1. Put proper investments in proper accounts

We’ll start with the basics: make sure you think about which type of investment goes in each type of account.

Let’s start with bonds. Bonds pay interest, which is fully taxable at your marginal tax rate. This can be especially harmful to your returns if you are in a higher tax bracket.

You’ll want to stick your bonds into either your TFSA or RRSP to lessen the impact of taxes.

Canadian stocks can be safely held in any account. These companies pay dividends, which are taxed at a much better rate than interest, thanks to the Dividend Tax Credit.

You can avoid paying any dividend or capital gains taxes by putting domestic stocks in your TFSA or RRSP. Many investors can easily do this, but some have maxed out both accounts.

Finally, the thing to remember when it comes to the U.S. or other foreign stocks is you’ll be stuck paying a foreign withholding tax if you have these securities in either a taxable or TFSA account.

Once again, this can be avoided if you stick your U.S. or foreign stock ETFs into your RRSP.

Many investors won’t have a taxable account. They don’t even max out their RRSP or TFSA space simply because they run out of capital. If that’s you, then just make sure your international stocks end up in an RRSP and use your TFSA for Canadian stocks.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a short-term ETF trader or a long-term investor, minimizing taxes is an easy way to ensure more dollars end up in your pocket, exactly where they belong.

2. Take advantage of short-term bets

ETF trading is an easy way to bet on certain trends over the short term. Using these diverse investments is much easier than picking one or two stocks — and it’s usually safer too.

For example, you could research hundreds of oil producers currently trading on North American stock exchanges and invest in a few of the better operators.

But that carries a certain amount of risk. What happens if a company runs into an unforeseen problem?

Using individual stocks versus an ETF adds another layer of complexity to the trade. First, you must get the overall thesis right. Then, you must use your knowledge to pick the right stock.

It’s tough enough to get the first part of that equation right. The last thing you want to do is get the thesis right and then pick the wrong stock.

This is where buying an ETF really makes sense. If oil marches higher, an energy ETF like iShares S&P TSX Capped Energy Index Fund (TSX: XEG) will also go up.

Some of the individual companies that make up the ETF will be left behind, but they won’t matter. If oil cooperates, the ETF will be a good investment.

Making bets on a sector using ETFs will also save you on commission costs. Remember, it’s free to buy ETFs if you use Questrade as your online broker.

You’ll only have to pay a fee when you sell, and even then, it’s one of the lowest among all the online brokers.

If you don’t want to pay any commissions at all, try Wealthsimple Trade account — a mobile-only app that allows you to buy and sell stocks and ETFs for free.

3. Use dollar-cost averaging

Slowly putting savings to work in various assets isn’t a strategy that will impress a lot of people at a dinner party, but it’s effective, simple, and anyone can do.

Let’s face it. Many short-term trading techniques, complicated trading systems, and various other ways investors use to eke out extra returns are only as good as the person using the strategy.

Sure, many folks use these methods effectively, but many more struggle with them. Some even end up losing money.

Dollar-cost averaging, meanwhile, is a worthwhile pursuit because it’s simple. All you need to do is put aside a certain amount from your paycheque, invest it in your desired asset allocation, and watch the dollars pile up over the years.

The simplicity of dollar-cost averaging is one of its biggest downfalls, although that’s not the strategy’s fault. Investors will often tinker with a perfectly good portfolio simply because they’re impatient or because they feel the need to do something.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to maximize returns. Just remember to do so effectively. Stick to useful trading strategies proven to work.

4. Hedge your portfolio

Using an ETF to guard against big declines is an easy way to protect your portfolio from market crashes. I bet many investors wished they would have done this before COVID-19 crushed their portfolios.

Sophisticated investors will usually use options to hedge against potential declines.

But options are risky for average Joe investors. You need a certain amount of expertise to properly use them. Many investors don’t even bother delving into this complex part of the market, and I don’t blame them. It’s just not worth the risk.

Besides, it’s easy to use ETFs to hedge your portfolio. Say you have a big percentage of your investable assets in an ETF that tracks the TSX Composite Index.

You can then take a smaller part of your portfolio and use it to short the same index. This limits your upside when the market keeps going up but nicely protects your assets if stocks fall.

Another way to use ETFs to hedge against market declines is to buy an inverse ETF. These ETFs go up when the underlying index goes down, acting as a perfect hedge without going to all the trouble of physically shorting.

They’re a better solution for less sophisticated investors because you buy them just like a regular ETF. You get the hedge without having to worry about the stresses of shorting.

5. Get smarter ETFs

Instead of using a simple portfolio of ETFs, investors may be able to get extra returns by using some savvy strategies.

Generally, these more complex ETFs are grouped into something called smart beta strategies.

These are passive investment vehicles that use certain strategies to try and get higher returns than an underlying index or similar returns without as much risk. Investors can either actively trade these ETFs or hold them passively over the long term.

For instance, there’s evidence an equal-weighted index fund outperforms a market cap-weighted one, especially when we look at S&P 500 stocks.

The difference in returns over the last decade is approximately 1% per year, and that’s even after investors pay a higher fee for an equal-weighted S&P 500 index fund. That really adds up over time.

Many smart investors are convinced momentum trading strategies work as well, something investors can easily use with ETFs.

There are a million different momentum strategies, but they all follow the same basic framework. Investors buy ETFs that are going up and continue to hold until the underlying momentum starts to fizzle out.

They then sell and move on to the next strong ETF. If nothing meets the qualifications, then these investors just wait on the sidelines for the market to improve again.

There are many other smart beta strategies out there, with hundreds of ETFs dedicated to them.

One way investors can try to use them to get extra returns is to buy in when a strategy isn’t working. If an equal-weight ETF outperforms a market cap-weighted one, then there should be additional upside potential if you buy when the equal-weight ETF is out of favour.

Another simple trading strategy investors can use to help maximize ETF returns is to use tax-loss harvesting. When tax loss harvesting, investors simply replace an ETF that’s gone down in value with a similar ETF that doesn’t track the same index, locking in a tax loss.

Those losses can then be used to offset gains at tax time, which helps keep more of your cash away from government taxation.

One of the big advantages of using a robo-advisor like Wealthsimple is that it takes care of tax-loss harvesting for you.

It’s the perfect solution for a lazy investor who wants to use certain ETF trading tips but also doesn’t want to put in the work required.

The bottom line

Many investors simply buy and hold ETFs over the long term, choosing to use simple strategies like putting bonds in their RRSPs and Canadian dividend stocks in their taxable accounts.

That’s likely a sound long-term move. But I believe smart investors who use some ETF trading techniques can do a little better.

These strategies don’t have to be super complex, either. Sure, you can actively trade ETFs, or you can just use various smart beta strategies to try and maximize your portfolio.

Most people end up tinkering with simple ETF strategies anyway. If that’s you, then it’s best to make sure you’re doing so intelligently.

Also, don’t forget to check out The best ETFs in Canada when building your own portfolio. It might even make you richer come retirement time.

Nelson Smith Freelance Contributor

Nelson Smith is a finance writer focusing on investing, real estate, and other personal finance topics. He has been investing for more than 15 years, and is now sharing his wisdom to help other investors build up a solid stream of passive income.


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