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Canadian dollar (Feng Yu/iStockphoto)

RRSP Report 2010

Why turn down free money? Add to ...

It happens more than people think, and it drives financial advisers to distraction. No, it's not Canadians deciding to go it alone in their retirement planning and investing.

Rather it is the gainfully employed who, for whatever reason, fail to take part in pension or RRSP contribution matching programs set up by their employers.

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If you want to get a financial adviser excited, just bring up the subject.

"Getting matching money is free money, so to speak, and it can really contribute to your retirement savings. It is a shame to overlook it," said Kurt Rosentreter, a Toronto-based certified financial planner with Manulife Securities. "It's a must-do in my book."

Mr. Rosentreter said about one in five of his new clients have the opportunity to take part in an employer matching program but have never done so. For financial professionals, it is an act akin to leaving money on the table. "It is usually the same reasons: They don't have an idea at all of how the plan works or they don't have the money to do it."



Getting matching money is free money, so to speak, and it can really contribute to your retirement savings. It's a must-do in my book. Financial planner Kurt Rosentreter


Though it is an unofficial figure, Mr. Rosentreter's surprisingly high non-participation rate for employer matching programs can be viewed as a lose-lose proposition for the employee and employer. Obviously the employee is losing out on money, while the employer loses a key incentive to retain valued workers over the long term. Mr. Rosentreter would like to see employers offer individual retirement-planning counselling for their workers, or at the very least stage regular and mandatory retirement seminars during work hours.

The biggest hurdle to greater employee adoption of these plans is their complexity, he says. Employees are often handed an intimidating investment package by the Human Resources department that refers them to a third-party website - with the onus on the employee to figure everything out and come up with an investment strategy.

"When you sit down with even sophisticated senior executives, they often don't have a clue what this stuff means," Mr. Rosentreter said. "It involves a fair amount of time that they just haven't got or aren't willing to put in.'

"So part of it is just bad education by the employer and a little bit of laziness on the employee side. You add those two together and people are lost when it comes to their group plans.

"To make matters worse, so many think that the company is taking care of them," he noted.

That may have been a reality in the era of defined-benefit pension plans, which provided most working Canadians' moms and dads with a worry-free retirement. Outside of government jobs, however, these pensions are an endangered species, and the workers who have them often worry that employers can't afford to fully fund them.

"It's really sad but people tend to focus more on the short term than they do on the long term," said James Kraemer, a chartered accountant and certified financial planner with TFI Financial Services, based in Winnipeg. Non-participation in matching plans "is fairly common and it is hard to explain why."

Mr. Kraemer, however, has come up with a sure-fire way to motivate his clients to participate in matching programs. "I tell them if your boss came to you and said, 'I want to give you a three, or four, or five per cent raise,' would you say 'No, I'm not interested?' That is essentially what they are doing, turning down a raise."

He chalks up the non-participation phenomenon to embarrassment among employees who do not understand, and are unwilling to ask, about the plans or that they can't be bothered to take the time to enroll.

"There are a variety of excuses but in the end there is no excuse," he concluded.

. Weigh in on whether you would stash some extra money into an RRSP, RESP or a TFSA.

Adrian Mastracci, a fee-based financial planner and portfolio manager with Vancouver's KCM Wealth Management Inc., encourages his clients to participate in employer matching programs whenever they are offered but also to treat those retirement funds differently.

"I think the key is to have a [retirement]plan, the big plan, and then you include whatever the employer is offering as part of the big plan. Because in most of these cases you may have a choice of what to pick inside that group RRSP, so just ask yourself what should I be doing in that part of the plan?"

That's a worthwhile exercise, Mr. Mastracci said, because such matching plans typically offer a limited range of investment options, meaning more aggressive or exotic RRSP investments have to be made outside the employer's program.

"Know what you are building and know what sort of return on investment you need to have," he advised. "You will make better decisions in the end."

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