If there's one thing to know about planning your retirement savings this year it's this: it's not getting any easier.
Apparently that's what a growing majority of Canadians think. New surveys from both the Bank of Nova Scotia and Bank of Montreal show that a dwindling percentage of people plan to put anything at all this year into their Registered Retirement Savings Plans.
With RRSP investment season now under way and the March 3 deadline looming for 2013 tax filing and to get potential refunds, the Scotiabank survey finds that just 31 per cent of Canadians plan to contribute this year, compared with 39 per cent last year. BMO's survey found that 43 per cent plan to contribute, but this, too, is down from 50 per cent in 2013.
The most common reason most people give is that, after all their bills and expenses, they can't afford to pay in. Canadian households spend about $1.65 for every dollar earned, according to Statistics Canada, a ratio among the highest of any country belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Scotiabank's online study was done by Harris/Decima with a sample of 1,029 Canadians from Nov. 12 to Nov. 27, 2013. The online BMO study was conducted by marketing firm Pollara with a sample of 1,003 Canadians between Nov. 18 and 22, 2013.
"Clearly, affordability was on the minds of Canadians," says Mike Henry, senior vice-president of Retail Payments, Deposits and Lending at Scotiabank in Toronto.
The situation is unfortunate, and it doesn't have to be this way, says Laurie Campbell, CEO of Credit Canada Debt Solutions, a not-for-profit organization that counsels people with financial problems and promotes financial literacy.
"It's hard when you have to pay your credit card bills with 29-per-cent interest." But it doesn't change the need to look at the long-term picture and save what you can, she says.
"People get so overwhelmed and scared by the complexity of retirement, but it doesn't need to be complex. Keep it simple."
Ms. Campbell and other experts agree that the key is to take a step-by-step approach, and start as soon as you can. The steps are: come up with a strategy for retirement savings, then put together a plan that will work, and then – the hardest part – actually do it.
Any Canadian who files a tax return can put in up to 18 per cent of his or her income, up to a limit this year of $23,820. This limit is lower for Canadians who already pay into registered pension plans.
Some taxpayers may have extra room to contribute because they didn't put money in during previous years. You can tell exactly how much you are allowed to contribute for the 2013 tax year by looking at the Notice of Assessment you received from the Canada Revenue Agency for 2012.
It may seem like the current economy makes it difficult to make RRSP decisions. Interest rates are at historic lows, U.S. stock markets soared last year and Canada's did well, too, and even troubled European economies seem to show signs of recovery. On the other hand, the Canadian dollar is down and declining, and there's no guarantee that because the economy did something in the past, it will continue to do the same thing.
But investment advisers say that economic uncertainty and turbulence should not affect whether you save for retirement.
"If you are one of those people who waits until the March deadline, don't worry about it, put money in now, then worry about what to do with it once it's in," says Andrew Pyle, an adviser and portfolio manager at Pyle Wealth Management in Peterborough, Ont., and an adviser with ScotiaMcLeod.
The best strategy is to set up a plan where you put a bit each month into your RRSP during the year, he says. That way, you won't have the pressure of coming up with the cash in January and February, when the holiday bills come due.
The sooner you start saving for retirement, the better, even if it's only a small amount at first, Ms. Campbell says.
"I wish I had started at 18," she says. Scotiabank's Mr. Henry adds that, when customers are surveyed, the biggest regret they express is that they hadn't started saving earlier in life.
He and other advisers offer tips to make saving for retirement easier, no matter what the current economy is doing and no matter when you start.
Here are some of their tips:
• Review your budget and put together a financial plan.
This isn't necessarily fun, but it's necessary. You'll be surprised at where your money is going. Financial institutions can help you begin your financial planning for free. The Globe's online calculators can help, such as the Cash Flow and Retirement Calculator.
• Make your savings automatic.
One of the advantages of an RRSP is that once the money goes in, it's not so easy to take it out. If you take money out of your RRSP before retirement, there's paperwork and the government takes a withholding tax.
• Start saving as early as you can.
Optimally, start as soon as you have an income and file a tax return. In some cases, you can borrow from your own RRSP funds to help pay for a first-time home and for your own education (there's a different program to help pay for your children or grandchildren). Remember, though, if you use your RRSP for these purposes, the government keeps track and you have to put the money back in.
• Consider other tax-saving programs, such as the TFSA (Tax Free Savings Account).
You can put funds into both an RRSP and a TFSA; with the latter, the money can grow in the account and will not be taxed again. Individuals can contribute up to $5,500 this year to a TFSA, and if you've never opened one, you can contribute for the years you've missed since the program was started in 2009.