You can increase your savings through tax-efficient investing. Tax-efficient investing is the process of maximizing your after-tax investment returns by buying your invested assets in the “best” account from a tax perspective. You may have savings in a taxable account and/or in one or more types of tax-sheltered retirement accounts. Your investment returns are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which you hold your invested assets. In this post, I’ll provide a quick overview of the taxes applicable to each type of account (since I cover taxes on retirement plans in much greater detail in this post) and provide guidelines for how to invest tax-efficiently.
The strategy for tax-efficient investing differs from one country to the next due to differences in tax laws so I’ll talk about tax-efficient investing strategies in the Canada in this post. For information about tax-efficient investing in the US, check out this post.
Types of Investment Returns
I will look at four different types of investments:
- Individual stocks with high dividends
- Mutual funds
- Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) with no dividends
I will not look at individual stocks with little or no dividends. The returns on those stocks are essentially the same as the returns on ETFs and are taxed in the same manner.
The table below shows the different types of returns on each of these investments.
|Type of Distribution:||Interest||Dividends||Capital Gains||Capital Gain Distributions|
|High dividend stocks||x||x|
Interest and dividends are cash payments that the issuers of financial instruments (i.e., stocks, mutual funds or bonds) make to owners.
Capital gains come from changes in the value of your investment. You pay taxes on capital gains only when you sell the financial instrument which then makes them realized capital gains. The taxable amount of the realized capital gain is the difference between the amount you receive when you sell the financial instrument and the amount you paid for it when you bought it. Unrealized capital gains are changes in the value of any investment you haven’t yet sold. If the value of an investment is less than what you paid for it, you are said to have a capital loss which can be thought of as a negative capital gain.
Mutual funds are a bit different from stocks and ETFs. They can have the following types of taxable returns.
- Dividends – A mutual fund dividend is a distribution of some or all of the dividends that the mutual fund manager has received from the issuers of the securities owned by the mutual fund.
- Capital gain distributions – Capital gain distributions are money the mutual fund manager pays to owners when a mutual fund sells some of its assets.
- Capital gains – As with other financial instruments, you pay tax on the difference between the amount you receive when you sell a mutual fund and the amount you paid for it.
The four types of distributions are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which they are held – Taxable, Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) or Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA).
Accounts other than Retirement Accounts
I’ll refer to accounts that aren’t retirement accounts as taxable accounts. You pay taxes every year on dividends and realized capital gains in a taxable account, whereas you pay them either when you contribute to or withdraw from a retirement account. The table below shows how the different types of investment returns are taxed when they are earned in a taxable account.
|Type of Investment Return||Tax Rates|
|Interest & Dividends||Same as wages|
|Realized capital gains & capital gain distributions||50% of capital gains and capital gain distributions are added to wages|
The marginal Federal tax rate on wages, and therefore on interest and dividends, for many employed Canadian residents is likely to be 20.5% or 26%.
In a taxable account, you pay taxes on investment returns when you receive them. In the case of capital gains, you are considered to have received them when you sell the financial instrument.
TFSA Retirement Accounts
Before you put money into a TFSA, you pay taxes on it. Once it has been put into the TFSA, you pay no more income taxes regardless of the type of investment return. As such, the tax rate on all investment returns held in a TFSA is 0%.
RRSP Retirement Accounts
You pay income taxes on the total amount of your withdrawal from an RRSP at your ordinary income tax rate. Between the time you make a contribution and withdraw the money, you don’t pay any income taxes on your investment returns.
After-Tax Returns by Type of Account
To illustrate the differences in taxes on each of these four financial instruments, I’ll look at how much you would have if you have $1,000 to invest in each type of account at the end of one year and the end of 10 years.
Here are the assumptions I made regarding pre-tax investment returns.
|Annual Pre-tax Investment Return %||Interest||Dividends||Capital Gains|
Mutual funds usually distribute some or all of realized capital gains to owners. That is, if you own a mutual fund, you are likely to get receive cash from the mutual fund manager related to realized capital gains. Whenever those distributions are made, you have to pay tax on them. For this illustration, I’ve assumed that the mutual fund manager distributes all capital gains to owners, so they are taxed every year.
Here are the tax rates I used for this illustration.
|Type of Income||Tax Rate|
|Interest & Dividends||26%|
One-Year Investment Period
Let’s say you have $1,000 in each account. If you put it in a taxable account, I assume you pay taxes at the end of the year on the investment returns. If you put the money in an RRSP, I assume that you withdraw all of your money and pay taxes at the end of the year on the entire amount at your ordinary income tax rate. (I’ve assumed you are old enough that you don’t have to pay a penalty on withdrawals without penalty from the retirement accounts.)
The table below shows your after-tax investment returns after one year from your initial $1,000. Note that the pre-tax returns are the same as the returns in the TFSA row, as you don’t pay income taxes on returns you earn in your TFSA.
|One-Year After-tax Investment Returns ($)||Stocks||Mutual Funds||ETFs||Bonds|
This table below shows the taxes you paid on your returns during that year.
|Taxes Paid||Stocks||Mutual Funds||ETFs||Bonds|
When looking at these charts, remember that you paid income taxes on the money you contributed to your Taxable account and TFSA before you put it in the account. Those taxes are not considered in these comparisons. This post focuses on only the taxes you pay on your investment returns.
Comparison Different Financial Instruments Within Each Type of Account
Looking at across the rows, you can see that, for each type of account, stocks and mutual funds have the same one-year returns and tax payments. In this illustration, both stocks and mutual funds have the same split between dividends and appreciation. Your after-tax return on ETFs is higher than either stocks or mutual funds. All of the ETF return is assumed to be in the form of appreciation (i.e., no dividends), so only the lower capital-gain tax rate applies to your returns.
In all accounts, bonds have a lower after-tax return than any of the other three investments. Recall, though, that bonds generally provide a lower return on investment than stocks because they are less risky.
Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts
Looking down the columns, you can see the impact of the differences in tax rates by type of account for each financial instrument. You have more savings at the end of the year if you purchase a financial instrument in a TFSA than if you purchase it in either of the other two accounts for each type of investment.
The returns on investments in a taxable account are higher than on stocks, mutual funds and ETFs held in an RRSP. You pay taxes on the returns in a taxable account at their respective tax rates, i.e., at 50% of your usual rate on the capital gain portion of your investment return. However, you pay taxes on RRSP withdrawals at your full ordinary income tax rate. Because the ordinary income tax rate is higher than the capital gain tax rate, you have a higher after-tax return if you invest in a taxable account than an RRSP for one year. For bonds, the taxes and after-tax returns are the same in an RRSP and a taxable account because you pay taxes on returns in taxable accounts and distributions from RRSPs at your marginal ordinary income tax rate.
Remember, though, that you had to pay income taxes on the money you put into your account before you made the contribution, whereas you didn’t pay income taxes on the money before you put it into your RRSP.
Ten-Year Investment Period
I’ve used the same assumptions in the 10-year table below, with the exception that I’ve assumed that you will pay ordinary income taxes at a lower rate in 10 years because you will have retired by then. I’ve assumed that your marginal tax rate on ordinary income in retirement will be 20.5%.
|Ten-Year After-Tax Investment Returns ($)||Stocks||Mutual Funds||ETFs||Bonds|
Comparison Different Financial Instruments Within Each Type of Account
If you look across the rows, you see that you end up with the same amount of savings by owning stocks, mutual funds and ETFs if you put them in either of the retirement account options. The mix between capital gains, capital gain distributions and dividends doesn’t impact taxes paid in a tax-sheltered account, whereas it makes a big difference in taxable accounts, as can be seen by looking in the Taxable row.
In taxable accounts, ETFs provide the highest after-tax return because they don’t have any taxable transactions until you sell them. As discussed above, I have assumed that the stocks pay dividends every year. You have to pay taxes on the dividends before you can reinvest them, thereby reducing your overall savings as compared to an ETF. You have to pay taxes on both dividends and capital gain distributions from mutual funds before you can reinvest those proceeds, so they provide the least amount of savings of the three stock-like financial instruments in a taxable account.
Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts
Looking down the columns, we can compare your ending savings after 10 years from each financial instrument by type of account. You earn the highest after-tax return for every financial instrument if it is held in a TFSA, as you don’t pay any taxes.
For bonds, you earn a higher after-tax return in an RRSP than in a taxable account. The tax rate on interest is about the same as the tax rate on RRSP withdrawals. When you hold a bond in a taxable account, you have to pay income taxes every year on the coupons you earn before you can reinvest them. In an RRSP, you don’t pay tax until you withdraw the money, so you get the benefit of interest compounding (discussed in this post) before taxes. In addition, I have assumed that your ordinary income tax rate is lower in retirement, i.e., when you make your RRSP withdrawals.
Your after-tax return is slightly lower in a taxable account than in an RRSP for the three stock-like investments. The ability to compound your returns on a pre-tax basis more than offsets the higher tax rate you pay in the RRSP.
Illustration of Tax Deferral Benefit
The ability to compound your investment returns on a tax-deferred basis is an important one, so I’ll provide an illustration. To keep the illustration simple, let’s assume you have an asset that has a taxable return of 8% every year and that your tax rate is constant at 26% (regardless of the type of account).
The table below shows what happens over a three-year period.
|Returns and Taxes by Year||Taxable Account||RRSP|
|Return – Year 1||80||80|
|Tax – Year 1||21||0|
|Balance – Year 1||1,059||1,080|
|Return – Year 2||85||86|
|Tax – Year 2||22||0|
|Balance – Year 2||1,122||1,166|
|Return – Year 3||90||94|
|Tax – Year 3||23||0|
|Balance – Year 3||1,188||1,260|
By paying taxes in each year, you reduce the amount you have available to invest in subsequent years so you have less return.
The total return earned in the taxable account over three years is $255; in the tax-deferred account, $260. The total of the taxes for the taxable account is $66. Multiplying the $260 of return in the tax-deferred account by the 26% tax rate gives us $68 of taxes from that account. As such, the after-tax returns after three years are $188 in the taxable account and $192 in the tax-deferred account.
These differences might not seem very large, but they continue to compound the longer you hold your investments. For example, after 10 years, your after-tax returns on the tax-deferred account, using the above assumptions, would be almost 10% higher than on the taxable account.
Portfolios Using Tax-Efficient Investing
It is great to know that you get to keep the highest amount of your investment returns if you hold your financial instruments in a TFSA. However, there are limits on how much you can put in TFSAs each year. Also, some employers offer only an RRSP option. As a result, you may have savings that are currently invested in more than one of TFSA, RRSP or taxable account. You therefore will need to buy financial instruments in all three accounts, not just in a TFSA.
Here are some guidelines that will help you figure out which financial instruments to buy in each account:
- If there is a wide difference in total return, you’ll want to put your highest returning investments in your TFSA.
- For smaller differences in total return (e.g., less than 2 – 3 percentage points), it is better to put instruments with more distributions in your RRSP and then your TFSA, putting as few of them as possible in your taxable account.
- Instruments with slightly higher yields, but little to no distributions can be put in your taxable account.
- You’ll want to hold your lower return, higher distribution financial instruments, such as bonds, in your RRSP. There is a benefit to holding bonds in an RRSP as compared to a taxable account. The same tax rates apply to both accounts, but you don’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw the money from your RRSP, whereas you pay them annually in your taxable account.
Applying Tax-Efficient Investing to Two Portfolios
Let’s see how to apply these guidelines in practice using a couple of examples. To make the examples a bit more interesting, I’ve increased the annual appreciation on the ETF to 10% from 8%, assuming it is a higher risk/higher return type of ETF than the one discussed above. All of the other returns and tax assumptions are the same as in the table earlier in this post.
Portfolio Example 1
In the first example, you have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, an RRSP and a TFSA. You’ve decided that you want to invest equally in stocks, mutual funds and ETFs.
You will put your investment with the lowest taxable distributions each year – the ETF – in your taxable account. The stocks and mutual fund have higher taxable distributions each year, so it is better to put them in your tax-sheltered accounts. Because they have similar total returns in this example, it doesn’t matter how you allocate your stocks and mutual funds between your TFSA and RRSP.
Portfolio Example 2
In the second example, you again have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, an RRSP and a TFSA. In this example, you want to invest $15,000 in the high-yielding ETFs but offset the risk of that increased investment by buying $5,000 in bonds. You’ll split the remaining $10,000 evenly between stocks and mutual funds.
You again buy as much of your ETFs as you can in your taxable account. The remainder is best put in your TFSA, as the ETFs have the highest total return so you don’t want to pay any tax on the money when you withdraw it. The bonds have the lowest return, so it is best to put them in your RRSP as you will pay less tax on the lower bond returns than the higher stock or mutual fund returns. As in Example 1, it doesn’t matter how you allocate your stocks and mutual funds between your TFSA and RRSP.
Risks of Tax-Efficient Investing
There is a very important factor I’ve ignored in all of the above discussion – RISK (a topic I cover in great detail in this post). The investment returns I used above are all risky. That is, you won’t earn 3% dividends and 5% appreciation every year on the stocks or mutual funds or 10% on the ETFs. Those may be the long-term averages for the particular financial instruments I’ve used in the illustration, but you will earn a different percentage every year.
If your time horizon is short, say less than five to ten years, you’ll want to consider the chance that one or more of your financial instruments will lose value over that time frame. If you had perfect foresight, you would put your money-losing investments in your RRSP because you would reduce the portion of your taxable income taxed at the higher ordinary income tax by the amount of the loss when you withdraw the money. Just as the government gets a share of your profits, it also shares in your losses.
The caution is that financial instruments with higher returns also tend to be riskier. If you put your highest return investments – the ETFs in my example – in your TFSA, their value might decrease over a short time horizon. If they decrease, your after-tax loss is the full amount of the loss. If, instead, you had put that financial instrument in your RRSP, the government would share 26% of the loss in my example.
In conclusion, if you plan to allocate your investments using the above guidelines, be sure to adjust them if your time horizon is shorter than about 10 years to minimize the chance that you will have to keep all of a loss on any one financial instrument.