Burning questions Retirees face


Retirees face a myriad of questions as they head into the next chapter of their lives. At the top of the list is whether they have enough resources to last a lifetime. A related question is how much they can reasonably spend throughout retirement.

But retirement is more than just having a large enough pile of money to live a comfortable lifestyle. Here are some of the biggest questions facing retirees today:

Should I pay off my mortgage?

The continuous climb up the property ladder means more Canadians are carrying mortgages well into retirement. What was once a cardinal sin of retirement is now becoming more common in today’s low interest rate environment.

It’s still a good practice to align your mortgage pay-off date with your retirement date (ideally a few years earlier so you can use the freed-up cash flow to give your retirement savings a final boost). But there’s nothing wrong with carrying a small mortgage into retirement provided you have enough savings, and perhaps some pension income, to meet your other spending needs.

Which accounts to tap first for retirement income?

Old school retirement planning assumed that we’d defer withdrawals from our RRSPs until age 71 or 72 while spending from non-registered funds and government benefits (CPP and OAS).

That strategy is becoming less popular thanks to the Tax Free Savings Account. TFSAs are an incredible tool for retirees that allow them to build a tax-free bucket of wealth that can be used for estate planning, large one-time purchases or gifts, or to supplement retirement income without impacting taxes or means-tested government benefits.

Now we’re seeing more retirement income plans that start spending first from non-registered funds and small RRSP withdrawals while deferring CPP to age 70. Depending on the income needs, the retiree could keep contributing to their TFSA or just leave it intact until OAS and CPP benefits kick-in.

This strategy spends down the RRSP earlier, which can potentially save taxes and minimize OAS clawbacks later in retirement, while also reducing the taxes on estate. It also locks-in an enhanced benefit from deferring CPP: benefits that are indexed to inflation and paid for life. Finally, it can potentially build up a significant TFSA balance to be spent in later years or left in the estate.

Should I switch to an income-oriented investment strategy?

The idea of living off the dividends or distributions from your investments has long been romanticized. The challenge is that most of us will need to dip into our principal to meet our ongoing spending needs.

Consider Vanguard’s Retirement Income ETF (VRIF). It targets a 4% annual distribution, paid monthly, and a 5% total return. That seems like a logical place to park your retirement savings so you never run out of money.

VRIF can be an excellent investment choice inside a non-registered (taxable) account when the retiree is spending the monthly distributions. But put VRIF inside an RRSP or RRIF and you’ll quickly see the dilemma.

RRIFs come with minimum mandatory withdrawal rates that increase over time. You’re withdrawing 5% of the balance at age 70, 5.28% at age 71, 5.40% at age 72, and so on.

That means a retiree will need to sell off some VRIF units to meet the minimum withdrawal requirements.

Replace VRIF with any income-oriented investment strategy in your RRSP/RRIF and you have the same problem. You’ll eventually need to sell shares.

This also doesn’t touch on the idea that a portfolio concentrated in dividend stocks is less diversified and less reliable than a broadly diversified (and risk appropriate) portfolio of passive investments.

By taking a total return approach with your investments you can simply sell off ETF units as needed to generate your desired retirement income.

When to take CPP and OAS?

I’ve written at length about the risks of taking CPP at 60 and the benefits of taking CPP at 70. But it doesn’t mean you’re a fool to take CPP early. CPP is just one piece of the retirement income puzzle.

The research favours deferring CPP to age 70 if you have enough personal savings to tide you over while you wait. This may or may not apply to you.

One reader comment resonated with me when he said, “my plan is to take CPP at age 70 but that doesn’t mean the decision is set in stone. I’m going to evaluate my retirement income plan every year and determine whether or not I need it.”

There’s less incentive to defer OAS to age 70 but it’s still sensible if you’re still working past age 65 or if you have lived in Canada less than 40 years.

Otherwise, the bird in the hand approach is reasonable:  taking OAS at age 65 while deferring CPP up to age 70.

When to convert to a RRIF?

You must convert your RRSP to a RRIF in the year you turn 71 and then begin withdrawals the next calendar year. But you can convert all or a portion of your RRSP into a RRIF before then. Here’s when it might make sense:

If you are between age 65 and 71 and don’t have any pension income, you could convert some of your RRSP into a RRIF and start drawing $2,000 per year from the RRIF. This strategy will allow you to claim the pension income tax credit.

Another potential advantage of converting to a RRIF earlier than 71 is that your financial institution won’t withhold tax on the minimum withdrawals. Of course, it’s still taxable income and you’ll pay your share at tax time.

In addition to running the Boomer & Echo website, Robb Engen is a fee-only financial planner. This article originally ran on his site on April 3, 2021 and is republished here with his permission.


2 thoughts on “Burning questions Retirees face

  1. Another advantage to a RRIF vs RRSP is that TD Webbroker and perhaps other institutions doesn’t charge withdrawal fees – usually $25+GST a pop – even if the RRIF withdrawal exceeds the minimum.

  2. I invested 100% of my savings in financially strong high dividend paying stocks 16 years ago. I have lived very well off my dividend income since then. Much to my surprise my portfolio during this time has more than tripled in value despite the fact that after I turned 71 I had to start withdrawing money from my RIF. This can only be done if you are a self directed investor because having investment advisors involved eats up to much of your dividend income. If you are interested in how to do it go to my website, http://www.SaferBetterDividendInvesting.

Leave a Reply