Canada | Personal Finance

Expert advice for couples to carve out a unique retirement strategy

It’s important to discuss your financial future with your partner, experts say. Here’s how to use RRSPs and other retirement income to your best advantage

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Young couple going over their finances together at homeWhen having those first financial conversations with your partner, you need to lay out who has what in terms of investments, savings, and so on, and build a strategy from there (Getty Images/katleho Seisa)

Discussing your financial future with your partner is a necessity, experts say.

According to a 2018 Ipsos survey for BDO Canada, 59 per cent of Canadians wish they could change their partner’s financial habits, and 36 per cent say they rarely discuss personal finances.   

With this in mind, now is a good time to consider aligning your financial goals. This includes looking at what investments you have—such as Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs), Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) and pensions plans—and how best to use them as a duo.   

Here’s some expert advice for getting your retirement savings on track as a couple.


When having those first financial conversations with your partner, you need to lay out who has what in terms of investments, savings, and so on, and build a strategy from there, says CPA Stan Swartz, president at Infomoney Solutions, Inc. 

This takes analysis and is best worked out with guidance from a financial planning professional who understands your unique situation, as well as the ins and out of the financial system, Swartz explains. “It requires an in-depth analysis of each person’s situation and what they’re bringing to the relationship,” he says. 

Questions include: Do you hold an RRSP or TFSA? How much is invested? What is your contribution room? Do you have an employee pension plan or group RRSP? Are you self-employed? What is your annual income? Do you own property? Have you combined your finances through joint accounts? How much debt do you carry?


The federal government offers several options for couples—be they married or common law—to lower taxes and help them build a future over the short- and long-term. 

Take RRSPs, for example. If one partner’s income is significantly lower than the other’s, or there is a gap in employment (parental leave, for example), you may contribute to a spousal RRSP, whereby the higher earner contributes to a partner’s RRSP to free up contribution room, reduce taxes and allow for low-tax withdrawals during unemployed periods. 

If purchasing property is on your radar, and you are first-time homebuyer, you may be eligible for the Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP), which allows you to withdraw funds (up to $35,000) tax-free from your RRSP to buy or build a home. You have 15 years to pay back the withdrawn funds, otherwise that which is owed will count as income for that year and you will be taxed accordingly. If the HBP makes sense, both partners may want to have an RRSP, so they can both make a withdrawal. 

If starting a family is a priority, you may want to think about Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs) and how they fit into your savings strategy. This includes taking advantage of the Canada Education Savings Grant (CESG), whereby you contribute $2,500 per year, and receive $500 from the government for each RESP. 

“There are so many variables that are going to fit into deciding the right balance for you,” says CPA Stefanie Ricchio, of Balance the Five.


If you’ve lived as a couple for a while, it’s time to reassess your retirement goals and savings strategy.

Financial well-being requires check-ins dependent on what changes life throws your way—such as a change or loss of job, family illness, or the purchase of real estate—that could impact your savings plans, says Ricchio. You may even be nearing retirement and making more drastic lifestyle adjustments. 

“You have to do a health check to make sure that you are on the right path,” she says. “You want to make sure that you choose the right strategy where there’s more [money] directed to your savings.”

It’s also important to understand the reason behind your investment decisions, she adds. Does it make sense to use a RRSP or TFSA, or both? What type of products are you investing in? What are the potential repercussions?

“We all need to know the ramifications of the choices that we make, whether it’s investing money or withdrawing the money,” she says. 


Recognizing life’s inevitable ebbs and flows, the government offers unique options geared to more mature investors. 

A spousal RRSP offers added flexibility if the couple is in different tax brackets. This becomes particularly important when the time comes to withdraw, when you will strategize RRSP payments to avoid tax implications. Pension income splitting is also an option to consider, if you have not contributed to a spousal RRSP.

If you want to upgrade your skills, the Lifelong Learning Plan allows you to borrow up to $20,000 from your RRSP, tax free, to fund education. You can borrow a maximum of $10,000 per year, and must begin paying it back within five years of the first withdrawal. After your first payment, you have 10 years to repay the total withdrawn amount, or you lose the opportunity to replace it. 

If you’ve invested in a RESP and it goes unused, or partially used, you can convert contributions—outside of the government grants and investment gains—into an RRSP. Before making the transfer, keep in mind you can keep RESP accounts active for 36 years.

As you approach 65, you will think about your retirement savings from a withdrawal over a contribution perspective. At this time, you need to assess how much income you require to live your desired lifestyle, how long you will continue working, and strategize mandatory withdrawals from incomes sources such as RRSPs (typically converted to a RRIF by age 71), the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS), private pension plans, and so on.   

“You will need to assess what your situation is and how much money you have to contribute to different tax-advantaged accounts,” says Bob Lai, a B.C.-based personal financial expert at “The idea [in retirement] is to split whatever you need to withdraw instead of withdrawing from one person, so your marginal tax rate is lower.”

As a couple, your goals and strategy must be aligned, and that requires transparency and open communication that lasts a lifetime, adds Ricchio.   

“Once you get settled into this planning financially together, what’s the reality that you envision?” she asks. “There are so many layers to how far you can take your retirement planning.


It’s never too late to start saving. Find strategies on how to catch up on that retirement plan with CPA Canada’s The Procrastinator’s Guide to Retirement. If you’re looking for more general financial planning tips, look to CPA Canada’s A Canadian’s Guide to Money-Smart Living or enroll in one of the financial literacy sessions.