Paying Down Student Loans vs. Contributing to an RRSP

There are many people, me being one of them, who ask themselves “should I put money into my RRSP or pay down my debts?” For very high interest debt, such as credit cards and bank overdraft, this type of debt should always be paid down before anything else. For other debt such as student loans, bank loans, and mortgages, the answer is less obvious.

I have come up with a good, simple example, to answer the above question. Imagine you had at least $1000 room in your RRSP and you owed $10,000 at 7% as of January 2006. In January 2006, you have a choice of either putting your next paycheque (of $1000) towards an RRSP invested in a balanced portfolio of bonds and equities, or towards the $10000 loan. You can do nothing else with your loan or your RRSP until January of the following year.

  • Case 1: If, in January 2006, you put $1000 towards the $10,000 loan, you would be left with $9,000. Over the next year, you would be charged $630 in interest, a savings of $70 over what you would have paid had the loan principal still been $10,000. Your net worth based on the RRSP and the loan would be -$9,000 – $630 = -$9,630 at the end of the year.
  • Case 2: If, in January 2006, you put $1000 into the RRSP invested in a balanced portfolio of bonds and equities. To be conservative, we will assume that it will appreciate by 7%, however, it doesn’t really matter so much as we will not be realizing any value on this portfolio for years to come (until we retire, presumably). After one year, the RRSP portfolio will have appreciated by $70. In April 2005, you will receive a tax refund. Assuming a marginal tax rate of a modest 18%, you will receive $180 in refunded taxes in April. You can then apply this to your loan in April or put it in your RRSP. Let’s keep the calculation simple and just hold it as cash until the end of the year (not a smart thing to do in practice, as technically you owe that $180, more or less, to the government later on). During the year, our loan accumulates $700 in interest. At the end of the year our net worth will be -$10,000 – $700 + $1000 + $70 + $180 = -$9,450.

In Case 2, we are $180 richer than in Case 1. This came directly from the RRSP tax credit as the amount that the RRSP holdings grew by was exactly compensated by the extra amount we owed on the loan. This demonstrates the power of RRSPs. The $1000 + $180 is now pre-tax dollars. The government has refunded us the $180 in taxes on that $1000. The $180 is not free money, as we now owe the government some taxes when we take our money out of the RRSP when we retire. It is our hope, however, the when we retire we will be in a lower tax bracket and the $180 in taxes will actually be less (let’s say $150). So really we are $30 ahead, not $180, but still, thanks to tax deferral (deferring taxes on income until we retire), we are ahead.

One strategy is to contribute monthly to your maximum allowable limit, then to apply the tax credit in April to your loans. The tax deducted from your paychecks acts as a forced savings device for an annual loan principal payment.

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