How does a TFSA work?

How Does a TFSA Work? (Everything You Need To Know)

How does a TFSA (Tax-Free Savings Account) work?

Using a TFSA effectively can save you thousands in taxes because the government is giving you the opportunity to earn tax-free income, including investment income.

Yet, many people aren’t aware of how to leverage their TFSA to its full potential.

Take a few minutes to understand how a TFSA works and everything you should know about the Tax-Free Savings Account. You will then be well equipped to take maximum advantage of your own TFSA.

Is the TFSA A Savings Account?

There’s a common source of confusion when it comes to the TFSA that’s caused by its bewildering name.

If you’ve never heard of it, you might guess that it would be similar to a bank savings account. It has “savings account” in the name – sounds just like a normal savings account, except that you don’t have to pay taxes on the little bit of interest you earn from your cash deposits, right?

Unfortunately, its deceptive name does its best to conceal the true benefits.

In fact, a TFSA is far from just a place to park your cash and earn 1% interest. To truly capitalize on the potential of a TFSA, it should be considered an investment account. Unlike your typical savings account, you can use a TFSA to buy stocks and bonds, not just hold cash inside.

A TFSA is an excellent vehicle to hold long-term investments that will allow you to accumulate wealth through compounding returns.

TFSA cash savings versus investments

How Much Can I Contribute To My TFSA?

The amount of money you can contribute to your TFSA is known as your contribution limit. Your contribution limit increases starting from the year you turn 18 years old. The TFSA was introduced in 2009, so if you were over the age of 18 by then your contribution limit would have started growing in 2009.

Year TFSA Contribution Limit
2021 $6,000
2020 $6,000
2019 $6,000
2018 $5,500
2017 $5,500
2016 $5,500
2015 $10,000
2014 $5,500
2013 $5,500
2012 $5,000
2011 $5,000
2010 $5,000
2009 $5,000

The great thing about the TFSA is that unused contribution limit carries over every year. For example, if you are currently 30 years old and have never used a TFSA before, then adding all the contribution limits from 2009 to 2020, you would have $69,500 in contribution room waiting for you to use!

Keep in mind that you’re allowed to have multiple TFSA accounts, as long as the total amount contributed across all accounts does not exceed your contribution limit.

Similarly, your remaining contribution room is the amount of money you can contribute before reaching your contribution limit. It decreases by the amount that you contribute into your TFSA. When you run out of contribution room, you have reached your contribution limit.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) keeps track of your individual contribution room at the start of every year. To view the contribution room that CRA has on your file, log into your CRA account, and then scroll down to the “RRSP and TFSA” section, where you can view your contribution room as of January 1st of the current year.

It takes several months for CRA to process last year’s contributions and withdrawals. The contribution room shown will not be up-to-date if you make frequent contributions or withdrawals. Check the Transaction Summary to see the contributions and withdrawals CRA has on file.

If you want to ensure you don’t over-contribute, it’s best to keep track yourself by keeping account of your contributions and withdrawals.

How Do Withdrawals Affect My Contribution Room?

One of the most notable distinctions between a TFSA and an RRSP is that when you withdraw from a TFSA, that contribution room is not lost forever. Instead, the amount that you withdrew is re-added to your contribution room on January 1st of the next year.

Be wary that if you’re transferring money between TFSA accounts by withdrawing from one account and contributing into the other, then you won’t be able to recover the contribution room until next year.

To illustrate how withdrawals affect your contribution room, consider the following example.

TFSA Contribution Room Example

The freedom of being able to withdraw money at any time without permanent penalty is theoretically a tremendous benefit over using an RRSP.

In reality, it can be more of a double-edged sword. A TFSA was designed to be a long-term savings vehicle, and the temptation to withdraw for some quick cash can be detrimental to your saving and investing goals. So if you’re planning to save for retirement but find it hard to resist using the money for other things, consider maxing out your RRSP first.

Keep Your Investments In Your TFSA, Not Your Savings

The main benefit of a TFSA is that capital gains, dividends, and all other investment earnings within the account are completely tax-free.

In the long run, using one instead of a non-registered investment account can amount to thousands of dollars saved in capital gains and dividend taxes. With a non-registered account, you need to pay tax on 50% of realized capital gains at your marginal tax rate. With a TFSA, you pay zero taxes on investment appreciation.

Withdrawals also aren’t taxed since you contributed with your after-tax income (unlike an RRSP).

Let’s use the earlier example to compare investing in a TFSA versus a non-registered account. Suppose you planned to invest $5000/year in index funds for 20 years, and averaged a 7% yearly return.

Say you now wanted to liquidate your account to make a down payment for a new house after the 20th year.

At this point, you would have contributed $100,000 to your portfolio and earned $104,977.46 in capital gains, meaning your portfolio would be valued at an impressive $204,977.46.

Now when you sell the equity and withdraw the cash, you’ll incur zero capital gains tax.

The same cannot be said if you tried this with a non-registered account: you would incur a huge capital gains tax liability since the massive withdrawal would land you in a high tax bracket.

How about if you wanted to withdraw from your investments over a few years to reduce your average marginal tax rate to 30%? How much would you save if you used a TFSA instead of a non-registered account?TFSA Tax SavingsThis comparison really demonstrates the potential tax savings you could be missing out on if you don’t use a TFSA.

You should only use non-registered accounts after you’ve maxed out your TFSA and RRSP. Non-registered accounts have no contribution limit.

Don’t know how to get started investing? Check out Canadian Couch Potato’s model portfolios.

So What If My TFSA Grows To $200,000? If I Withdraw It All, Will I Gain $200,000 In Contribution Room?

The short answer: yes!

Let’s say you contributed diligently over many years or were the recipient of good stock picking fortune. Your TFSA has now managed to appreciate to $200,000.

You wont just be paying absolutely no tax when making your big withdrawal.

In fact, every dollar you withdraw, whether it be your initial investment, capital gains, dividends, or interest, increases your contribution room in the following year by that same withdrawal amount, no matter how large.

That’s right – in addition to the principal, withdrawing capital gains and dividends also increases your contribution room!

On the other hand, say your stock picking caused your TFSA to plummet to $0 and you had contributed up to the limit. In that case, you have nothing to withdraw and would not be able to deposit any more money until your contribution limit increases the following year.

U.S. Withholding Taxes

Canadian are required to pay a 15% withholding tax on dividend earnings from a U.S. stock. The tax-sheltered benefits of a TFSA are not recognized by the U.S., so you will still need to pay withholding tax if you earn U.S. dividend income.

Be Careful of Over-Contribution

Remember that your contribution room does not increase immediately after you withdraw money from your TFSA.

If you exceed your contribution limit, then get ready to pay a 1% fee on the excess contribution for every month that it stays in your TFSA.

Use Your TFSA The Right Way

While the TFSA is great for investing purposes, it should not be used for the following reasons:

Don’t use a TFSA for…

  • Day trading – Conducting very frequent trades may be considered as a business activity and instead of investment activity to the CRA. You may lose the tax-free benefits of the account if you’re perceived to be earning business income in your TFSA.
  • As an emergency fundEmergency funds are important to prepare you for sudden unexpected expenses. However, it would be more efficient to put your emergency fund in a traditional savings account. Only put your emergency fund in a TFSA if you have spare contribution room not being used for investments.
  • Holding cash for more than the short-term – As stated earlier, there is very little tax benefit from holding cash in a TFSA. Unless you have spare contribution room, you are foregoing the potential tax savings on capital gains and dividends resulting from investing.

Where Can I Open A TFSA?

Ready to take full advantage of the tax benefits of a TFSA and save thousands of dollars along the way?

Depending on your needs, you can open a TFSA investment account or TFSA savings account.


You can open a TFSA for investing today at a low-cost online brokerage.

The overall best TFSA investing account is a self-directed Questrade TFSA. Along with having one of the cheapest trading fees in Canada, you can hold CAD and USD currencies, allowing you to trade both Canadian and U.S. stocks.

Open Questrade Account (Earn $50 in Free Trades)

Hopefully you now have a clear understanding of how a TFSA works. Enjoy maximizing your tax savings with your own TFSA!


If you’re saving for a major milestone in the near future or have a lot of TFSA contribution room, you can take advantage of EQ Bank’s new TFSA account. They currently offer 2.30% interest*, which is one of the highest rates available in Canada today. I have used EQ Bank myself for a few years now for their consistently high interest rates and cannot recommend them enough.

EQ Bank also has no monthly or hidden fees, no minimum account balances, and provides free Interac e-Transfers®.

Open an EQ Bank TFSA Account and start earning 2.30% interest* today! Note that you will need to create a EQ Bank Savings Plus Account prior to opening the TFSA account.

Open EQ Bank TFSA (Get 2.30% Interest Rate)

* Interest is calculated daily on the total closing balance and paid monthly. Rates are per annum and subject to change without notice.

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5 Responses
  1. Hassan

    Hi Jason,

    I’m a bit confused with the definition of day trading in a TFSA account. If I buy US stocks, and sell them within 3 or 6 months and realize a capital gain; and then repeat that cycle; is that considered day trading?


    1. Hi Hassan,

      There is no set definition of what constitutes as day trading in a TFSA, but CRA may investigate accounts by considering a variety of factors such as trade frequency, level of capital gains, etc.

      Buying and selling stocks within 3-6 months would definitely not be considered day trading – as long as you are not making daily trades or have deemed to have business activity within your TFSA, you are fine. The scenario you list here is perfectly valid within a TFSA.

  2. Spencer

    Hey Jason,

    I stumbled upon your blog this evening, was intrigued, and have read each post. As a fellow Canadian with a similar financial philosophy, I felt compelled to commend you on the comprehensive articles and clean design. It’s refreshing twist from the conventional blog as each of your posts provides the thorough analysis necessary for the topic, and your graphics and charts are look great and compliment the content perfectly.

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    1. Hi Spencer,

      I’m very glad that you had the opportunity to read over my blog and that a fellow financial enthusiast like you enjoys my articles! I really appreciate your feedback regarding the site design and the infographics. I try to make sure that every article I put out is thoroughly researched, as I truly believe that quality is more important than quantity.

      Thank you for your kind comments and I look forward to posting more content!

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