With a TFSA, you can be rewarded for procrastinating by catching up on the contributions later on. There is no upper age limit for TFSA contributions, unlike RRSPs that require you to stop adding to the fund at age 71.
7. Give a TFSA as a gift
Go ahead and surprise him or her with the gift of a TFSA contribution. While this doesn’t get you any tax benefits in return, neither does it affect your own contribution maximum. And hey, it lasts longer than flowers. Also, your spouse can be the beneficiary of your plan after your death.
8. Compounding power
Investment advisers love the charts that show you how by putting away a few dollars a month for a lifetime, you could be rolling in dough, unlike your colleagues who spent it on lattes. So starting early with tax-free savings and being disciplined has its advantages.
9. Canuck residents only
Non-residents of Canada aren’t eligible to open a TFSA. If you happen to leave the country after you have started one, you can maintain your existing account, but you can’t add anything to it as long as you’re a non-resident.
10. Low-risk strategy
Since you can’t claim capital losses in your TFSA on investments that have gone sour, it is best to opt for blue-chip equities with high-yield dividends to fill up your TFSA. Also, because the maximum annual contribution isn’t high enough to spread your market exposure around, it makes sense to choose investments such as exchange-traded funds that represent a broad sample of companies found in a stock market index.