Cash Account vs. TFSA: How The TFSA Makes Money

Jake - Wealthy Corner Author/Founder

Jake - Wealthy Corner Author/Founder

Hi, I'm Jake. I help people under 40 reduce money stress and grow wealth.

The name “Tax-Free Savings Account” (TFSA) has one problem. It implies that the TFSA is a savings account.  I believe this is misleading Canadians. The TFSA offers it's utility when you have investments in the account. I wish it was called the Tax-Free Investment Account instead. 
This post is motivated by my belief that a misleading results in many Canadians holding excessive cash in the TFSA.

So don’t beat yourself up if you think the TFSA is merely a savings account. The average Canadian holds 41% of their TFSA value as Cash. Plus, I doubt you were ever taught about investing or tax-sheltered accounts, let alone how taxes apply to investment income.

Let’s examine the differences between a normal savings account and the TFSA and how the TFSA makes money.  

Infographic: Cash in the TFSA

Table of Contents

How Does the TFSA Make Money?

The first step to grasping the TFSA’s benefit is to look at how investment income is taxed. Investments generate interest income, dividend income, and/or capital gains income.  

When you hold investments in the TFSA, you do not pay tax on the investment income generated within the account. That’s the “Tax-Free” nature of the account. To reap the TFSA’s benefits, you need to generate investment income. And to generate investment income, you need to have investments in the TFSA. 

The TFSA does not make money directly. It only prevents taxation of investment income generated within the account.

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The TFSA as a Container

I like to think of the TFSA as a container. Within this container, you can hold cash savings or investments.

Let’s say you transfer cash to the TFSA. The cash sits there, and it does not generate investment income. This case is no different from holding cash in a regular account.

There is another way to hold cash in the TFSA, and that is via a High-Interest Savings Account (HISA). I like to think of the HISA as going inside the TFSA. This is best viewed as an account with an account –  a container within the container. The interest income you earn in the HISA will be tax-free because it is in the TFSA. 

I encourage you to learn more about how the TFSA works, via this post: How Does the TFSA Work. I hope the name of this post is not misleading.

The Difference Between Savings and Investing

What are Savings?

I define savings as the accumulation of cash, normally in a chequing account or High-Interest Savings Account (HISA). These cash savings have two characteristics:

  1. Cash is accessible (liquid); and
  2. Cash is stable in the short term.

Your savings are stable in the short term because the banking system in Canada is stable. Cash savings are further insured by the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation (CIDC) up to an amount of $100,000. So you will not lose your money in a CDIC insured savings account should the bank fail.

You are paid interest as your cash sits in your bank account. The bank will lend some of your cash to others for mortgages, car loans, ect. In exchange for the utility of your money, the bank pays you interest. The bank can make net profit because the bank earns a higher interest rate on their loans relative to the interest rate they pay you.  

What is Investing?

Investing is when you buy assets that are expected to increase in value and/or pay cashflow. When you invest, you take on risk. In exchange for this risk, you expect compensation in the form of higher returns. There are three main categories of investments we can make inside the TFSA: 

  • Business ownership (stocks): A stock is a portion of a business that you own. As an owner, you get to share in the profits and growth of the company.
  • Bonds: Where you loan your money to the government or corporations. You are paid interest, and the money is returned to you.
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs): A company that owns income producing property. These generally trade on an exchange. 
There are various mechanisms to invest in these assets classes. Mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), Individual stocks and Bond ETFs. I, for example, use low cost bond and total market equity ETFs. My total market equity ETFs have a small share in various REITs. 

Cash Account vs. TFSA

A normal cash chequing account will not pay interest, and nor will cash sitting in a TFSA. Because your cash is not generating interest income, cash in the TFSA will offer no benefits.

In fact, holding cash in the TFSA can add complexity. It’s an extra step to transfer the cash to and from the TFSA, and you’ll need to closely monitor the contribution room if you are close to maxing out the TFSA.

We will take a look at a case where your cash does earn a small amount of interest income, via a High-Interest Savings Accounts. Let’s compare two options:

  • An HISA outside of a TFSA; and
  • An HISA inside a TFSA.

HISA Rates

Last I checked (30 Oct 2021), the HISA interest rates were around 1.25%. For most HISAs, the rate eventually drops to around 0.1% after some promotional period. For example, my RBC HISA will pay me an entire 0.05% (insert frown). In this comparison, I will assume the best case for a saver by using a 1.25% interest rate.  

Normal Cash Account (HISA)

Let’s say you hold $10,000 in a HISA with a 1.25% rate outside of a TFSA. You will earn $125 per year in interest. This interest income will then be taxed as regular income, at your marginal rate. So if you make $60,000 per year in Ontario, you’ll have to pay 30% tax on that $125 of income. That’s $37.50 lost to tax. 

HISA Inside the TFSA

Now, let’s assume you hold that $10,000 in a HISA in a TFSA. You still earn the $125 of interest income. But now the interest income is tax free. You keep the entire $125.

By keeping your money in the TFSA, you saved $37.50. A more realistic scenario is that you earn 0.1% on your cash. In this case, the TFSA is essentially the same as holding cash in a savings account. You’ll save less than $5/year by holding $10k in the TFSA.

When Does it Make Sense to Hold Cash in a TFSA?

People on social media discuss how “Cash is Trash”. I don’t like this. Personal finance happens to be personal (it has a good name). Cash has a purpose in many cases.

When it Makes Sense to Hold Cash

Firstly, an emergency fund shall be held as cash.  Cash also makes sense when you need the money within the next 5 years.  

Otherwise, your cash can be invested for higher long-term returns based on your willingness and ability to take on risk. I discuss both factors in this post on how a military career can increase expected investment returns.

When to Hold This Cash in a TFSA

The next logical step is to ask: when does it makes sense to hold my cash in the TFSA? 

It makes sense when you have unused TFSA contribution room remaining. You can use the TFSA to shelter you from taxes on the measly interest income.

Cash should not go in a TFSA when the TFSA is maxed with investment assets like stocks and bonds. These investments have better long-run expected returns relative to cash. You want to preserve the valuable TFSA room for these assets.

For example, global stocks have returned an average of 7.3% per year over the past 122 years. While U.S. stocks have done even better, averaging 10.2% per year for the last 100 years.

What if Interest Rates Were Higher?

Holding a HISA in a TFSA (cash in the TFSA) makes more sense as interest rates rise. With higher interest rates, cash in the HISA in the TFSA can earn more interest income.  More income means more tax savings from the tax-sheltering effects of the TFSA.   

Cash in the TFSA: Inflation

Inflation slowly erodes purchasing power. Since 1921, inflation has averaged around 2.7%. That means the purchasing power of cash decreases by 2.7%, per year. Recently, inflation has been even higher, averaging over 4% percent in 2021. You can tinker with historical inflation rates with the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.    

Because of inflation, holding cash for the long term is very risky. Inflation is guaranteed to erode your purchasing power over the long term. This is why I view savings as safe in the short term, but risky in the long term. Vice versa for investing in equities.

Not Everyone is Ready to Invest

We covered that the TFSA offers maximum value for those that invest in assets with high expected returns. 

But this doesn’t mean everyone with available cash should invest. Before investing, I believe it is important for everyone to:

  • Have paid off high-interest debt
  • Have an emergency fund worth 3-6 months of expenses; 
  • Understand stocks and bonds, and where their returns come from; 
  • Understand diversification, fund fees and index funds; and 
  • Understand your willingness and ability to take investment risk. 
I also believe that most people should have an unbiased financial advisor. Ideally, this advisor interacts with you as an educator. Also watch out for conflicts of interest from advisors that earn commissions by selling high fee mutual fund products.  

How I Use the TFSA

All of the money in my TFSA is invested in low-cost equity (stock) index ETFs. I hold my emergency fund outside of my TFSA. This allows me to maximize the TFSA room for investments (stock index funds) that have high expected returns. 

Under compound growth, the TFSA account value will grow exponentially over time. At some point in the future, I expect to pull tax free dividend or capital gains investment income from the account. 

Conclusion

  • Cash in a TFSA is usually no different than cash in a chequing account.
  • You will not pay taxes on interest income in a HISA that is held in the TFSA.
  • Interest payments on cash are tiny due to low-interest rates. The TFSA offers minimal tax-sheltering benefits when rates are low.
  • Cash is great when you need the money in the next 5 years.
  • Inflation will erode the value of your cash over the long term.
  • The TFSA offers maximum benefit for assets with high expected returns, like equities (stocks).

2 thoughts on “Cash Account vs. TFSA: How The TFSA Makes Money”

  1. I like to own Reits in a TFSA. They provide steady income and some growth. I really like to own Reits in a TFSA because tax is never paid. The particular Reit distributes all it’s taxable income to the Reit unit owner (you) by monthly distributions. The Reit pays no tax. You pay no tax when you own the Reit unit in your TFSA. All profits are yours.

    1. Thank you for this. I should have added REITs to the Investing vs. Savings section. Monthly REIT cash flow can be nice, especially if you’re living off it. I no longer own REITs directly, but I do own them through total market index funds). I will add REITs to the section on Investing vs. Savings, as REITs are another asset class that is tax-sheltered in the TFSA. Commodities, that can be owned via ETFs, are also tax-sheltered in the TFSA. However, I hesitate to consider commodities “investment assets” because commodities are unproductive assets.

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