Should I contribute to a TFSA, an RRSP, or both?

Determining the best approach.

The debate over whether to investin a Registered Retirement Saving Plan (RRSP) or a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) comes up every year. Both are excellent tools that allow you to shelter investments from taxes, and both have their place in a well-defined financial plan. Here are some factors to consider as you decide which type of account to save in. 

Registered Retirement Saving Plan

RRSPs are generally used for saving for retirement. Contributions are tax-deductible and investments grow tax-free within the account. Both the contributions and investment earnings are taxable upon withdrawal, but the idea is that these withdrawals will happen after retirement, when your income and tax rate is expected to be lower than when you contributed. Withdrawals are included in income and affect eligibility for federal income-tested benefits and tax credits, such as child tax benefits and Old Age Security. Once you withdraw funds from your RRSP, the contribution room is gone for good, unless you do so through a program such as the Home Buyers’ Plan or Lifelong Learning Plan. 

Tax-Free Savings Account

TFSAs can be used to save for both retirement and shorter-term needs. Contributions are not tax-deductible, but investments grow tax-free inside the account. Amounts withdrawn from a TFSA are not subject to tax and will not affect eligibility for federal income-tested benefits and tax credits. Withdrawals are added back to your available TFSA contribution room in the following calendar year, so there is very little downside to using TFSA savings for mid-sized to large purchases. 

Which is right for you?

Lower income

If you are in a low income tax bracket (for example, if you are a student or are on maternity leave), saving in a TFSA may be more advantageous than saving in an RRSP. The RRSP tax savings are less significant, and you may be in a higher tax bracket when you make withdrawals. 

Middle income

If you are in a middle income tax bracket, there may not be a clear advantage to using one plan over the other. One strategy would be to contribute to your TFSA now and accumulate RRSP room to be used later, when you’re in a higher tax bracket and can optimize the advantage of the tax benefits.

Higher income

If you are in a high tax bracket, you may want to consider using both types of plans. An RRSP may be a better option if your current tax rate is higher than you expect it to be when you withdraw your savings. You’ll benefit from a tax deduction when you make your contribution, and withdrawals will be taxed at your lower future rate. You can also use the refund from your RRSP contribution to fund your TFSA. 

Talk to your advisor

Whether to save in a TFSA, an RRSP or both may depend on your savings needs, your eligibility for income-tested benefits, and your current and expected future financial situation and income level. Your advisor can help determine the best tax-advantaged investment strategy to help you achieve your goals.

Comparison of savings options


Registered Retirement Saving Plan

Tax-Free Savings Account

Minimum age to own 


Yes – age 18

Maximum age to own 

Yes – end of year you turn age 71


Annual contribution limit 

18% of your earned income from the previous year, up to a maximum amount (adjusted for certain pension amounts) 

Dollar amount per year, indexed to inflation

Carry-forward of unused contribution room 



Tax-deductible contribution 



Monthly penalty on excess contributions 

Yes – on excess at month-end. If excess is removed by the end of the month, penalty will not apply for that month

Yes – on the highest amount of excess at any time during the month¹

Investment options 

A variety of investments, such as stocks, bonds, GICs, mutual funds, segregated fund contracts, cash

A variety of investments, such as stocks, bonds, GICs, mutual funds, segregated fund contracts, cash

Tax-deferred/tax-free investment growth 

Yes – tax-deferred

Yes – tax-free

Taxable on withdrawal 

Yes – fully taxable 

No – tax-free, except for growth after death if no successor holder

Withdrawals added to contribution room 


Yes – but not until the following calendar year²

Withdrawals affect federal income-tested benefits and tax credits 



Tax-deferred/tax-free transfer to spouse on death 


Yes – if successor holder. Otherwise, value at date of death

Tax-deferred/tax-free transfer to second generation on death 

No – fully taxable unless financially dependent 

Yes – only investment income after date of death is taxable 

1 Any income attributed to deliberate overcontributions will be taxed at 100 per cent. 2 The withdrawal of amounts in respect of deliberate overcontributions, prohibited investments, non-qualified investments, asset transfer transactions and income related to those amounts does not create additional TFSA contribution room.

This article was originally featured in Solutions magazine © 2020 Manulife.

Please note that only advisors who are qualified and approved financial planners can provide financial planning advise. Please check with your advisor.

Manulife Securities related companies are 100% owned by The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company (MLI) which is 100% owned by the Manulife Financial Corporation a publicly traded company. Details regarding all affiliated companies of MLI can be found on the Manulife Securities website Please confirm with your advisor which company you are dealing with for each of your products and services.

Manulife Securities

Manulife Securities

Manulife Securities

Read bio