Lower gas prices can mean really big TFSA savings!

Many Canadians have grown accustomed to low mortgage rates and strong residential pricing, and now the price of gasoline is leaving a few more bucks in our pockets.  Don’t get too comfortable, because history teaches us that none of this is sustainable.  It is circumstances like the present that make seasoned money managers anxious.  While neophytes are happy to carelessly bathe in the sunshine, experts are usually getting ready for the next storm.  What can you do?  With lower gasoline prices providing some extra cash flow why not use the cash to bolster your savings?

One cloud on the horizon has been getting some attention of late.  The massive global financial stimulus that has caused interest rates to remain low for so long has had a predictable impact on our collective behaviour.  Canadians have borrowed money like there’s no tomorrow.

Household Debt vs Disponable IncomeAccording to data from Statistics Canada, our total borrowing has been on a steady incline since 1990, while servicing the debt has been eating away at our disposable income.  Sure, we tightened our belts some during the financial crisis, but the temptation to borrow at low rates has just been too much to overcome.

It is difficult to save money, when so little of one’s income is disposable.  And most financial advisers would recommend that it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense to save money at all when you owe money.  It makes far more financial sense to pay down your debt.  Based on numbers alone, this is sound advice.  But our behaviour is seldom governed by numbers alone – we are indeed a complex species.

For example, contributing to your RRSP provides a tax savings in the same year your contribute right?  So where does it go?  A strictly numbers analysis espousing the merits of RRSPs would certainly factor in those savings to illustrate how effective they are at growing your wealth, but I am inclined to agree with the Wealthy Barber (David Chilton) who frequently points out (and I am paraphrasing here) that those dollars you supposedly ‘saved’ were most probably squandered, not saved.  If the tax savings were indeed invested, then it is true that one’s net worth might grow.  However the iPhone, piece of furniture or other consumer good bought with that tax refund hardly qualifies as savings now does it?

Does it make any sense at all to save when wallowing in debt?  I would argue most emphatically YES!  According to an IPSOS Reid poll published in October:  “The average working Canadian believes they would need $45,609 in savings to sustain themselves for a year should they be off work due to illness.”  Where would this money come from?  In real life, a portion of it would be required for food and lodging yet some of it will be needed just to pay the mortgage or rent.  I’d bet that the average Canadian polled would no doubt have seriously underestimated the amount needed to live on while not working (for whatever reason).  In the same poll roughly 68% admitted to having some or lots of debt – suggesting that 1/3rd of Canadians have none?  Pardon me if I suspect that a good percentage of those polled might also have been too embarrassed to answer candidly even if their responses remained anonymous – we are Canadians after all and loathe to taint our conservative image.

Now is an ideal time to bump up your savings!

Where will the extra cash come from to begin a more aggressive savings program?  Let’s start at the gas pump.  We all feel a bit of relief simply watching the price of gasoline come down when fueling, but has anyone really considered how much they might now be pocketing because of lower energy prices?  In April of 2014 Canadians were paying a near-record $1.50 per litre.  Just 6 months ago the price of gasoline in Toronto was 139.9 cents a litre and today (I am writing this on December 10) it is 103.9 cents.  That’s a whopping 25% decrease.  Say a motorist was spending $50 in after-tax dollars a week.  If they price of gas simply stays at 103.9 the cost savings are $12.50 a week which is equivalent to $650 of annual savings requiring about $1000 of your pre-tax income.  If there is more than one vehicle in a family? Let’s keep it simple and assume $1000 in annual family savings simply from the lower gasoline price.  Never mind that other energy costs (heating) and transportation costs (flights) will also create savings.  What if you simply invested that amount every year and earned a rate of return on it?  It will grow to a handsome sum.  Unfortunately, you will have to pay taxes on those returns but more about that later.

Growth in $1000 annually

 

Of course it’s unreasonable to expect gas prices to remain at these levels or fall lower.  It is also not wise to anticipate more generous rates of return.  In point of fact, it is foolhardy to expect or anticipate anything at all.  Returns will be what they will be, and gas prices are determined by market forces that the experts have trouble understanding.

Does the uncertainty we must live with mean that savings might just as well be spent on the fly?  As I tell students studying to be financial planners; one must start somewhere and there are two things worth acknowledging up front:

1)  The power of compounding (letting money earn money by investing it) is very real, as evidenced by the table.

2)  It makes sense to have a cushion in the event of a loss of income, the desire to pay down some debt, make a purchase or just retire.

Yes it makes more financial sense to have no debt at all, but the majority of Canadians will borrow for those things they want now rather than later, like a home or car.  If you must borrow, why not save as well?  Fortunately we have been gifted the perfect savings vehicle.  The Tax Free Savings Account introduced in 2009 has advantages that make it an ideal place to park money you are saving at the gas pump.  The returns you earn in the account are tax-free.  With GIC rates as low as they are, you might be inclined to say ‘so big deal?’ But any financial adviser over 45 years of age (I admit, there aren’t many) can tell you that low interest rates are temporary, and besides you can and will earn better returns over the longer term in equity mutual funds just as an example.

TFSA Contribution LimitsOf course there are limits (see table) to what you are allowed to contribute, but best of all they are cumulative.  In other words, if you haven’t contributed your limit since 2009, you can ‘catch up’ at any time.  Including 2014, you have a right to have put up to $31,000 into the account.   Also the contribution limit rises (is indexed) over time with the rate of inflation.  Perhaps most important, you can withdraw money from the account tax-free.  Your contributions were already taxed (there’s no tax deduction when contributing like when you put funds into an RRSP), and the investment returns are all yours to keep.  Using your TFSA means that won’t have to pay those taxes and the effects of compounding aren’t diminished.  To top it off, you are allowed to replace any money you’ve withdrawn in following years.

The seasoned money manager will want some flexibility in the event that he is blindsided.  With your TFSA savings you too will enjoy more flexibility.  If interest rates are higher when you renegotiate your mortgage, taking money out of your TFSA to reduce the principal amount might help reduce your monthly payments to affordable levels.  Should the economy take a turn for the worse over the next several years and you lose your job, then you’ll have some extra cash available to retire debt and help with living expenses.  For younger Canadians saving money at the gas pump? Investing the extra cash flow in your TFSA account will certainly help towards building a healthy deposit for your first home.

  • Don’t squander the cash you are saving thanks to low energy prices.
  • Your TSFA if you have one, allows you to invest those savings and the returns you earn are tax free.
  • If you don’t have a TFSA, then get one.
  • Be sure to use only qualified investments and do not over-contribute. The penalties are severe.
  • Money earned on your investments is tax-free.
  • Take out cash when you need it, and put it back when you can.
  • When you retire, money withdrawn from your TFSA does not count as taxable income.

 

Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.
Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.