By Steve Lowrie, CFA
Special to the Financial Independence Hub
Today’s Simple Investing Take-Away: Your tax planning strategy should take a holistic, tax-efficient investing stance in both tax-sheltered and taxable investment vehicles to optimize saving for the future.
Does it bug you to pay more taxes than you need to? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone eager to shell out extra money, just in case the government could use more. But practically speaking, that’s exactly what you end up doing if you don’t build tax-efficient investing and other tailored tax strategies into your ongoing financial planning.
- A young professional, aggressively saving for a distant future?
- A seasoned business owner, managing substantial financial savings
- Starting to spend down your assets in retirement?
- Planning for how to pass your wealth on to your heirs?
Regardless, there are many best practices for maximizing your after-tax returns—i.e., the ones you get to keep. Today, let’s cover what some of those sensible tax strategies look like.
Fill up your Tax-Sheltered Accounts
The government offers a number of “registered” investment accounts to provide various types of tax-efficient investing incentives. They want you to save for retirement and other life goals, so why not take them up on the offer? Two of the big ones are the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) and Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA).
Saving for Retirement with Your RRSP
As the name suggests, your RRSP is meant to provide tax-efficient investing for retirement. In the years you contribute to your RRSP, you receive a deduction on your tax return in equal measure. Then the proceeds grow tax-free. Once you withdraw RRSP assets in retirement, you pay income tax on them.
In theory, your tax rate is often lower once you retire, so you should ultimately pay fewer taxes on taxable income. Even if there are some retirement years when your tax rates are higher, you’ve still benefited from years of tax-free capital growth in an RRSP. And you still have more flexibility to plan your RRSP withdrawals to synchronize with the rest of your tax planning.
Bonus tips: If you’re a couple, you may also consider using a spousal RRSP to minimize your household’s overall tax burden. This works especially well if one of you generates a lot more income than the other. There also are specialized guidelines to be aware of if you’re a business owner considering how to most tax-efficiently draw a salary and participate in the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).
Saving for the Future with Your TFSA
TFSAs are meant to be used for tax-efficient investing toward any mid- to long-term financial goals. So, at any age, most taxpayers are well-advised to fill up their TFSA space to the extent permitted. You fund your TFSA with after-tax dollars, which means there’s no immediate “reward” or deduction on your tax return in the year you make a contribution. But after that, the assets grow tax-free while they’re in your TFSA, and you pay no additional taxes when you withdraw them, which you can do at any time.
Bonus tip: Too often, people leave their TFSA accounts sitting in cash, using it like an ATM machine. Unfortunately, this defeats the purpose, since you lose out on the tax-free gains you could expect to earn by investing that cash in the market. How much is tax-efficient investing worth? In “Cash is not king: A better investment strategy for your TFSA,” I offer some specific illustrations.
Manage your personal Tax Planning like a Boss
Once you’ve filled your tax-sheltered accounts, you can invest any additional assets in your taxable accounts.
Like hard-working “employees,” these assets can thrive or dive depending on their management. Think of it this way: As a business owner, you wouldn’t hire a promising team of talented individuals, only to assign them random roles and responsibilities. Likewise, your various investments and investment accounts have unique qualities worth tending to within your overall tax-efficient investing. Let’s cover a few of them here.
Capital Gains Reign
In your taxable accounts, your best source of tax-efficient investing income comes in the form of capital gains or even better, deferred/unrealized capital gains. This is super important, but often forgotten in the pursuit of sexier trading tactics, like chasing hot stocks or big dividends. (It’s popular to think of dividends as a great source of dependable income in retirement, but in “Building your financial stop list: Stop chasing dividends,” I explained why that’s mostly a myth.)
Don’t believe me? Consider these 2021 combined tax rates for Ontario on various sources of investment income:
Taxable Income Source
2021 Combined Tax Rate
Interest and other income
Eligible dividends (mostly Cdn. companies)
Also remember, you don’t pay taxes on a capital gain until you actually “realize” it, by selling an investment for more than you paid for it. Combine this point with the rates just presented, and your ideal investment strategy seems obvious: Tax-efficient investing translates to a low-cost, low turn-over, buy-and-hold approach.
Since minimizing the impact of taxes is a huge way to improve on your overall rate of returns, this happens to be exactly what I advise for any of your investments, whether you’re holding them in a taxable or tax-sheltered account.
Bonus tip: Once you’ve embraced low-cost, low-trade investing, be sure to also use funds from fund managers who are doing the same. It defeats the purpose if you are being disciplined about your tax-efficient investing, but the underlying funds in which you’re invested are not.
Asset Location Is where it’s at
As your wealth accumulates, you’re likely to end up with a mixture of registered and taxable accounts. You can reduce your overall tax burden by managing these accounts as a single, tax-efficient portfolio, instead of treating each as an investment “island.” Asset location means locating each kind of investment, or asset, in the right type of account, given its tax efficiency:
- Hold your relatively tax-inefficient assets in tax-favoured accounts, where the inefficiencies don’t matter as much. Examples include bonds, which generate interest and other non-capital-gain income; and investments that have higher than average yields such as REITs.
- Hold your relatively tax-efficient assets in taxable accounts; examples include broad domestic or global stock funds that generate most of their returns as capital gains.
An Easy Rebalancing Strategy
As I covered in “Rebalancing in Down Markets, Scary But Important,” it’s essential to periodically rebalance your investment portfolio. It’s like tending to your garden by thinning out (selling) some of the overgrowth, and planting (buying) where you need more. This keeps your productive portfolio growing as hoped for, with a buy low, sell high strategy.
But as usual, there’s a catch: When you “sell high” in a taxable account, you’ll realize taxable gains. So, whenever possible, try using cash you’d be investing anyway to do your rebalancing for you. Instead of just plopping any new investable cash into haphazard holdings, invest it wherever your portfolio is underweight relative to your goals. In so doing, you can improve on your tax-efficient investing. (PS: Here’s another post I’ve published, with additional ideas on “What to Do with Excess Cash.”)
Again, one of the best ways for your assets to grow tax-efficiently is within your registered, tax-sheltered accounts. That said, tax-loss harvesting is one tax-efficient investing strategy you can only do in a taxable account. Without diving too deep, when one or more of your holdings is worth less than you paid for it — but over the long run you expect the position to grow — you can use tax-loss harvesting to:
- Sell the depreciated position to generate a capital loss, which you can then use to offset current or future taxable gains.
- Promptly buy a similar (but not identical!) position so you remain invested in the market as planned.
- Eventually (optionally), reinvest in the original position to restore your portfolio to its original mix.
Again, all this only works within a taxable account. Also, the CRA has strict rules on what qualifies as a true capital loss, and may disallow it if you violate those rules. This makes it one smart strategy best completed in alliance with your personal financial advisor.
Advanced Tax Strategies for Families and Business Owners
We’ve barely scratched the surface on the myriad tax-planning strategies you can deploy in your quest to pay no more than their fair share of income taxes. Depending on your particular circumstances, you can take advantage of some of these tax strategies:
- Corporate income planning: To tax-efficiently draw income from your business
- Spousal loans: To even out taxable income loads
- Family trusts: To transfer wealth tax-efficiently to your children or other heirs
- Life insurance: To provide gap funding to cover taxable wealth transfers, especially when family businesses are involved
- Charitable giving: To earn tax breaks by donating highly appreciated assets, establishing Donor Advised Funds, or creating other charitable giving plans
For these and similar tax-wise moves, your best bet is to work with your personal financial advisor to determine when and how to use these strategies most effectively. Because, bottom line, if you have a pulse, you probably aren’t fond of paying more taxes than you need to. In fact, since most families do all they can to ensure tax-efficient wealth transfers, our distaste for paying taxes may even outlive us.
So, don’t leave these and many other tax-efficient investing strategies hanging on the vine. Talk to us today, and we’ll show you how to harvest them for you and your family to enjoy.
Steve Lowrie holds the CFA designation and has 25 years of experience dealing with individual investors. Before creating Lowrie Financial in 2009, he worked at various Bay Street brokerage firms both as an advisor and in management. “I help investors ignore the Wall and Bay Street hype and hysteria, and focus on what’s best for themselves.” This blog originally appeared on his site on June 14, 2021 and is republished here with permission.