If you have been thinking about taking out a gym membership or buying tickets for a play, make the purchase before May 1 and you will save as much as 8 per cent.
On Saturday, the new harmonized sales tax (HST) in Ontario and British Columbia will take effect for goods and services that straddle or are to be used after the July 1, 2010, implementation date.
As part of the government's HST transition plan, if you buy theatre tickets or prepay for a club membership, landscaping service or home renovation on April 30, you will only be subjected to the federal sales tax of 5 per cent. Make the same purchase on May 1 and you will pay the full HST for use of that service after July 1, costing you an extra 8 per cent in Ontario and 7 per cent in British Columbia.
It is a short window of time to avoid paying a tax that will soon make the lives of families in Ontario and British Columbia more expensive in many unexpected ways. The tax is being applied quite broadly, with limited exceptions.
For example, if you're buying a coffee or sandwich at your local café, the HST will not be applied if the price before tax is below $4. But if the bill edges above the $4 mark, the HST will be added to your bill.
Families that need to make funeral arrangements will be subjected to the additional tax, unless they have entered into a contract to prepay for a funeral service before July 1, 2010.
The HST will also be applied to new homes that cost more than $400,000. This pending additional expense has helped drive the surge in high-priced home sales in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver over the past several months.
Newspapers and feminine hygiene products are among the few products that will escape the HST. Children's shoes and clothing, baby diapers, infant car seats and child booster seats are also exempt. It is surprising, then, that the new tax will apply to more expensive areas of family life. If you send your child to daycare or have a nanny, you will start paying HST after July 1.
"It makes no sense to me to add another tax to something that has anything to do with raising children," says Ken Wong, associate professor of business and marketing strategy at Queen's University. "People who have the luxury of having a stay-at-home parent generally have higher incomes. This will really affect two-income families."
Mr. Wong has been studying the HST rules and their potential effect on consumers. The government, he says, has positioned the new tax as a means of generating a surplus that could be used to reduce income taxes. The government also expects businesses to have lower administrative costs associated with managing separate federal and provincial taxes, leading them to pass savings on to consumers.
However, Mr. Wong is concerned that the government's plans may not turn out as anticipated. "It presumes that people won't just go cross-border shopping or that corporate headquarters won't move" to take advantage of lower taxes elsewhere.
Even if the government's hopes are realized, he says, the reality is there is going to be some considerable short-term pain for long-term gain.
"The gains would be felt by the economy as a whole, but the pain would be felt most directly at the individual taxpayer level. This is like telling people who drive that they can't drive anymore so that we reduce greenhouse emissions. We may all agree that the objective is a good one, but think of how people would react when they have to adjust schedules or even move from their homes."
Mr. Wong anticipates there will be a long time lag before the general public sees any benefits from the HST. Even the Ontario government has commented that it expects it to take a year before consumers start to see the savings trickle down in the form of lower prices.
For families in Ontario and British Columbia, the HST just means that life is going to get more expensive at a time when most of us feel we could use a break.