How to diversify my TFSA using ETFs
The Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) is a gift to all Canadian investors.
I mean, who doesn’t love tax-free money?
Still got a bunch of cash in your TFSA?
For years now, we’ve decided to use our TFSAs as a growing income-generation machine – investing in different Canadian banks, telco companies, pipeline companies and real estate investment trusts (REITs).
Holding a number of Canadian dividend paying companies inside your TFSA may or may not appeal to you. In fact, you might want to really diversify your portfolio, specifically your TFSA, using some low-cost Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) like these fans/readers want to do:
I know you can’t offer advice but I’m simply looking for extra information… I want to diversify my TFSA using ETFs. I’m just not comfortable yet using individual stocks. What would be examples of ETFs I could consider and why?
I’ve been stuck in paralysis by analysis mode for a few years now with $20,000 sitting inside my TFSA. I know I should get this money working for me since I keep an emergency fund in a savings account. I own various ETFs in my RRSP (I like the benefits that come with these products) but I’ve heard there are tax issues with some ETFs inside my TFSA? Is that true? If so, is there any way I can avoid those tax issues?
Wondering if you can help. I need to diversify my TFSA to US equities through ETF holdings. What will be examples or recommended ETFs? From reading your site, I saw you hold VYM which is in USD. Will the dividends and capital gains of this ETF have U.S. withholding taxes if not held in your RRSP? Your help is appreciated.
Wow, great questions from some savvy readers who are passionate about investing!
Well, I will certainly offer what I know folks but I can’t offer direct investing advice. I can share what I’ve learned and thought about for my own portfolio in the past – and that includes the use of ETFs inside my TFSA.
Don’t let the tax tail wag the investing dog for your TFSA
First of foremost, what I’ve learned is, once you have a financial plan in place then picking financial products for that plan becomes a helluva lot easier. Meaning:
- What are you investing goals?
- What are you investing money for?
- What risks do you want to mitigate when it comes to investing?
- How long is your investing timeline?
- And so on and so on and so on….
Personally, if you’re putting products before plans you probably won’t be as successful as you could be.
With that out of way, what I’m implying by the bold font above is tax management should be down your financial to-do list after more important principles of investing are covered. Those principles include keeping your financial costs low for as long as possible and considering diversification across your portfolio. After you’ve factored that in, then being tax-efficient is a good thing too.
Canadian-listed ETFs for the TFSA
Without further delays here are some of the ETF products I like and why, including listing some of the taxation concerns with ETFs inside TFSAs these readers have outlined. My table below is not an exhaustive list of ETFs you can own in each category nor a detailed account about foreign withholding taxes but it does outline my thinking.
|Type of Canadian ETF||TFSA tax impact?||Canadian ETF Examples||General comments|
|Canadian equity||None that I can think of!|
Canadian-listed ETFs that hold Canadian stocks avoid taxation inside the account. Basically, dividends and capital gains can grow tax-free and money can be taken out of the TFSA tax-free.
|I personally wouldn’t pay too much more than 0.5% MER for any Canadian ETF, or any fund for that matter.|
There are many great choices out there but some ETFs have foreign withholding tax implications – money withheld by foreign governments before the dividends are paid to you.
|U.S. equity (via Canadian ETF)||This is where things can get tricky.|
While the TFSA continues to provide tax-free growth…there is a wrinkle…
Canadian-listed ETFs that hold U.S. equities will have foreign withholding taxes applied, 15% on dividends received.
These are withholding taxes you cannot get back; they are not recoverable inside a TFSA as far as I know!
|· XUS (holds U.S. IVV)|
· VFV (holds U.S. VOO)
· VUN (holds U.S. VTI)
· XUU (a fund of U.S. funds)
|Although losing 15% of your dividends is not a huge hit for some U.S. equity exposure, why do that if you don’t have to?|
Consider this: once your RRSP becomes large enough, use your RRSP-dollar account to hold U.S.-listed ETFs (such as IVV, VOO, VTI, other) or U.S. stocks. You won’t pay ANY foreign withholding taxes if you do that.
Quick Example: the withholding taxes on VUN (inside TFSA) vs. VTI (inside RRSP) = 2% yield on VTI * 0.15% charged on VUN = 0.30% extra costs for VUN over VTI beyond the money management fee to run the fund. Something to consider!
|International equity (via Canadian ETF)||This is where things can get more complicated when it comes to withholding taxes…|
While the TFSA continues to provide tax-free growth…a double whammy exists for Canadian-listed ETFs that hold U.S. listed ETFs with international equities that pay dividends; this is additional withholding tax.
Again, international and U.S. withholding taxes are things you can cannot get back; they are not recoverable inside a TFSA as far as I know!
|Recognizing this additional layer of foreign withholding taxes, I think if you’re going to focus on international equities inside your TFSA it makes sense to buy a Canadian-listed ETF that holds international stocks directly where possible (e.g. XEF, VIU).|
That said, there are some great ex-Canada ETFs (e.g., XAW or VXC in particular) that regardless of the small hit associated with foreign withholding taxes; the TFSA can be an excellent home for them.
See more details below.
Savvy investors will probably realize two big things in the table above.
1. I didn’t list lots of details about international equities.
While the TFSA continues to provide tax-free growth for assets inside that account, you need to factor in the additional withholding taxes wrinkle depending upon the product you own. A second layer of U.S. withholding tax will apply when the Canadian ETF holds a U.S.-listed ETF of international stocks. An example of that is the iShares product XEC. XEC holds U.S.-listed ETF IEMG. Vanguard’s VDU is another one.
2. I didn’t list any Canadian bond ETFs above.
It’s not because those are not considerations for investors. Rather, given where bond prices are now; the fact that interest rates are low and might rise (a bit??) over time (who knows??), AND to maximize the benefit of the TFSA – tax-free growth and tax-free income, I really, really think you should put growth or income products inside the TFSA.
That’s just me!
What about ex-Canada ETFs or all-world ETFs inside the TFSA?
Ya, why not!
In recent years both iShares and Vanguard have put out some great products to help investors diversify beyond Canada’s borders, including inside the TFSA.
I’m talking about iShares XAW and Vanguard VXC in particular.
I’m a big (and growing) fan of these global ETFs that are ex-Canada because of three key reasons:
- I get global exposure to thousands of stocks I could never afford on my own
- They trade on the TSX so I don’t need to worry about currency conversion (to buy U.S.-listed ETFs)
- They have low management fees.
While the money management fee for XAW is close to VXC, I like XAW. Both products provide excellent all-in-one stock solutions outside of Canada but XAW has more international assets.
If you agree with me that holding Canadian-listed ETFs is the way to go for your TFSA, then I would strongly consider XAW or VXC for ex-Canada exposure.
This way, you can use your RRSP for Canadian or U.S. assets.
While withholding taxes will apply to XAW and VXC inside the TFSA I personally think the additional costs are a small price to pay for the global diversification benefit.
Looking at XAW vs. other Canadian ETFs for withholding taxes inside the TFSA or other accounts:
|ETF||MER – TFSA||MER – RRSP||MER – Non-Reg|
|XAW||0.53% (0.22% + 0.31%*)||0.53% (0.22% + 0.31%*)||0.26% (0.22% + 0.04%*)|
You can also check out these posts about some outstanding all-in-one ETFs to own, including all-equity funds where you can own the world of stocks for a puny money management fee!
This brings me to the following…
What to buy and hold and where?
While it would be more tax-efficient to hold only U.S.-listed ETFs in your RRSP and keep only Canadian content like XIU, VCN and ZCN inside your TFSA it’s not worth obsessing over.
Remember to buy U.S.-listed ETFs you need USD $$.
This means you’ll need to deal with currency conversion costs to convert Canadian money to U.S. dollars to buy those U.S.-listed ETFs; even for your RRSP.
If you want to avoid that mess or just keep things simple, just buy a few low-cost, diversified Canadian-listed ETFs that holds U.S. stocks and/or U.S. and international stocks and spread those funds across your registered accounts (TFSAs, RRSPs, RESPs) first before any taxable investing.
Here are my concluding thoughts:
- Use the TFSA for equities not bonds or cash.
- Use the TFSA for long-term income generation or growth.
- In a TFSA, I think Canadian-listed ETFs (that invest in Canada alone or in foreign equities) are good choices since using a U.S.-listed ETF inside your TFSA does not offer any tax advantage.
- In a TFSA, if you’re going to own some Canadian-listed ETFs consider an all-in-one ex-Canada fund for simplicity OR if you want to focus on international assets then consider owning a fund that holds the international stocks directly since it will help avoid the double-whammy withholding tax exposure.
These are my opinions based on what I know. Your mileage may vary!
Bottom line when it comes to the TFSA
All investors make trade-offs with stocks allocations, bond allocations and cash holdings. There really is no perfect portfolio. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
So my friends, you can definitely go with a few ETFs for your TFSA, or one fund for that account, or replicate a few funds across all your investing accounts, or more combinations.
Instead of being paralyzed by endless analysis, I would encourage you to use this post and other posts on my site as some ammunition to get on with your investing life.
Consider making some low-cost, Canadian equity decisions for your TFSA for growth or income or both and don’t look back.
You’ll be wealthier over time for it.
What are you putting inside your TFSA for wealth-building?