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There's still time in the tax calendar to make 2011 the year you resuscitate your retirement stash – and if that doesn't inspire you to make an RRSP contribution, consider the tax refund that could be headed your way.

We've all likely heard it by now, Canadian debt loads are too high, our savings rates are dropping and more of us are concerned that our retirement goals are unrealistic.

Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly important for Canadians to build their own retirement pool as pension burdens shift from companies to individuals.

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A recent survey by TD bank suggests that a third of Canadians in their 40s haven't yet opened an RRSP, even though they realize they should. And a CIBC study found those over 45 years old – who should be concentrating on saving for retirement – are increasingly dipping into debt.

Regardless of age or financial situation, making a contribution to your registered retirement savings plan is not out of reach – you just have to be disciplined.

"The earlier you start in life, the smaller your weekly or monthly contributions have to be," said Tina Di Vito, head of the BMO Retirement Institute, and author of 52 Ways to Wreck Your Retirement … and How to Rescue It.

"If you delay starting your contributions till midlife or late life, then in some cases you have to double or triple the contributions required to get you to the same point."

It's a good idea to start contributing in your 20s, when you land that first "career" job. If you invest $1,000 per year for 40 years, you can amass more than twice as much as the person who begins in their 40s and invests $2,000 a year for 20 years.

Still, with as little as five to 10 years left, it's not too late to save for your plans, but it will require sacrifices like vacations and meals out, Ms. Di Vito says.

The formula is easy – contribute as much as you can afford, as soon as possible.

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If you're swamped in high-interest debt like credit cards, it's best to pay that off first, Ms. Di Vito says, but if debt is manageable and low-interest, like on a mortgage, you can balance your budget between savings and debt repayment, or put your tax refund toward your mortgage.

RRSP contributions – which are due Feb. 29 – aren't a tax credit per se, they actually reduce taxable income by the contribution amount, so the more you put in, the less tax you'll pay.

If you earn $50,000 and contribute $10,000 then the government can only tax for $40,000 of earnings. Because most employers tax per paycheque, you could see a refund on the difference.

The average middle-income earner, paying 30 per cent in annual income taxes, will receive $300 for every $1,000 contributed. If you would have owed $300 in additional taxes, you're now even.

The 2011 RRSP limit is 18 per cent of 2010 income, to a maximum of $22,450. But if you didn't contribute the maximum in prior years (see your 2010 return or call Canada Revenue Agency to find out), your contribution room accumulates, says Caroline Corbeil, a tax analyst with tax software maker Turbo Tax.

"This could lower you into a lower tax bracket depending where the income level is at," she says.

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Early tax return calculations using a program like Turbo Tax's RRSP Optimizer can help determine exactly how much you need to put into an RRSP to bring your tax owing to zero, or to receive specific refund amounts, she added.

Although it's possible to make a contribution in one lump sum, the most pragmatic way to save is through smaller, regular contributions, Ms. Di Vito says.

Many banks will set up automatic savings plans that put away a specified amount on a specific date. That way, the money is out of sight before you can "accidentally" spend it.

"Saving shouldn't be a default, it should be one of the first things that you do," Ms. Di Vito says.

You cannot remove money from your RRSP without a tax penalty, except under two circumstances – first-time home buyers can use up to $25,000 toward their home, and those who wish to continue their education can help with funding through the plan.

Once the money is in an RRSP, it will only grow by investing – in a high-interest savings account, equities, bonds or mutual funds. An RRSP is a savings vehicle, not an investment itself.

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When choosing how to invest, it's important to keep your risk tolerance level in mind. That means not only how much sleep you'll get if your investment values drop, but also your age, says Sadiq Adatia, chief investment officer at Sun Life Global Investments (Canada) Inc.

A 20-year-old can take on more risk because she likely has less to invest and more time to make up losses, while a 40-year-old likely already has a bigger nest egg and less time before retirement.

While some investors sit on the sidelines after seeing the value of their investments plummet on markets in recent years, Mr. Adatia suggests now is actually a good time to buy in because stocks are undervalued, or "on sale."

Rather than despair about lost time or investments that have put us even further from our goals, Mr. Adatia says we've got to work harder to achieve them.

"We've seen Canadians really reduce their savings over the last few years and debt loads are really high, which doesn't really bode well for down the road to retirement, so they really have to invest back in their future again."

For tips, stories, videos and live chats ahead of this year's RRSP contribution deadline, check the Globe Investor 2012 RRSP season section for daily updates.

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