Even if you rarely give your registered retirement savings plan quarterly statements a second glance most of the year, with the 2014 RRSP deadline approaching on March 2, chances are you're a little more curious about how your investments are doing now.
So go ahead. Open your newest statement and start digging through terms such as "vesting status" or "adjusted cost base" and "matured money." That's when you may just realize the honest truth: Even after reading your statement, you haven't got a clue what it's telling you. In fact, your portfolio could be in the toilet and you'd probably continue to happily flush your hard-earned cash away.
Not a nice feeling, is it?
Now, confession time. I've written about RRSPs for years and thought I had a pretty good handle on how they worked, yet when I opened our family's most recent statement, I came away with more questions than answers. Knowing I needed help to decipher the thing, I sat down with John Robson, an Edward Jones financial adviser in Waterloo, Ont., for advice. An hour-and-a-half and a mega cup of coffee later, he helped me make heads and tails of RRSP statements. Here's what you need to know, too.
'You've got a mess here'
Mr. Robson has seen many RRSP account statements over the years and just as many befuddled clients walk through his door.
"I would say the majority of the people who come into this office with one of these statements says, 'I have no idea what this is. Can you please help me understand it?'" he said.
Even advisers can experience difficulty when trying to decipher what the statement says. The one I brought in to Mr. Robson was 12 pages long and covered four different plans, including a deferred plan and an employee profit-sharing plan. (They belong to my husband. As a freelance writer, I don't have access to products like these, although I'm a beneficiary so it's important I understand them.) They were listed along with an unregistered account and the RRSP.
"You've got a mess here. This is hard," he admitted, while flipping pages back and forth. "I'm sorry. I mean, if I can't read this …"
Not every statement looks like mine, though. For instance, Mr. Robson said Edward Jones separates plans and accounts to make them easier to read.
Look for rate of return
No matter what format your statement comes in, however, there is something you should be on the lookout for: your personal rate of return. That's the total value of your investments, minus the initial amount you paid and any fees.
Ultimately, it's the most important piece of information on your statement because it shows you how much you've actually made or lost over a period of time.
Think all statements must give you this information? Think again. Many investment advisers and firms don't provide it. Instead they include your investments' overall growth, which can seem more substantial than it really is if it includes the money you've regularly been contributing. That nest egg of yours might be growing simply because of all the cash you've been throwing at it, rather than because your investment choices have been good.
Luckily, my family's consolidated statement lists the personal rate of return right on the front page. Since 2004 when we opened the plans, our return is a respectable 9.9 per cent. Don't even bother looking at the three-month showing.
"Your rate can go up and down by the week," Mr. Robson said.
If your statement doesn't give you a rate of return, you can do the calculations yourself, or ask your adviser to run them for you.
Ignore the unimportant stuff
If your rate of return is the most important information on the page, there are plenty of terms, percentages and numbers you can probably flip right past, explained Mr. Robson. For instance, my statement showed how many mutual fund units I hold and the price.
"Who cares about that?" he said. "All I want to know is if it's making money."
Know what you're holding
Here's another good reason to check on your RRSP statement at this time of year: It might not contain what you think it does. The reality is that a portfolio you built 10 years ago might not make much sense any more – if it even made sense at the beginning.
In my family's case, back when we chose funds for our RRSP account years ago, we thought we were being pretty aggressive. We were in our early thirties at the time and could afford to take on some risk. But sitting down with the financial adviser and going over the statement with a fine-tooth comb now revealed that we had been more conservative in our approach than we'd realized.
Yep, we're talking an, albeit small, investment in a money market fund earning half a per cent. In fact, about one-seventh of our money is invested in conservative products. Oops.
Some statements actually show on the front page how aggressive the plan is. Not bad information to have – and pay attention to.
Here's something else. Products and investing opportunities change over the years. Back when we created the plan, there was no such thing as a tax-free savings account. Because we have some unregistered investments as well as our RRSP investments, we've been paying taxes on gains for years now when that money could have been growing tax-free all that time.
On our "To Do" list in 2015? Move that unregistered money into a TFSA – pronto.
Check statements once a year
RRSP investments are intended for the long haul anyway, so really, no one expects investors to pore over statements more than once every 12 months. In fact, Mr. Robson tells his clients with aggressive RRSP portfolios to leave their statements in the envelope if the markets are swinging low. Who needs the temptation to pull out during a rough patch?
But if it's time to open that statement and it all looks Greek to you, it makes sense to sit down with your plan's adviser, or find one if you don't have one, and ask questions until you can translate it.
"Ask, 'Why do I own this? Why do I own that? Why did this one lose and this one gain?' said Mr. Robson as we started to wrap up. "If they can't answer your questions, find someone who can."