Category Archives: Money saving tips

Don’t be fooled by CRA’s record of your TFSA contribution room

Several months after my husband and I filed our 2016 income tax returns and got our refunds, we received identical ominous envelopes from CRA.  They contained Notices of Assessment reporting that each of us had over-contributed $5,500/month for the last five months of the year, resulting in a $28,201 over-contribution to our TFSA accounts. Yet further down on the notices, it said the contributions to each of our accounts in 2016 totaled only $10,859.79.

Upon reviewing our bank statements, it appeared that one contribution of $5,500 was made in early March and a second amount was transferred into each TFSA in August 2016. When my husband checked our CRA accounts online mid-year, they said we still had $5,500 of contribution room in each account, so he made the second deposits in August.

However, upon calling CRA for clarification, we learned that unlike online banking records which are updated daily, CRA only receives information once a year by January 1st when financial institutions are required to report TFSA transactions for the prior calendar year. Therefore, because we made contributions after January 1, 2016, when we checked later in the year, they were not reflected in the total TFSA contribution room that could be viewed on CRA’s My Account feature.

The good news is that the total excess TFSA amount of $28,201.05 recorded in the first part of the Notice of Assessment was incorrect due to a programming error which totaled the overpayment at the end of each month instead of recording it as one amount of $5,500 for the balance of the year.

However, the bad news is that we had to withdraw $5,500 from each of our TFSA accounts and each pay $298.11 taxes and penalties. The tax payable for excess contributions to a tax-free savings account is 1% per month, for any month in which there is an excess amount at any time in the month.  This means there will be a tax payable even if the excess amount is withdrawn in the same month in which it is contributed.

While we could have appealed the penalties because the over contribution was due to a genuine misunderstanding, we decided to just pay the amounts and learn from our experience.

So the moral of the story is it is important to track TFSA contributions yourself. There is no deadline for contributions to a TFSA, as the unused contribution room is carried forward into the next year.  However, a withdrawal in any year does not increase the TFSA room until the following calendar year.  Thus, if you are thinking of making a withdrawal close to year end, make sure it is done by December 31st, in order to have the withdrawal amount added back to the TFSA room sooner.

The history of annual limits for each year is shown in the table below. The first year that contributions could be made was 2009.  At the current rate of inflation, the TFSA contribution limit will increase to $6,000 per year in 2019.

Years TFSA Annual Limit Cumulative Total
2009-2012 $5,000 $20,000
2013 $5,500 $25,500
2014 $5,500 $31,000
2015 $10,000 $41,000
2016 $5,500 $46,500
2017 $5,500 $52,000


Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Workplace tips for new graduates

You’ve got your degree. You’ve emptied the contents of your student apartment into the back of a van and you are ready to hit the road. If you are one of the fortunate minority of graduates who already have a job lined up in your field, contacts made through internships or co-op placements may have facilitated that process.

Nevertheless, you will typically be on probation for several months so it’s particularly important in the early days to gain a good understanding of the corporate culture and what is and is not acceptable in your new workplace.

Find out how many hours a day employees are required to work and the start and stop times. Flexible hours are very common now in many establishments, but be vigilant to better understand what that really means. Theoretically, you may be able to work 8-4, 9-5 or 10-6, but if your supervisor and co-workers are all early birds you could miss a lot of networking and useful socializing if you work the late shift. Also, if work-at-home days are permitted they may only kick in once your probation period is over. 

Dress code
In high tech companies, casual dress is the norm. In fact if you turn up in a suit and tie your coworkers will likely start making cracks about whether or not you are looking for another job. But muscle shirts and torn jeans even on more casual Fridays are rarely a good idea. In contrast, if you work in a large urban law firm, business suits and ties for men and stockings and heels for women may be the dress code on even the hottest summer day.

Speaking out
You got the job because the hiring manager believes you have something to contribute based on both your education and experience. By all means, answer questions and offer ideas at team and client meetings. However, particularly in the beginning, do more listening and taking notes than talking. In some cases it may make sense to pull someone aside after a meeting to discuss your brainwave rather than blurting out a half-baked thought or embarrassing a co-worker.

Personal vs. private
You are being paid to work for your employer. Keep personal telephone calls, texting and social media posting to an absolute minimum. If possible step into a meeting room or out in the hall to have a conversation. Most offices these days are open concept cubicle farms and loud private calls will not only bother others, but could result in over-sharing of personal information. 

Company gossip
Many offices have factions or cliques. Try not to align yourself with one group to the exclusion of others. Be positive and do not gossip! Negativity about people or company processes will give you a bad reputation. Finding and working with one or more mentors can give your career a boost, but developing positive relationships with as many people as possible can be just as valuable.

Chances are that you will end up working at something completely different than you envisaged when you started college or university. And you also probably won’t stay in your first job for more than two years. In fact, according to Workopolis, if current trends continue, Canadians can expect to hold roughly 15 jobs in their careers.

But your performance and the relationships you make in your first job will form the foundation of your career, so tread cautiously. After all, you will never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

10 things to bring on a road trip

It’s been four years since I wrote Taking a road trip on the cheap for so I thought it was time to re-visit the subject. This time around the focus is on 10 things (in no particular order) that will help to make your trip more comfortable.

  1. Prescription, non-prescription drugs: If you forget prescription drugs it may be possible to have a pharmacy in a different town call your local pharmacy to have the prescription transferred. But it is not always easy if you have left the province or crossed the border to the U.S. Also, some over-the-counter drugs in Canada like decongestants and codeine require a prescription once you leave the country.
  2. First aid kit: The Canadian Red Cross has a whole list of things you should include in a first aid kit for your home, cottage, car, boat or workplace. In addition to various types of bandages, sterile gauze and adhesive tape, don’t forget scissors, tweezers, safety pins, instant ice packs and a flashlight with working batteries.
  3. Audio books: You can take both children and adult audio books out of the library. You can also download podcasts. Listening to these can be a nice break from the CDs you have played multiple times after you lose reception from your favorite radio channels.
  4. Important documents: You must have your car ownership, driver’s license and insurance slip on you at all times when you are driving. This requirement is even more important when you are miles from home. Also make sure you have your provincial medical card and details about any supplementary travel medical insurance coverage. And don’t forget, everyone in the car needs an up-to-date passport whether you drive or fly to the U.S.
  5. Pillows and blankets: When you are sleeping in a different bed every couple of nights, there is nothing that will help you sleep better than your own pillow. Children often become attached to a particular blanket or soft toy and won’t settle down without them. Also, it can get chilly in the car and on a long drive, the alternate driver can cuddle up and get 40 winks.
  6. Car chargers: Cell phones, tablets, electronic games. They all have batteries that need to be recharged periodically and require internet access to be interactive. Make sure you have the right car chargers so you can keep all your devices juiced up and family members happy. When selecting accommodation, look for free wifi in the room, not just in the lobby.
  7. Wet wipes: Inevitably someone will dump their milkshake in the car or have a case of sudden onset car sickness. Paper towels and wet wipes are essential in these circumstances and you may also have to drive with the windows open for as long as possible to try and dissipate any odour.
  8. Change of clothes: If you travel with children, never forget to pack an easily accessible change of clothing for each child in the car instead of in the suitcase at the bottom of your trunk. Because accidents of various types are inevitable, you will be glad you did.
  9. Auto club membership: Even if your car is brand new or has just been serviced, never leave home without an automobile club membership. And don’t pick the cheapest one. A basic membership may offer a maximum towing distance of only 10 km but you will appreciate a premium membership that pays for towing your car 200 km or more if you have a breakdown on a lonely stretch of highway.
  10. Extra car keys: Make sure you bring several sets of car keys with you and your partner or fellow travelers know where you have stashed the other set. Many years ago it would have been easy to get a replacement car key made — a quick trip to the local hardware store was all it took. Now car keys are made using advanced technology, which makes them harder to copy and it takes much longer to get replacement keys. Replacing high tech keys can also cost hundreds of dollars.
Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Funky Father’s Day Gifts

Finding gifts for the Dads in your life can be a challenge. Few men wear ties or use cloth handkerchiefs anymore and let’s face it — even jazzy socks are a pretty boring and impersonal gift. Furthermore, most family budgets cannot be stretched to pay for big ticket guy things like fast cars, motorcycles or a spring training road trip.

But there are lots of things you can do on a shoestring that Dad will appreciate. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. Save for the dream: You may not be able to afford the latest tech toy or an exotic trip right now, but you can start a bank account or even a piggy bank with the goal of accumulating the necessary funds within a specified time.
  2. Golf: If your husband or father is a golfer, finding the time to golf may be as much of a problem as paying hefty greens fees. Block out a few “golf days” for him on the calendar and get a gift certificate to a local course. The kids might enjoy decorating customized golf balls using indelible markers. Or you can plan a family mini-golf outing.
  3. Car wash: Most family chariots are pretty grubby after a long winter. Instead of paying for an expensive detailing job, put the kids to work washing and vacuuming the car. After all, he is their father and not yours!
  4. Send him on a course: My husband’s hobby is woodworking. Lee Valley Tools offers one day mini-courses on everything from wood turning to sharpening tools. He has received several as gifts and says he learned a great deal. Whatever your husband or father is interested in, chances are some organization in the community offers a “how-to-class.”
  5. Senior Dads: If your Dad is a senior and living alone, make him several weeks’ worth of yummy frozen dinners he can microwave. Better still, invite him over to share meals with your family. If he lives in a different city, see if you can manage an unexpected weekend visit.
  6. Game tickets: Tickets to big league football, hockey or baseball can cost hundreds of dollars. However there are many local little league and even semi pro teams that provide great entertainment and would welcome your support.
  7. Framed pictures: Because photos are digital now, we tend to print very few of them. Instead they are stored on our phones, on Facebook or online. Print and frame a lovely family picture for Dad’s desk or the wall in his office.
  8. Make a video: Every smart phone now has a video camera. As a rainy day project, get the kids to put a script together and devise costume from items in your closet. Each one can end with a monologue about why they love their Dad and what they plan to do to make his day special.
  9. Phone apps: Is your teenager geeky but his father is not? Have your son or daughter research and find phone apps that will make Dad’s life easier and teach him how to use them. This could include anything from games, to an app that allows easy recording of business expenses to a program that converts foreign currency to Canadian dollars.
  10. Gifts that give back: There are many worthwhile charities in your local community or farther afield that operate on a shoe string. You may have already donated your time or money to one or more of these organizations. Make a special donation in honour of Dad for Father’s Day.
Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

6 things my Mom taught me about money

By Sheryl Smolkin


My Mom will be 90 this year and we recently moved her to a private retirement home that specializes in Alzheimer’s and dementia care. In her prime, she was a feisty, fashionable businesswoman. In fact she sold registered educational savings plans well past when most people retire and her employer finally made a retirement dinner in her honour when she was over 80.

As we sorted through her condo to get it ready for sale, I realized that my mother taught me many essential lessons about money, both before and after I left home. Here are six important things I learned from her over the years — in many cases, by osmosis.

  1. Avoid debt at all cost: When we were growing up, the golden rule was, if you can’t afford it, you can’t buy it. Credit cards were not as pervasive as they are now and we were encouraged to save a portion of our allowance until we had enough to purchase the desired item. Other than a mortgage, my parents paid off their bills every month.
  2. Never pay retail: As an inveterate shopper on a limited budget my mother knew how to stretch a dollar. Her view was and still is that a sale starts at 50% off. She also seized every opportunity to buy clothes for the family wholesale direct from factories in Montreal she was able to visit as a result of family contacts. Internet shopping came a little too late for her, but if she was a few years younger, I bet that she would have loved searching for bargains online.
  3. Get an education: My grandparents emigrated from Europe. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My brother, sister and I were the first generation on both sides of the family to attend university. For as long as I can remember my Mom viewed education as the key to a golden door that would unlock future opportunities.
  4. Invest in your children: While my Mom taught us the value of a dollar and we had summer jobs to defray the costs of going away to university, she scrimped and saved to make sure all three of us could graduate from a first degree, debt free. In her 40s she became a successful real estate salesperson and then a broker, in part, to help generate money for our education. We have done the same for our children.
  5. Buy and pay off a home: Mom firmly believed that a paid off home is the best retirement savings plan. It turns out that she was right. When she moved to Thornhill in 1980 she bought a semi-detached house for under $100,000 with a down payment of $30,000 realized from the sale of her home in Cornwall. Since then she moved to a condo which is expected to sell for over six times the value of her first Toronto area property.
  6. Save for a rainy day: Once she started making her own money selling real estate and then RESPs, Mom made maximum contributions to her RRSP every year. While initially her savings meant she could afford extras like travel in retirement, in the last few years we have used her money to hire caregivers so she could stay in her apartment as long as possible. And I am grateful that balance of her savings and the proceeds of sale of her apartment will now be available to pay for excellent care as long as she needs it.

But as we gather to celebrate our Mom on Mother’s Day, I realize the most important lesson she taught me is the power of love and family through good times and bad. My daughter’s family lives in Ottawa so she only sees her great granddaughter every few months. She may not remember her name or how she is related but she knows she is someone important and her hugs and kisses are more valuable than anything money can buy.


10 Top Productivity Tips for Telecommuters

By Sheryl Smolkin

In recent years technology has made working remote for all or part of the week a practical option for a broad spectrum of employees ranging from customer service representatives to travel agents to professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

CBC News reported last year that more than 1.7 million paid employees — those not self-employed — worked from home in 2008 at least once a week, up almost 23% from the 1.4 million in 2000, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures released in 2010.

While the ability to more easily juggle work and family responsibilities may make telecommuting attractive for many people, the fact is that individuals who work from home must have the right tools and be able to minimize distractions in order to effectively do their job.

Here are 10 tips for to help you be more efficient working from home.

  1. Keep regular working hours
    The advantage of working from home may be that you can set your own hours. But even if you have to work “the night shift” after your kids are in bed, you will accomplish more if you establish a regular routine and stick with it.
  2. Dress for success
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting heels and a business suit. But get out of your pajamas, shower, shave and brush your teeth. When you sit down to work you will feel more wide awake and focused.
  3. Remind people you are working
    Tell friends and neighbours you are working from home and not available for coffee klatches and other social get-togethers during your work day. Also, if you have young children, arrange full or part-time childcare to ensure you have the uninterrupted time you need to do your job.
  4. Optimize your work space
    Not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated home office. However working at the kitchen table or sitting on the couch with your lap top and papers spread out around you are not in the long run conducive to good posture or good work habits. If at all possible set up a dedicated desk or table in a corner of your bedroom or another available nook.
  5. Have the right tools
    A cell phone, a lap top and the internet are all most people need to work anywhere these days. But there are lots of other tech tools and apps can make your life easier. For example, I couldn’t possibly function without a headset. Dropbox allows me to both store files in the cloud and share them with work colleagues and external clients. Google drive is a free resource I use to create documents and spreadsheets that I can give clients and associates permission to access and edit.
  6. Stay in touch
    Depending on the nature of your job, stay in touch and communicate frequently with colleagues and clients. Always Skype or call in for important meetings. Inform co-workers and supervisors of your core working hours and availability. Make sure you understand what your manager expects and consistently deliver on those expectations.
  7. Make a list
    I am a huge fan of “To Do” lists both at home and at work. If you are working offsite it is particularly important to keep a revolving list so you can prioritize and track multiple requests from co-workers who are also working remote or in the office. By keeping your lists (paper or digital) even after you have checked things off, you have a record of what you have actually accomplished each day.
  8. Take a break
    I have found that often I work harder and longer at home because there are fewer interruptions. Get up every hour. Move around. Take time to go to the gym or participate in a yoga class. While pjs may not be acceptable work-at-home wear, a track suit and running shoes are fine, particularly if they facilitate fitting a workout into your day.
  9. Human contact
    Working alone at home without any other adult contact day in and day out can be detrimental to your mental health. Telephone people instead of always sending emails. For a change of scenery take your lap top to a local coffee shop or library. If you are self-employed you might benefit from a co-working space which will provide you with shared resources like meeting rooms and networking events.
  10. Manage food intake
    Access to a fully-stocked kitchen can be both a pro and a con for telecommuters. If you shop wisely and prepare yourself a healthy lunch each day, then working from home can improve both your health and your bank account. But if you are constantly raiding the refrigerator or the pantry, you may discover the great outfit you bought on sale at the end of last season no longer fits.

Retirees age 55-64 face greatest barriers to filling prescriptions

By Sheryl Smolkin

If you haven’t seriously thought about the possible impact of health care costs on your retirement budget and lifestyle, you may find recent research from the University of British Columbia as disturbing as I did.

The study reveals that one in 12 Canadians age 55 and older skipped prescriptions due to cost in 2014, the second-highest rate among comparable countries. The ten years before provincial drug plans kick in for most seniors at age 65 is the period of time when the highest percentage of older people can’t afford the drugs they need to stay healthy.

In order to “stretch” their drugs some people skip doses, while others may split pills or try to manage their conditions without drugs. “When patients stop filling their prescriptions, their conditions get worse and they often end up in hospital requiring more care which in the long run costs us more money,” says Steve Morgan, senior author of the study and professor in UBC’s school of population and public health.

The research draws on the 2014 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey of Older Adults (persons aged 55 years or older) in 11 high-income countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Among countries with publicly-funded health-care systems, Canada is the only one without coverage for prescription medications.

In an analysis of survey responses from all 11 countries, the researchers found that Canada had the second-highest prevalence of skipped prescriptions due to cost, at
8.3%.  Access was worse only in the United States, where 16.8% of respondents reported such financial barriers to filling prescriptions. In contrast, fewer than 4% of the populations in most other comparable countries reported skipping prescriptions due to cost.

In a separate analysis of the Canadian survey responses, researchers found that Canadians aged 55 to 64 face the greatest barriers to filling their prescriptions. One in eight Canadians aged 55 to 64 reported that they did not fill prescriptions because of cost in 2014, in comparison to one in 20 Canadians aged 65 and older – who, by way of age, qualify for comprehensive public drug coverage in many provinces.

Morgan points to gaps in drug coverage available to Canadians as a problem. Unlike other countries with universal public health care, public drug plans in Canada generally only cover select groups, such as social assistance recipients and people over age 65. Other Canadians may receive drug coverage from private insurance through their workplaces or none at all.

The survey found that Canadians who did not have insurance were twice as likely to report not filling prescriptions because of cost. It also showed that low-income Canadians were three times more likely to report financial barriers to filling prescription medicines than high-income respondents.

Morgan said the 2014 findings were consistent with studies that date back a decade, indicating affordability of prescription drugs is still a public health issue in Canada.

“Our problem hasn’t gone away. Financial barriers to prescription drugs are still high, both in absolute terms and relative to our peer countries.”

The research was described in two studies published in BMJ Open and CMAJ Open.

10 things you need to know about SPP

By Sheryl Smolkin

I have been writing about the Saskatchewan Pension Plan for six years and a member of the plan for just as long. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the plan, but every time I review the website I learn something new.

Here are 10 things about SPP that you may find interesting.

  1. The 30 year old plan is the 25th largest defined contribution plan in Canada (Benefits Canada 2016).
  2. The plan is funded by member contributions and investment earnings. As of December 31, 2016 there was $479.5 million in assets under management administered by a Board of Trustees, some of whom are also plan members.
  3. If you are between age 18 and 71 and have available Registered Retirement Savings Plan room you are eligible to join the 33,000 other members who are saving for their future, whether or not you live or work in Saskatchewan.
  4. With an annual maximum contribution of $2,500, the plan has several payment options designed to suit your budget.
  5. You can also transfer up to $10,000 per calendar year into your SPP account from your existing RRSP or Registered Retirement income Fund (RRIF).
  6. You have two investment options for your funds. The default fund is the Balanced Fund (BF) which is a low to moderate risk/return investment option. Approximately 55% of the fund is invested in equities, 35% in fixed income investments and 10% in a real estate pooled fund.
  7. The Short-term Fund (STF) is a low risk/low return investment option. Its primary purpose is to preserve capital. It is suitable for members who are near retirement and have reached their retirement savings goal, or members who wish to have a cash equivalent component in their investment portfolio.
  8. You may retire from SPP between the ages of 55 and 71 regardless of your employment status. You must apply for SPP retirement benefits; the package to make this application is available by calling SPP.
  9. If you name your spouse as beneficiary of your account, Canada Revenue Agency allows death benefits to be transferred, tax-deferred, directly to his or her SPP account or to an RRSP, RRIF, or guaranteed Life Annuity Contract (LAC).
  10. In addition to spousal rollover of SPP death benefits, rollovers to an RRSP or Registered Disability Savings Plan for a financially dependent infirm child or grandchild are permitted.

For more information about SPP see the website or call the office at 1-800-667-7153.

Romancing your sweetie on a budget

By Sheryl Smolkin

You are still paying off the credit card bills from Christmas. Your SPP and RRSP contributions have to be in before the end of February. You don’t have time to go to the mall and even if you did, you don’t have any idea what to buy.

Four years ago I posted Thrifty ways to romance your valentine. Since then I’ve had lots more ideas. So even if you were planning to stick with the traditional flowers and chocolates, consider some of these ideas as an add-on.

  1.  Sign up for a class he/she has suggested that both of you to take together. It could be for anything from cake decorating to ballroom dancing to couples’ yoga.
  2. Volunteer together at a local homeless shelter, food bank or even the SPCA. Doing something for others will help deepen your own relationship.
  3. Pack a lunch with all kinds of goodies including a beautiful cupcake for dessert. Add a personal, humorous, handwritten note.
  4. Load phone apps that will make life easier and teach your partner how to use them. Also add a romantic picture of the two of you as the wallpaper on his/her phone.
  5. Rerun romantic movies that one of you may never have seen or that you saw together at a special time. Classic examples are: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Love Actually and You’ve Got Mail.
  6. Binge watch on Netflix a season or two of a romantic show on a cold winter weekend and plan snacks that fit the theme. Tea and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam would be a perfect fit for Downton Abbey.
  7. Clean the house, make the beds and do the laundry, all without having to be asked. Give your lover coupons that can be redeemed at a negotiated time for future cleaning services.
  8. Pick a pet together and bring the puppy or kitten home on Valentine’s Day. This assumes you both want a pet and it was just a matter of time until you added one to your family. A red collar and leash would be in keeping with the day.
  9. Plan an active adventure. Take a hike; go skating on an outdoor rink and drink hot chocolate. Snowshoe through the park or toboggan down a hill. Winter is much more bearable when you embrace it instead of constantly trying to avoid it.
  10. Arrange an unexpected visit with a loved one, i.e. a housebound senior, a new grandbaby or your youngest child who is away at college for the first time. Helping to bring lonely people together on or around Valentine’s Day will create unforgettable memories.