Sunday, October 18, 2020

LIF Withdrawal Maximum - The 2nd Rule / CRA Installment Payments

I wrote most of this blog entry at the beginning of the year before COVID hit, which now seems like a life-time ago.  I lost track of it in midst of the pandemic, kept busy with assessing the economic impact of business closures on our investment portfolio and dividend income (more on that in my annual Year-End in Review to be posted in January).  Much of the content of this posting may not be relevant for the foreseeable future, since it was predicated on an exceptionally strong year for the stock market (i.e. 2019 - as I said, a life-time ago!).  Since 2020 is coming to a close, I decided to publish this anyways in hopes that one day, we will see good times again.

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I have long complained about how unfair and paternalistic the rules are for a Life Income Fund (LIF), which places restrictions on the maximum that you can withdraw from it each year.  These rules are based on the premise that, left unchecked, an individual would blow through his retirement savings and have nothing left towards the end of his life.  As someone who is very good at managing money and planning for the future, I feel unnecessarily constrained by these restrictions and have looked for every opportunity to increase the rate at which I can "free my money" into my own control.

At the beginning of 2020, which marked my second full year of making LIF withdrawals, I was surprised by the calculation for my LIF maximum.  Up until now, I was only aware of the rule that calculates my expected LIF maximum for the year based on my age on January 1, my LIF balance at the end of December 31 of the previous year, and the posted annuity factor.  This slowly increasing factor is meant to make your money last until age 90.  I even have a spreadsheet listing the annuity factor and projected LIF maximum for each year.  Accordingly at age 56, I was expecting to only be able to withdraw around 6.57% of the value of my LIF.
 
Imagine my surprise when my LIF maximum for 2020 came to about 27% of the value of my account!  I thought this was a mistake and tried to get an explanation from my discount broker Scotia iTrade.  Unfortunately the agent on the phone did not know the answer and I did not get a response from the question that I posted on the Communications page of their website until three weeks later (by which time, I had already figured it out - Thank You Google!).  Left on my own to find the answer, I read up in more detail about LIF Maximum Withdrawal Rules on the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA) website which controls my locked in company pension (converted into a Locked-In Income Fund in 2018) and clarified the rules for Ontario.  This is what I discovered:

I was not aware of the second rule which allows you to take out the investment gains from the previous year.  I had collapsed my LIRA into a LIF at the end of 2018 and immediately moved 50% to my RRIF under the one-time FSRA provision.  Accordingly there were no investment gains when my maximum was calculated for 2019 and I fell under the first rule.  Given the great year for the TSX in 2019 and the good dividends generated from the stocks held in my LIF, the account actually grew by over 27% by the end of the year.  This meant that in 2020, my LIF maximum was significantly higher than anticipated!

When I finally received an official response from Scotia iTrade, it clarified the second rule even further.  This value is calculated as:
In my case, since I did not have any net transfers in or out, this calculation for my 2020 LIF Maximum consisted of the following:
LIF Value Y/E 2019 – LIF Value Y/E 2018 + (LIF Withdrawal incl. Withholding Tax 2018)

With this new knowledge and understanding, I will be able to better predict and plan for my LIF withdrawal going forward.

Then came the quandary.  Should I take advantage of what could potentially be a one-time opportunity to take an unexpectedly large sum of value out of my LIF?  If markets are not as strong in 2020, I may not have this same opportunity and would fall back to the first rule of the calculated percentage which will come to 6.63% in 2021 when I will be 57.  The forgone opportunity to withdraw 27% from my LIF cannot be rolled over to the following year and would be lost forever.  

But taking out this unplanned maximum would push my 2020 income significantly higher than expected, increasing my income tax burden.  I also had not saved enough cash within my LIF to pay the withholding tax and would need to sell some stock in the account to generate it.  Additionally, I would need to scale back the larger withdrawal that I had planned for within my RRIF, where I did have the extra cash to cover the withholding tax.  My overall goal is to drastically reduce the value of my registered accounts by the time I am age 71, so that I will not be subjected to as much claw-back of Old Age Security (OAS) payments, which are indexed for inflation.  For the past few years, I have concentrated on my RRIF but now came an opportunity to deal with my LIF. 

After some thought, I decided that I could not pass up this opportunity.  Instead, I would withdraw the allowed maximum from my LIF and take the one-time hit to my net income level.  As has been my strategy for the past few years, I would take a portion of this withdrawal as stock-in-kind to move to my non-registered account where it will continue to generate dividend income at a better tax rate.  The rest of the withdrawal would be taken in cash and paid up front as withholding tax.  Rather than paying the minimum required withholding tax, I would pay enough to cover my projected overall tax burden generated not just from this LIF but from all of my registered and non-registered accounts.  I am able to obtain a fairly close estimate of this future 2020 tax burden by entering anticipated income figures into my 2019 tax software.  

To generate the cash to cover the withholding tax, I put in a "limit-sell" for some shares of one of my stocks and was able to sell at a decent price while locking in some tax-free capital gain.  By voluntarily paying extra withholding tax as part of my LIF withdrawal, I avoid the need for the government to put me on a mandated tax installment payment plan in future years.  CRA installment payments are required when insufficient tax is deducted at source.  The requirement for installment payments is as follows: 

No tax is deducted for any of the dividend payments that my husband Rich and I receive and split as income from our jointly held non-registered account.  The minimum withholding tax charged on my registered account withdrawals would not be enough to put me under the "net tax owed" threshold to avoid the requirement for installment payments.  Rather than needing to adhere to a fixed schedule (usually quarterly) for paying taxes throughout the year and having to make sure that I have the funds available for each period, I would rather be in control of when I pay and prefer to do it in one or two lump sums.  This way I can sell stock at an opportune time in order to fund the payment(s) and I can pay amounts closer to what I actually owe, as opposed to the CRA estimates that are based on previous years' net taxes owed.

My initial motivation for paying more withholding tax up front was a means to help the economy during the COVID crisis by paying my income tax debt to the government ahead of the regular due date.   Now with the possibility of being imposed installment payments, I would not be paying that far in advance anyway.

Taking advantage of the second rule of LIF Withdrawal limits was probably a good decision since it may be a while before these conditions present themselves again.   A similar situation happened for Rich, but since the size of his LIF is much smaller, withdrawing the maximum would not have the same effect on his annual income as it did for me, and he actually had enough cash saved up to cover the withholding tax.  So this was an easy decision for him to take advantage of this year's extraordinary maximum withdrawal allowance.  This large withdrawal followed by the initial market crash incurred after the start of the pandemic caused the value of his LIF to drop below the "Small Amount Rule" which allowed him to collapse his LIF all together and move the money into his RRIF.  I discussed this in a previous blog entry.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

3.5 Months Into the Pandemic ...

It has been over three months since everything first shut down due to the pandemic.  We have now gone through an entire "COVID-impacted" quarter of dividend payouts (or lack thereof) since the depth of the market crash in mid March.  This seems like a good time to reflect upon the economic fallout of COVID 19 and its financial impact on our portfolio. 

My husband Rich and I have been through market downturns before, including the financial crisis of 2008.  That situation was less stressful for us since we were both still working and had time to wait for a recovery.  In fact, that recession was a great time for us to buy stock at a discount and probably hastened our ability to retire when we did.  We saw it as a successful test of our retirement strategy of basing our income on dividends as opposed to the value of the stock.  Although stock prices plummeted, our dividends held strong.  It helped that only limited sectors were affected and for the most part, these were not sectors that we were heavily invested in.  Also since we limit the size of our holdings in any one company, we would be only slightly impacted by any company that did cut or eliminate its dividend.  In addition, it proved that we had the risk-tolerance and fortitude to concentrate on the dividends and not panic even while the total value of our portfolio fell drastically. We were tested again in 2015 when the markets fell 11% from the previous year for various reasons including worry over China's economy and its impact on the rest of the world.  That time we were 3 years into retirement.  But once again we stood pat, our dividends held, and by 2016 we had recovered all of our "paper" losses and were on the rise again.

Those two experiences helped to prepare us for the unprecedented decimation of the markets that resulted when COVID 19 led to the closure of all businesses except for "essential services".  This time all sectors across the board were affected in a major fashion.  Granted that stock values were probably inflated at their height back in mid February.  But at the bottom of the crash in March, the TSX/S&P index had fallen by over 37%!  At one point, the 1-year returns of every one of our stock holdings were in the red by double digits, some having lost over 50% of their value.  Once again, we ignore the value of our portfolio and look only at the impact to our dividends.

This time we did not escape unscathed.  Six of the companies that we own have either slashed or totally eliminated their dividend payouts.  We already knew about a couple of these from the last quarter.  They included Cineplex (CGX - more on this later) who understandably stopped payments since they were not making any revenue with their theatres closed, and Chemtrade (CHE.UN), an already struggling company who cut their dividend by 50%.  Husky Oil (HSE) was another troubled company that was on our radar for the potential of a dividend reduction.  Rather than totally eliminating it, Husky cut their dividend by 90%, now paying out just 10% of what it used to for the past 1.5 years.  In my opinion, leaving just 10% of your previous payout is a weak attempt at being able to claim that you are still a dividend-paying stock.  I closely track our dividend payouts each month and this measly amount is almost not worth my time to log.  However Rich thinks that it is an indication that the company hopes to resurrect a healthier dividend once their finances improve.  Methanex (MX), a producer of Methanol which has been affected by weak oil prices, used the same tactic by cutting their dividend by 90%. 

A&W Revenue Royalty Income Fund (AW.UN) took the opposite approach by totally eliminating their dividend payout, but declaring up front that this is a "temporary measure" while its restaurant chains closed at the start of the pandemic.  Now that the restaurants are starting to reopen again, hopefully this means that eventually the dividend will return.  Suncor (SU) was the most interesting case, since they actually raised their dividend by 10% back in the first quarter and then clawed it back before cutting its dividend by 50%.  So the net result is that Suncor has cut its dividend by the unusual amount of 55% since their previous payout.

The impact of these dividend reductions was tempered by the fact that 5/6 of them were situated in our registered accounts.  Having already made the bulk of our annual LIF and RRIF withdrawals at the beginning of this year, we can now defer next year's mandatory withdrawals up to the end of 2021, which gives us over a year and a half to wait for these companies to recover both in value and dividend payouts.  For the past few years, we have been making our RRIF/LIF withdrawals by moving stock-in-kind into our non-registered account, from which we withdraw the dividends to spend as income.  We usually move the more stable stocks, leaving companies in riskier or more cyclical sectors in the registered accounts.  This worked out especially well this year, since none of the stock that we withdrew cut their dividends.  Because of our strategy of moving stock-in-kind as opposed to selling stock and withdrawing cash, it would have actually been better had we made the withdrawals during the lowest point of the market. For the same amount of taxable income generated from the withdrawal, we could have moved more dividend-paying shares to the non-registered account at a lower share price.  But who could have predicted this latest market downturn?

The one dividend cut that directly impacted our annual income was Cineplex, which we hold both in our registered and non-registered account.  Cineplex had been a solid dividend-paying company that increased their payout annually since 2011, even though their share price had declined since we first bought it.  Things looked bright for this stock when it was announced at the end of 2019 that the company would be bought out by British company Cineworld for the price of $34 per share.  With that announcement, the market price of Cineplex shot up by over $10 to match and even momentarily slightly exceed the buyout price.  At that point, we considered cashing out our Cineplex shares in advance of the sale.  But inertia and the desire to continue reaping the seemingly solid dividend payout for a few more months led to us hanging on to the shares until the sale.  Then COVID 19 hit, Cineplex closed all their theatres, their share price plummeted, they eliminated their dividend payment and now Cineworld has backed out of the buyout deal.  The lost opportunity of selling our Cineplex shares and the loss of dividend income that those shares provided is regrettable, but our diverse portfolio is structured so that no one company's misfortunes will hurt us too badly.  There is no point to sell now at these depressed prices, especially since theatres are starting to reopen.  We will just continue to hold our Cineplex shares and hope for a rebound, while we watch the unfolding drama as the company sues Cineworld for breach of contract.

The news was not all bad in this second quarter.  Two more of our stock, Finning International (FTT) and Sunlife Financial (SLF), decided to not raise their dividend payouts, joining Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS) and Canadian Apartments (CAR.UN)  who did the same in the first quarter.  Despite having raised their dividends annually for multiple years, given the state of the economy, we considered this a win.  Three of our stock, Algonquin Power (AQN), Hydro One (H) and Power Corporation (POW), actually raised their dividends.  Not surprisingly, all three of these companies are in the Utilities sector which did not suffer as much from the pandemic-induced shutdowns.

During all this, there were two anomalies that made it look like two solid companies had reduced their dividends, but did not.  First Telus (T) initiated a 2-for-1 stock split, making it seem on the surface as if their dividend was cut in half.  In reality, we ended up with twice the number of shares at half the dividend rate and came out even.  Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (BIP.UN) made an even more complicated move when they split off a small portion of their company to create Brookfield Infrastructure Corp (BIPC).  For every 9 shares of BIP.UN, we received 1 share of BIPC and the dividend for both companies adjusted accordingly.  It took a bit of math to prove to myself that we came out with the same payouts between the two companies that we originally had with just BIP.UN, but we did.  One interesting thing to note is that unlike BIP.UN, BIPC is not an income trust, so eventually we could move shares of this company from our registered to our non-registered account without generating tax complications that come with holding income trusts in non-registered accounts.

So what has been the net effect on our portfolio and our dividend income after 3.5 months of the pandemic?  As indicated in my previous blog post, 19 of our 46 companies had raised their dividends in the first quarter, with Suncor being the only one that subsequently cut it in the second quarter.  This means that despite the cuts that we received, so far our overall annual dividend income is higher than it was at the end of last year.  The pandemic is far from over yet, but the worst of the market roil seems to hopefully be over?  If that turns out to be the case, then we will have survived the "mother of all" market downturns and it feels like if we can make it through this with our income relatively intact, then we can survive anything.   With stock prices still depressed relative to before COVID 19 struck, we continue to use Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP) in our registered accounts to purchase more stock from the companies whose holdings we wish to grow.

Because so many activities have been inaccessible or undesirable to us over the past three months, our spending continues to be concentrated mainly on mandatory costs such as condo fees, utilities, household supplies and groceries.  During this period, we totally eliminated our usual spending on transit, hair cuts, dental appointments, discretionary shopping trips, and entertainment activities such as going to the theatre or movies and dining out at restaurants.  We have no plans for vacation spending for the rest of the year and have drastically reduced our driving costs.  For the first time since we retired, we have actually been able to add regularly to our emergency kitty funds stored in our high-interest savings accounts.  In the months of April and May, our average spending was almost 50% less than in previous years.  Now part of that was because we were also not charged property tax for two months and are paying a temporarily reduced utility rate on our hydro usage.  In June, as the property tax bills restarted and more restaurants opened up for takeout, our relative savings dropped by around 25% which is probably a more realistic rate going forward.

As described in my book Retired At 48 - One Couple's Journey to a Pensionless Retirement, we use Quicken both to accurately categorize our spending for ease of running reports, but also to predict up-coming spending needs to ensure that we always have enough cash flow, either coming from our dividends or augmented from our short or long term kitties.  So when our monthly property tax was deferred for two months, I post-dated the expenses in Quicken to remind myself that this money would come due eventually.

All in all, Rich and I have been quite fortunate throughout the pandemic since we were already retired and did not have jobs to lose or stress over, and our retirement income has so far held up quite well.  I read an article in the Globe and Mail back in March about ways that people who were financially secure could help out the economy.   We have implemented some of these ideas including regularly ordering takeout from our local restaurants and going to pick up the food so that delivery services do not eat into the profits, buying gift cards for future spending, donating to charities including the Red Cross, and accepting credits from theatres for future shows instead of getting refunds for cancelled performances.  One interesting suggestion that helps the economy in general is to file and pay your income taxes early.  We did this for our 2019 tax filings, paying at the beginning of May instead of taking advantage of the deferred payment deadline of September 1. Since Rich needs to make another small RRIF withdrawal to reach his annual RRIF minimum, he may opt to pay more withholding tax than would normally be required, as a way to reduce the tax owed in 2020 and also continue to help replenish the government coffers.  I realize that our small contributions won't do much if anything to address the overwhelming deficit that is being racked up during the pandemic, but hopefully every little bit helps?

Monday, March 23, 2020

Looking for Silver Linings in the Face of Economic Turmoil and Other Musings

Things are dire in the markets right now. The TSX/S&P index is down over 28% since the beginning of the year with our investments following suit. While we have a fairly diversified stock portfolio, that helps little in situations like this where all sectors are down across the board.  Our strategy of relying on dividends rather than the value of our stock will buffer us to a large degree. We are always at risk of dividend cuts but since we hold shares in so many different companies, no one company's dividend cut would substantially hurt our income situation.  Most of our companies are large cap, blue chip organizations that should be able to withstand what hopefully will be a temporary setback, but it is something that we will need to keep an eye on.  While a few of these companies may consider temporarily suspending any regularly scheduled dividend increases, most will be hesitant to cut dividends since this will be admitting weakness. The same premise held true for the Financial crash of 2008, although those were different circumstances.

Using TMX Money and Morningstar websites as information sources, I took inventory of our holdings to see where we stood in terms of upcoming dividend payments.  We are lucky that many of the companies whose stock we own have already declared their dividends earlier in 1Q2020 and are therefore obliged (legally?) to pay out at least through April.  A significant number of them even declared increases in dividend, right on schedule at the same time that they have for the past 3-5+ years.  It is interesting to note though that most of these declarations occurred before the MAJOR market free-fall that started around the beginning of March.  The only stock that still committed to a dividend increase after the beginning of March is Premium Brands (PBH) which declared mid March. I wonder if they regret it now?

By contrast, Canadian Apartment Properties (CAR.UN) also declared in mid March but did not raise its dividend as per schedule for the first time since 2012.  Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS) typically declares a dividend raise twice a year, payable in April and October.  There was no dividend raise for April 2020, even though the dividend was declared back in mid February, prior to the crash.  I wonder if the bank could foresee what was coming?

We hold stock in a few financially fragile companies who might not be able to withstand the downturn, especially those in industries directly hit by the reduction in business caused by self-quarantine and social distancing measures.  Already Cineplex (CGX) has missed its monthly scheduled dividend declaration date, which leads to the reasonable assumption that they will not be paying any dividends while their theatres remain closed.  Chemtrade Logistics (CHE.UN) has already declared that it will slash its April dividend in half.  Whether this is temporary or permanent is to be determined since Chemtrade has been struggling for a while now.  The companies that pay out monthly, like CGX and CHE.UN, have less time to ride out the storm than those that pay quarterly.  Corus Entertainment (CJR.B) and Husky Oil (HSE) already declared their 1st quarter dividend and do not need to decide on their next declaration until mid April and mid May respectively.  So these companies have a bit of time to wait and see if there will be a miraculous market recovery in the interim.  In the meantime, their share prices have plummeted to the point that their dividend yields are dangerously in the double digit range.

It will be telling to see what happens for our next set of companies who usually make their 2nd quarter dividend declarations around the end of April to mid May for payout between June to July.  While all of these companies have taken hits to their share prices, hopefully most of them will be able to ride it out and wait for a recovery.  It would not be surprising if they skip their annual dividend raises, but we just hope that they don't reduce their dividend payouts, temporarily or otherwise.

As with the last financial crisis in 2008, the secret is to stick to our "buy and hold" strategy and not succumb to the frenzy of panic selling that is currently sweeping the markets.  This would only lock in what is otherwise just transient losses on paper.  We can withstand minor cuts to our dividend income while we wait out the end of the pandemic.  In fact, there are various ways to benefit from the downturn, just as there were in 2008, although this time the situation is a bit more dire, extreme and unpredictable.

As of right now, all stocks across the board are "on sale".  It is a fine time for those waiting to get into the market, although it is difficult to know when prices have bottomed out. Since we are in retirement spending mode as opposed to retirement savings mode, we do not have much spare cash available to take advantage of the depressed market.  However we are able to DRIP (Dividend Reinvestment Plan) in our registered accounts (RRSP, RRIF, TFSA) in order to buy small amounts of stock at relatively lower prices each time we are paid a dividend from various companies. 

Since COVID-19 has forced the cancellation or closure of most of the social activities that constitute our "discretionary" spending, we actually have significantly less spending and more cash flow for the month of March. We have received refunds for pre-paid travel expenses, theatre tickets, movie events, tennis fees, gym memberships and more.  Social distancing and the mandated closure of all non-essential shops, services and entertainment options means that discretionary spending has been reduced to just about zero.  We can no longer dine at restaurants and the need to take transit or fill up gas to drive anywhere has trickled to a halt since there is nowhere to go.  We are left with only "mandatory" expenses to pay for.  Our monthly credit card bill for March is the lowest that it has been in years and this trend should continue until the crisis is over.  This should help any dividend hit that we incur.

Part of the contingency factored into our early retirement plan was the ability to scale back discretionary spending if we ever fell behind in our annual retirement projections.  To date, this has not been required since we went through so many great years in the stock market that we are now way ahead of plan.  But this enforced reduction in our spending opportunities has provided a good chance to reassess the cost of the bare-bones minimum monthly expenditures in our budget.  At this point, we are down to condo fees, property tax, hydro bills, utilities (cell phones, internet, cable), food, medicine, sundries (like toilet paper!?!) and NETFLIX (in order to survive the boredom!!).  I doubt that anyone stuck at home for such extended periods of time would debate that internet access and TV/Streaming services have become mandatory expenses.

One unexpected side-effect resulted from the massive loss in value in all of our accounts.  My husband Rich's locked-in Life Income Fund (LIF) is governed by strict rules that limit the maximum that you can withdraw each year, with the goal of making the funds last until age 90.  One of the few exceptions is the "Small Amount" Rule for Ontario which states:

If you are at least 55 years old and the total value of all money held in every Ontario locked-in account you own is less than $22,960 <amt recalculated each year>, you can apply to withdraw all the money in your Ontario locked-in account or transfer it to a RRSP or RRIF.

Prior to the big crash at the beginning of March, the value of Rich's LIF came nowhere near qualifying for the small amount rule.  Within a week, the value had plunged to the point that it qualified easily.  He filled out Form 5 from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario website and requested that all the stock and cash sitting in his LIF be transferred to his Spousal RRSP.  It took about 5 business days for our discount broker Scotia iTrade to execute the request and in that interim, we were concerned that the stock would rebound and no longer qualify.  No worries there, since the share price fell even further over these days.  So now he has successfully broken free from the strict rules of the LIF and he no longer needs to trigger annual withdrawals from that account.  Because the stock was transferred in-kind from registered account to registered account, there was no sale to lock in the losses and hopefully this will not count as LIF income.  The shares can now sit in his RRSP collecting dividends, allowing time for the share price to eventually bounce back.

We had already made our mandatory annual RRIF and LIF withdrawals at the beginning of the year before the stock crash.  I gave some thought as to what we could do if this was not the case. First I would defer the withdrawals until the end of the year to allow maximum chance for the markets to recover.  If that does not happen, then I would make my RRIF/LIF withdrawals as stock-in-kind into my non-registered account so that there is no actual sale of stock to lock in the loss values.  I would then keep the stock there and let the prices rebound.  As a side benefit, the dividends generated by the new stock in the non-registered account would be taxed at a much more favourable rate.  If I needed the value of those withdrawals to live on, instead of selling stock at a steep loss to generate cash, I would initially raid our long-term emergency kitties, hoping to replenish them once the market rebounded. Finally I would withdraw the minimum allowable amount for the year, which the Federal government has provided a one-time reduction of 25%.

These are trying times for all of us.  It is important to stay calm and not panic.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Beware of "Ghosting" Your Spouse Credit-wise

Being the more detail oriented, organized and proactive person in our marriage, I have been the one to apply for any credit cards, making my husband Rich a secondary card holder.  I am also the registered owner for utility bills such as phone, cable, internet and cell phones.  All of our bank accounts are joint and the only accounts actually in his name alone are his RRIF and TFSA.  There is an unfortunate side effect of this which did not become apparent until the day Rich tried to open his own EQ Bank savings account.

We found out that Rich now has an extended period with no "credit history" even though he has been spending regularly on his credit cards, for which I pay off the entire balance every month.  He does not even have an easily accepted secondary "proof of identity" since his name is not on any of our utility bills, which seems to be the defacto identification criteria requested by many institutions.  After providing his driver's license, we realized that he could not produce any of the requested additional bills or statements that had just his name on it.  Even our property tax statement lists both of our names with mine is listed first.  Eventually he was able to use his T4RIF statement to confirm his identity and was able to successfully open the bank account.

However,  this did not help with Rich's lack of credit history, which is defined as "A consumer's ability to repay debts and demonstrated responsibility in repaying debts."  Your credit score is calculated by totaling points assigned based on:
  • Payment history - how promptly and completely you pay off your credit debts
  • Debt level - the amount of available credit that is used up each month
  • Credit history - the amount of time you have held each type of credit
  • Types of credit - whether you have credit cards, line of credit, mortgage, car loans, etc.
  • Requests for new credit - each new request decreases your credit score
Other than our credit cards, which are all in my name, we have no debt.  We paid off the mortgage on our home over 15 years ago and do not have any outstanding loans or even a line of credit.  This leaves Rich with a low credit score, since he has no types of credit to generate payment history, credit history or debt levels.  Despite not being over-extended with debt and my always paying off the little debt that we owe on our credit cards, Rich gets no credit (pun intended) for being a good loan risk.  It probably does not help either that we have been retired for over 7 years now, and therefore do not have recent employment history or income.

It has become a bit of a catch-22.  Rich has tried to rectify the situation by applying for one of the higher-end credit cards under his own name, but was rejected even though he can prove that he (as well as we as our household) have more than sufficient funds to support such a card.  Most recently we wanted to get a BMO World Elite Mastercard which has many perks including 4 free airport lounge passes per year and is currently under promo for 1 year no service charge.  As expected, Rich was declined by the automatic online assessment, but this time we made an appointment to speak to a BMO Personal Banking rep at our local branch.  We went armed with proof of income in the form of several years of income tax statements, along with an explanation as to his lack of credit history.

It took several days involving communications with more senior loan officers who wanted to see further proof of liquid assets, but Rich finally qualified for this credit card.  Now he needs to establish a better credit score by retaining the card for more than a few months, spending on average less than 35% of his available credit limit, and paying off the full amount owed every month.   Let this be a lesson learned for couples who allow one partner to generate all the credit history while the other partner has none.  All the bank representatives that we spoke to commented on how often they encountered this issue.  Once this happens, it becomes a big pain to try to resolve the situation.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Withdrawing US Cash from TFSA

Throughout 2019, I withdrew the US cash dividends generated from my shares of Algonquin Power (AQN.T) that I held in my Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) and moved the cash directly to my US bank account without incurring currency exchange fees.  Since the money came out of the TFSA, there was also no income tax generated.  This seemed like an excellent way to accumulate more US cash that I could use to spend on vacation in the States.   It was also an easy transaction to trigger since I could make the request on my own from my online account on the website of my discount broker Scotia ITrade (as opposed to lengthy waits on the phone to request an agent to do it for me!).

It was unclear how the withdrawal of US cash would affect my TFSA contribution limit for the following year, which is calculated in Canadian dollars.  I assumed that each of my withdrawals (approximately $195USD and $254USD) would be converted to Canadian dollars based on the exchange rate at the time of the withdrawal, and that amount would be added to my contribution limit.  I would not know for sure what exchange rate was used until I received notice of my new contribution limit in 2020.  I was also not entirely sure that I would not need to re-contribute the withdrawal in US funds, but that seemed unlikely.


Because the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) does not receive all the information regarding contributions and withdrawals from a TFSA account for a given year until the start of the next year, it does not update your contribution limit until end of January or beginning of February of that new year.  Even though I had made my 2019 TFSA contribution of $6000 in January 2019, and made withdrawals in April and October, none of these transactions were recognized on my CRA account until January 26, 2020.  It is important to understand this and not take at face value what the CRA account says that your contribution limit is during the year or else you may be led to mistakenly over-contribute.

When I finally did receive details on my 2020 contribution limit, it was as I assumed it would be.  Each of my USD withdrawals was converted to Canadian dollars at the given exchange rate at the time of withdrawal, and these Canadian values were added back to my contribution limit.  So this finishes my experiment of removing dividends in US dollars from my TFSA and replacing the equivalent value the following year in Canadian dollars, all without incurring any fees or taxes.  This is a strategy that I will continue to employ in the future.  Note though that the Algonquin Power stock that I hold in my TFSA is a Canadian stock, even though it pays its dividends in US dollars.  I do not hold US stocks in my TFSA since (unlike for the RRSP/RRIF) the IRS would take 15% withholding tax on dividends generated in this type of account.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

2019 Year End Review: After Seven Full Years of Retirement

At the end of 2018, the value of our portfolio had dropped by almost 10% from its year beginning value.  Yet by February 2019, we had pretty much recovered to our opening position from January 2018.  By the end of 2019, stocks had reached a new all-time high, surpassing 17000 for the first time ever.  In the span of one year, the TSX/S&P Index rose from 14347 to 17063, up almost 19%. Anyone who panicked and sold their stock at the end of 2018 would have missed out on the recovery.  We basically ignore the value of our stock, concentrating on the dividend payout of our portfolio which continues to increase year after year.  It is through the regular increase in dividend payments that we have been able to keep pace with, if not out-pace inflation.  This is a luxury that those with non-indexed defined benefit pensions do not have.  What would seem like an extremely generous fixed pension payout upon retirement might not seem so great 20-30 years later.

Following the same trend as the TSX, our portfolio was up 23.7% this year while our dividends rose by 9.5%. As I do every year, I reviewed our portfolio mix in terms of market capitalization and sector diversity.  While we did buy and sell a few stocks in order to improve our dividend flow (described in more detail below), over all there was not that much change from 2018 for either of these criteria. 

At the beginning of 2019 we took stock (pun intended) of the holdings in our portfolio, looking specifically at which of our holdings have not raised their dividend payout over the past 5 years.  We wanted to see if we could dump any of these "dividend duds" and replace them with companies that had a better history of raising their dividends regularly.  We were limited by a few factors:
  • We had a minimum yield threshold of 2.5-3% annually that we did not want to fall below
  • We wanted to maintain a good level of diversification in terms of sector and market capitalization.
  • Within our Non-Registered account: 
    •  We wanted to stay away from income trusts that cause accounting and taxation issues
    • We did not want to sell any stocks that might unnecessarily trigger capital gains.
The first stock that we sold was Firm Capital (FC.T), a Real Estate Income Trust (REIT) which has paid the same dividend of $0.94 per share annually since 2008.  It does pay out a variable "special" dividend at the end of each year but that does not compare to the cumulative effect of companies that raise their dividend payouts annually.   Rich sold the shares of FC in his RRIF and purchased Great West Life (GWO.T) which has raised its dividend every year since 2014 and did so again at the end of 1Q2019.  He also sold FC from his TFSA and bought Finning International (FTT.T), a mining equipment company which has raised its dividend every year since 2000 and did so again in 2Q2019.  I sold my shares of FC in my TFSA and bought Algonquin Power (AQN.T) which has raised its dividend annually since 2014.  Algonquin has the added benefit of paying its dividend in US currency so I was able to withdraw US Cash for spending (more on this later). 

We bought Morneau Shepell (MSI.T) in a registered account in 2017 as a way to diversify into a new industry.  Its share price increased significantly since our purchase, but the stock has not raised its dividend since 2010!  Since we care mainly about the dividend and not the value of the stock, we decided to sell it, take the profits and look for a better paying stock. With the proceeds, we bought Manulife Financial (MFC.T), which had raised its dividend at least once per year since 2013.  It was a good time to buy, since the share price had dropped almost $9 since the beginning of 2018 and we picked up the stock for a good price.  MFC did not end up raising their dividend in 2019 but as the analysts predicted, their price did rebound over $6 so hopefully the company will feel comfortable enough to start raising its dividend again in 2020.

There were a few stocks that we wanted to dump in our non-registered account, but decided against doing so. We held First Canadian Realty (FCR.T) and Sienna Senior Living (SIA.T), neither of which have a raised their dividend in years.  But selling either of these holdings would trigger capital gains.  SIA gave us another sector for diversification while FCR was one of the few real estate firms that was not a REIT.  This allowed us to hold a stock from the Real Estate sector in the non-registered account without tax and accounting implications. So we decided to hang onto these two stocks since they still produced a decent yield despite not having increased their dividends for a while.

Things changed in late November when we were notified that FCR.T would convert to a REIT by the end of the year.  A quick internet search showed that they had actually been planning this since the February, but we did not hear about this until now when it was pretty much a done deal.  This would not be good for us in the long run since part of the REIT income is not eligible for the dividend tax credit and would be taxed as full income.  Even worse, if return of capital is involved, keeping track of the adjusted cost base in a non-registered account would be quite onerous.  We decided to dump all of this stock and would sell enough shares of our deadbeat Corus stock (the perpetual loss that keeps on giving) to offset the capital gain.  We would use the unexpected proceeds from these sales to purchase more Canadian eligible dividend stock, this time with a better history of regularly raising dividends.   We decided on ATCO (ACO-X.T) a gas/electricity utility which has raised its dividend payout regularly since 1995.

In March, we were given an offer to voluntarily sell our holdings in Power Corp (POW.T) and its subsidiaries Power Financial (PWF.T) and Great West Life Co (GWO.T) as part of a stock buy-back effort by the parent company.  Given that these stocks have paid healthy dividends and each raised their payout consistently over the past 5 years, we had no interest in selling.  We were happy that this was not a "forced sale" like we encountered in 2018, since shares of two of these companies sit in our non-registered account and we would have been hit with more unplanned capital gains had we been forced to sell.

In midst of all this buying and selling, I made a trading error.  I sold MSI in a registered account and wanted to make a purchase with the proceeds.  But I had not waited long enough for the trade to settle and the discount broker had not taken its $9.99 commission yet.  I put in a limit buy request which included the extra $10 and surprisingly, the trade fulfilled immediately.  Once all the commissions were deducted for the sale and purchase, I ended up with a negative trade cash balance of $-6.45.  I was afraid that my discount broker would force me sell something that I didn't intend to (at another $9.99) just to cover this.  But when I phoned, I found out that I could carry a negative balance of up to $200 and no action would be taken.  Since the amount would be covered at the end of the month by our next dividend payout, all was well.  But I will be more careful next time to either wait for my sell trade to settle before making a new purchase, or at least make sure that I take into account both the sell and the buy fees of $9.99.

Finally in mid December it was announced that Cineplex (CGX.T) would be bought out by the British company Cineworld in 2020.  We own Cineplex in our non-registered account so I was concerned about being forced into another unexpected capital gain while losing the good steady dividend that Cineplex has provided over the years.  Luckily it turns out that we had been carrying an unrealized (paper) loss in our non-registered account and that the $34 buyout price would bring us just about back to par.  We also own CGX in one of our registered accounts and in this case, we will receive a nice tax-free gain, so this will all work out.  Once we receive the cash from the forced sale we will need to find a replacement stock that can replace the lost dividend income.

I have tracked the dividend increase (or lack thereof) of each of our stock for many years now and periodically take action to dump and replace companies who stop raising their dividend payout regularly, or worse yet, lower their dividend payout.  What I did not keep track of was when a company usually raised their dividend.  I just found out after the declaration and accepted it as a happy "surprise".  This year I decided to keep track of the month when each company tends to announce a dividend increase, so that I can determine when to look for it and be quickly warned if it does not happen as typically scheduled.  While some companies that regularly raise their dividends do not follow a fixed schedule, many others raise at the same time like clock work.  

Had I started this tracking earlier, I would have realized that Plaza Retail REIT (PLZ.UN) usually raises its dividend (at least it did between 2016-2018) in January but it did not do so in January 2019.  As it turns out, it did not raise its dividend at all in 2019 and has not done so in its January declaration for 2020 either!  But it took me the entire 2019 to figure this out since I did not know when to expect the increase.  Accordingly I used the website Morningstar.ca and looked at the dividend trends for each of our companies, tracking if and when they usually raised their dividends.  In the future, I will be more actively aware if an expected increase is missed and be more vigilant in case some action/re-balancing needs to happen in our portfolio because if it.   I don't think I would pull the trigger immediately, since occasionally a dividend increase could miss its regular payment period but still occur by the next period or the one after.  But if like PLZ.UN, the increase is missing over a couple of years, then maybe it is time to look around for something better.  After the New Year, Rich sold a bunch of PLZ.UN from his TFSA and will look to buy a new stock once he adds his TFSA contribution for 2020.


At the beginning of 2018, my husband Rich and I switched our strategy for RRIF withdrawal,  requesting to withdraw stock "in-kind" as opposed to cash.  I wrote about our reasons for this in the 2017 year end in reviewWhile we could withdraw our annual minimum without being taxed until the following year, any amounts in excess of the minimum would be subject to an immediate withholding tax at the time of the withdrawal.   Because it was our first year attempting this, we wanted to ease into the concept of paying withholding tax.  For each of our RRIFs, we requested the transfer of stock whose value came to a few thousand dollars over our minimum withdrawal amount, making sure to save up enough cash to cover the 10% withholding tax.  These amounts showed up in our 2018 T4RIF statements as tax already paid, reducing our total income tax still owed for the year.

Emboldened by this initial attempt, in 2019 I wanted to increase the amount withdrawn over the minimum, in order to speed up the process of shrinking our RRIFs and to increase the amount of dividend income that would be generated by our non-registered account, which is taxed at a much lower rate.  This meant paying a larger withholding tax, so I diligently saved dividend cash throughout the previous year to cover the amounts.  Unfortunately I misunderstood how the withholding tax works.  The phrasing of the wording on various websites made me think think that the withholding tax was incremental, like the marginal income tax rate where you are subjected to a higher tax rate only on the extra portion of income earned beyond the first rate.

Withdrawal Amount % Federal Tax Withheld
From $0 to $5,000   10%  (5% in Quebec)
From $5,001 to $15,000    20% (10% in Quebec)
Greater than $15,000   30% (15% in Quebec)
 
I thought we would be taxed 10% on the first $5000 over the minimum, then 20% on the next $10,000 (from $5001-15000) and finally 30% on anything beyond that.  In actuality, the rule is that depending on whether the entire value of my overage beyond the minimum is within $5000, or between 5000-15,000 or over 15,000, that I would be taxed at 10%, 20% or 30% on that whole amount.  Luckily I had saved an excess of cash in our accounts, so even with this new understanding of the rule, we should have had money to cover the withholding tax. But the plot thickens!  Because we are taking out stock in-kind instead of cash, there is also a gross-up to the amount being withdrawn before the withholding tax is calculated.  Factoring in the gross-up, Rich no longer had enough cash to cover the tax for the shares that he wanted to withdraw and had to scale back his withdrawal request.  Not wanting this to happen again in the future, I tried to find information about how the gross-up is calculated.  After multiple fruitless searches on the internet, the most I could find was an article by the Globe and Mail referring to the gross-up, but not explaining the calculation.  I then posed the question to the customer service line of my discount broker Scotia iTrade, and after several false starts, finally got the information that I was looking for.

The withholding tax including gross-up for an in-kind stock withdrawal is calculated as follows:

The following chart provides an example.  Now that we understand how it works, we can save the correct amount of funds to cover the withholding tax for our next RRIF withdrawals.


In fact, we could go one step further towards reducing the sizes of our RRIFs.  While you are mandated to pay a certain amount of withholding tax when you exceed the minimum withdrawal, there is nothing that prevents you from paying MORE than the required withholding tax for your current transaction.  Towards the end of 2019, one of my Strip Bonds came due in my RRIF, leaving me with an unusually large sum of cash. I decided to make one extra withdrawal from my RRIF, but rather than just paying the withholding tax on this transaction, I estimated how much income tax I might owe for 2019 and requested to pay enough withholding tax to almost cover that entire amount.  While it did mean that I was paying tax that was not due until April 2020, this allowed me fund this tax from within the RRIF in order to further reduce its size, rather than sourcing the tax money from outside of the registered account, shrinking our short term or long term savings "kitties".

It was important that we carefully checked the results of our RRIF withdrawal requisitions. Rich requested a given number shares of Enbridge (ENB) to be moved from his RRIF to our non-registered account, using the lowest price of the day.  Instead, the shares of the REIT Canadian Apartments (CAR.UN) was moved.  We caught the mistake immediately after the transaction was processed (a few days after the request), but since the request was made over the phone and there was no paper trail or email confirmation, we did not have any definitive proof that an error was made.  Then I realized that the shares of CAR.UN were moved using ENB's lowest price, making it clear that this was a clerical error.  Luckily we reported the issue prior to the transaction being officially "booked" and so it took a mere phone call and a couple more days delay for the problem to be corrected.  Left uncorrected, having the REIT in our non-registered account would have proved detrimental and problematic from a tax accounting perspective. Only part of the payments made by a REIT are considered dividends that qualify for the dividend tax credit.  The rest may be capital gain or "return of capital" taxed at higher rates.  The component of "return of capital" makes the adjusted cost base calculations on the units to be much more difficult, since it changes with each payout.  For these reasons, we try to keep all of our REITs and other income trusts within our registered accounts and it was why we sold our FCR stock from our non-registered account once the
company decided to convert to a REIT.

At the end of 2018, I turned 55 and was able to convert my LIRA into a LIF while transferring 50% of the value to my unlocked RRIF as stock in-kind.  This was quite the experience that I documented in the 2018 Year in Review.  In 2019, I made my first LIF withdrawal, again taking stock in-kind.  Since I was already taking out more and dealing with withholding tax in my RRIF, I decided to keep things simple and just take out the minimum from my LIF.  I chose a number of shares that would come just under the minimum amount and kept enough cash on hand to top up to the required number.  No withholding tax was required in this case.

But thinking more about this, I changed my mind and decided that I should always try to take the maximum from my LIF.   This will free up locked-in capital from my LIF more quickly and provide me with more flexibility, since I can take out any amount from my RRIF at any time, but if I forgo taking out the maximum from my LIF in one year, I don't get to make up for it in the next year. So after waiting several quarters in order to save up enough dividends to pay withholding tax, I made a second LIF withdrawal in mid May.  When calculating how much I could withdraw, I did not realize (although I should have) that the withholding tax would count towards my maximum.  I took my annual (LIF maximum - LIF minimum), which came to around $5900 and requested to withdraw enough stock in-kind to cover this difference, thinking that I could pay withholding tax on top of that.  I had discussed with the iTrade agent that the withholding tax would be 20% plus grossup (or 25%) and he put in the request.  Within a few minutes, the agent called back to inform me that my request was rejected since with the withholding tax, I had exceeded the maximum.  So I had to reduce the amount of stock that I transferred in-kind and ended up moving stock worth $4728 but I was still charged the same 20% + gross up withholding tax, even though my extra withdrawal was now down to the 10% + gross up (or 11%) range.  I didn't care enough to argue about this since this was tax I probably would be required to pay next year anyways.  But it is obvious to me that some of the representatives from my discount broker do not understand how the CRA withholding tax works.

Rich converted his LIRA into a LIF when he turned 55 this year and also went through the process of requesting 50% of the sum be transferred tax-free to his RRIF.  Because the initial value of his LIRA was so small, we were hoping that he would qualify for the "small amount" rule that allows you to unlock the entire amount if the value falls below a given rate ($22,960 in 2019).  His LIF did not meet the small amount limit and given the legislated rate of annual withdrawal even when taking out the maximum allowed, it will still take years before it reaches that level.

In a previous article, I wrote about my quest for more US cash dividends that we could withdraw from our investment portfolio and and transfer directly to our US bank account without incurring currency exchange.  I tried to withdraw US cash from my RRIF while paying withholding tax in Canadian dollars.  This turned into such a big headache that required three attempts before almost achieving what I wanted.  I will not try this ever again! Going forward I will make an initial RRIF withdrawal including any US stock, Canadian stock journaled on the US side of my account (e.g. AQN), or US cash that I want to extract, but making sure to stay under the legislated minimum and then top up with Canadian cash to reach that minimum.  Subsequently if I want to make a further withdrawal once I am in withholding tax territory, I will only do so with Canadian stock and Canadian cash.

By contrast, withdrawing US dividends from the TFSA accounts turned out to be trouble-free.  The money could be deposited directly into our US bank account without first requiring to transfer to our US non-registered account.   What is still not clear is how much extra room I will have in Canadian dollars in 2020 to re-contribute the withdrawn US cash.  I will not know this until Revenue Canada updates my allocation on my CRA account, which usually does not happen until some time in February.  For now, my account says that my limit is $12,000 since it still does not know about the $6000 contribution that I made in January of 2019, let alone the withdrawals of US cash made throughout the year!  Rather than waiting for the results before submitting this already overly lengthy blog entry, I will write a new one in February/March with my findings. 


By the end of 2018, the "discount" that we had previously negotiated for our Rogers cable and internet bill had expired, and our bill had increased by over $30/month from $140 to $171.  It was time for the annual ritual of complaining and threatening to go to the competition unless we could get a better rate.  I started these negotiations with Rogers via an online chat because I hate talking on the phone, and also, I wanted an online transcript of our conversation and the ultimate agreement so that there would be no misunderstanding.  Upon making my complaint, I was immediately offered the currently advertised package for $152, which was about $20 less than what I was currently paying, but would provide me with new Ignite technology and a significantly higher internet speed that was more than two times faster than our current speed.  This was not a promotional offer but rather what any new Rogers customer would be offered. However as an existing customer, we were not made aware of this and would not have been switched over without the complaint.  I also requested that the $150 installation/setup fee be waived and so we lowered our bill slightly and have much better service.  What a pain to be required to do this every year, just to ensure you continue to get a competitive rate!!

In the meantime, Bell was aggressively trying to make inroads into our condo and spent weeks in 2018 wiring individual fiber connections to each suite so that the speed would be extra fast.  For 5 days at the end of October 2019, Bell launched an on-site blitz where they tried to convert as many residents as they could from Rogers to Bell.  They offered a two-year deal for $124 after tax which included the Fibe Internet (1.5GB per second download), a TV channel package that included many more channels than we were getting at Rogers, including multiple extra sports stations and the Turner Classic Movie channel (TCM) that Rich has always wanted.  The deal also included free installation services (usually $210) and a free Home Hub 3000 modem (usually $200) and two months free access to Crave/HBO Max (usually $20/month).

In previous years we had not been able to switch providers since our TV connectivity wires were enclosed behind a built-in wall unit and we did not have an easy way to connect these wires to the closest Bell phone jack.  Luckily in the interim, Bell's technology changed so that their wireless modem can be connected remotely to the TV over WIFI.  We jumped on this deal which was too good to pass up.  But more importantly, we now have options again.  Once our two year deal with Bell is up, we can use the threat of returning to Rogers in order to either extend or get another deal from Bell.  Or if Rogers comes up with something better, we can consider switching again, which would not be that painful since we kept all of our Rogers connections on hand.  While Bell, Rogers and Telus still form an oligopoly for the most part, having the fierce competition between these companies opens up opportunities for savings.

Our retirement income strategy has been to transfer all the monthly dividends that we make from our non-registered account to our bank's chequing account in order to pay our regular monthly bills.  In support of this, we have maintained both a short term and a long term "kitty", in order to ensure that we have enough liquid assets to cover both minor and major unexpected expenses that may arise on top of our usual expenses.  Our short term kitty is a savings account in Simplii Financial, the discount subsidiary of CIBC that also holds the chequing account that funds our bill payments.  In this savings account from which we can transfer money to chequing within 1 business day, we try to keep up enough funds to cover up to one month's typical expenses.  Our long term kitty is used save up for major unexpected expenses, such as the day when we will need to replace our appliances, or worse yet, our car which is 15 years old this year.   We use EQ Bank as our long term kitty, since it pays an amazing 2.3% as its ongoing regular savings account rate (as opposed to 3 month teaser rates offered by banks when you open a new account).  Considering that this savings account is totally liquid and CDIC protected, the payout is better than most short term GICs that lock in your money for an extended period of time.

In 2019 we decided to set up a second EQ Bank account, in order to separate the kitty where we save money for mandatory expenses like the eventual car replacement, as opposed to major discretionary expenses like our annual vacation fund.  Since the first EQ Bank account was set up in my name, we decided to set the second one up in Rich's name so that we continue to balance our personal incomes for tax purposes.  This became an issue when part of the application process required my husband to produce an "official" online PDF document that indicated his full name and address to verify his identity.  They accepted Utility bill ( Water, Hydro, Gas bill), Internet Service Provider statement, Mobile Phone statement and Cable Provider statement.  Unfortunately we had signed up all the bills under my name and not his, as well as our credit cards for which I was the primary card holder.  His name was on the paper form of our property tax bill, but EQ Bank would not accept any scanned or photocopied versions.  It had to be an online PDF generated by the issuing company.  Finally they agreed to accept a T4RIF slip generated by our discount broker and my husband was able to successfully set up his account.  But we have learned our lesson and the next thing that we sign up for will be under his name, in order to give him a proper online presence.

References:
2018 Year End Review
2017 Year End Review
2016 Year End Review
2015 Year End Review
2014 Year End Review
2013 Year End Review
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Buy Retired at 48 - One Couple's Journey to a Pensionless Retirement

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Generating a Steady Retirement Income Stream - Do You Have a Plan?

While we were planning our strategy leading up to our early retirement in 2012, my husband Rich and I were not too concerned with how to determine whether we had saved enough to last the duration of what we hoped would be a lengthy retirement.  My detailed retirement calculator spreadsheet allowed us to model various scenarios that would address that question, based on varying parameters including how much we had saved, at what age we could retire and how much we wanted to spend in retirement.

The bigger, more complicated, and much less discussed issue was how we would structure our savings into an investment portfolio that would easily generate a steady flow of post-retirement income.  We were much too young (by multiple decades) to consider an annuity and the traditional strategy of creating a bond ladder (having a series of bonds with staggered maturity dates that freed up cash each year) would not fly given the prolonged and still on-going cycle of dismal bond and GIC rates that pay less than the rate of inflation.  Without a company pension or any other source of regular payments such as rental properties, we would need to structure our investment holdings to generate a reliable income stream, which would take some time to set up.  More importantly, the payment flow would need to be completed and ready to go before we retired, since we would need to make use of it as soon as we stopped working.

As described in greater detail in our book "Retired at 48 - One Couple's Journey to a Pensionless Retirement",  our strategy was to load up on Canadian dividend paying stock, focusing for the most part on blue chip companies with histories of regularly raising their dividends.  Our goal was to acquire enough stock to allow us to live off the dividends as our income stream.  This defied the common wisdom at the time which advocated to reduce our equity holdings and acquire a larger percentage of fixed income.  We felt less risk in holding stock since we did not care about share price which fluctuates often, but rather the dividend payout which is usually more stable, especially if you select solid companies.  Our second decision, that also flouted conventional practices at the time, was to collapse our RRSPs into RRIFs immediately after retirement.  This enabled us to spread the source of our retirement income across both registered and non-registered accounts, making all of them last longer.  It also helped to reduce the size of our registered accounts slowly over a longer period of time, optimizing our overall tax burden.  These days this strategy is regularly recommended by financial advisors and analysts, but at the time when we decided to do it back in 2012, we were definitely going against the tide.  Our two strategies have served us well.  Over the past 7.5 years since our retirement, our steady stream of dividend income acts like a bi-weekly pay cheque and has continued to grow at a rate that so far has outpaced the rate of inflation.

It took many years for us to accumulate a stock portfolio large enough to live off our dividends.  I started to consider what our strategy would be like if instead we needed to sell capital annually from our investments in order to fund our retirement.  In reading investment columns like the ones in the Globe and Mail, I noticed that the advice given usually went as far as to discuss the order which various money sources (RRIFs, TFSAs, non-registered, cash balances) should be tapped, but did not go into detail on how this actually would work.  Giving it some thought, this is what I think I would do:
I started with the assumption that we had still amassed a portfolio consisting of mainly Canadian dividend-paying stocks during our retirement savings period, but that it did not generate enough dividends to support our income needs.  Until the returns in the fixed income market improve significantly, we would still want to hold stock, but we would need to take steps to reduce risk since now we do care about fluctuating stock value.  Luckily we happen to have a high risk tolerance that allows us to stay calm during large swings in the market.  This is not so for everyone.

With our current strategy of living off our dividends, our investment portfolio is diversified across all of our accounts but not within any particular account.  This is because we are not regularly selling stock.  We initially withdrew the annual minimum from our RRIF accounts, requesting an equal cash payments monthly.  Recently we switched to requesting withdrawal of stock-in-kind from our RRIFs to our shared non-registered account, in order for future dividend income from this stock to be taxed at a more favourable rate.

If instead we were required to sell part of our investment portfolio each year, this would change how we structured our holdings and withdrawal strategy. In each of our RRIF accounts, we would re-balance our holdings to increase the number of different stocks that we owned there, covering different sectors in order to have good diversification.  This would allow us the flexibility each year to pick which stock to sell or not, depending on whether one sector is performing better than another, or if a specific company is having an unusually bad year.  We would also consider buying US or Foreign market ETFs in order to maximize diversification, but I prefer holding Canadian stock as opposed to a Canadian ETF since we have more control of what we are selling.   In choosing which stock to sell, we might pick one that had increased in value, locking in the capital gain while allowing lesser performing stock time to recover.  Alternately we might cut our losses on a dud stock that doesn't seem like it would recover any time soon, if ever.  If we had to decide between two equally qualifying stocks, we would keep the one that had more dividend growth history and potential.

Unless we were in midst of a prolonged market downturn, each year we would sell some stock in each of our RRIF accounts (ensuring to sell enough to cover any withholding tax owed) and make a single withdrawal.  The cash from this sale would be supplemented with any dividend income paid from our non-registered accounts, and eventually CPP and OAS payments, to make up our annual income requirements for that year.  We would open a special high interest savings account to receive this money so that it continues to earn interest as we spend it throughout the year.  We would  set up automatic monthly transfers to our bill-paying chequing account to cover the upcoming month's estimated expenses. We use the CDIC-protected EQ Bank which has been paying 2.3 percent annually on its savings accounts for several years now.  This rate currently beats most fixed income offerings as well as the estimated rate of inflation, and our money is totally liquid as opposed to being tied up for the specified terms of bonds and GICs. We also get 5 free Interac transactions per month, but that's another story.

In order to have maximum control over when we sell our stock, we would set standing default instructions with our discount broker to withdraw the minimum from our RRIFs at the END of the year.  These instructions can be overridden at any time during the year, and allows an entire year to choose the right time to sell our stock.  This means though that our "annual income" savings account needs to have enough cash to support waiting until the end of the year to sell, or else we need to borrow from our long-term emergency funds.  Since we would not be selling all of our shares in any year, we would set up Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPS) and Dividend Purchase Plans (DPP) for all of the stock in our RRIF accounts, so that the ones we don't sell for the year will continue to grow on a compound basis.

We would hold much larger cash balances than we currently do within our long-term emergency fund accounts (currently also at EQ Bank), with enough money to cover at least 2+ years worth of retirement income.  This money could be used to temporarily tide us over if we needed to wait out downturns in the stock market and would act as our secure "fixed income" buffer until bond and GIC rates recover enough to be worth purchasing again.  At that point, we could once more consider creating a bond or GIC ladder.

At the end of each year, I would analyze the rate of depletion of our investment portfolio against our initial retirement plan to make sure that we were on track and adjust our spending accordingly the following year if we were not.  I do this now even with our dividend strategy but it would be so much more important than ever to do if we needed to sell capital annually.

Just thinking through this academic and theoretical situation has been a lot of work and quite stressful since it is clear that the risk involved is much higher than our strategy of living off our dividends while retaining our capital for as long as possible.  I'm not sure how viable this plan would be since we are not implementing it, but at least it is a comprehensive plan whereas I fear many people retire with no plan and I wonder what they do then?  I am not in any way recommending my hypothetical plan for others, but I guess the message is that you should think about how to generate retirement income ahead of time and implement a plan that suits your needs and risk tolerance (or have your financial advisor do it for you, but hopefully it is more detailed than "You should take $X out of your RRIF each year").