Why RESPs Should Be Kept Simple

In the last couple of weeks I’ve received two questions from readers who were trying to figure out the right strategy for their children’s education savings accounts. Both were smart questions that stemmed from things they had read on this blog, and I was eager to help. But as I thought about how to respond, I began to worry about the danger of making some investing goals too complicated.

The first question came from Karen, who had opened an RESP for her nine-year-old. Karen had read my post on bond duration, where I explained that investors should try to match the duration of their bond fund to their time horizon. She wondered if XBB (which has a duration of about seven years) would still be suitable once her child was 11 or 12. If not, what’s the best way to shorten your bonds’ duration as your child approaches university age?

The second came from Bryan, who has an RESP for his five-year-old and a second child on the way. His brokerage, TD Waterhouse, allows only family RESPs, which means he can only open a single account for both children. Bryan read my post about choosing an appropriate asset allocation for an RESP according to your child’s age and wanted to know how it would work when you had two beneficiaries of different ages.

In both cases, it’s possible to create a spreadsheet and a formula to work out the optimal strategy. But the question is, how far do you want to go with this?

Can’t get no satisficing

More than half a century ago, the psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon coined the term “satisficing” to describe the process of making a decision that is good enough, as opposed to “maximizing,” which seeks the perfect solution. When it comes to RESPs—and other investing goals, for that matter—it pays to be a satisficer.

Remember that RESPs are medium-term investments: even if you open an account when your child is an infant (and most parents do not) you are not likely to have more than 18 years before you start drawing it down. It may grow fairly large over 18 years (although I would argue it makes little sense to contribute more than $36,000, at which point the government grant is maxed out), but by that time virtually all of it should be in cash, GICs, or other safe, low-return instruments. A significant percentage of your RESP may be in equities when your child is young, but that is when the account will be smallest, so your rate of return is not likely to have a large effect during these early years. And, of course, a significant portion of the growth in RESPs is likely to come from the 20% government grant.

All of these factors mean the amount you contribute to an RESP will typically have a far greater impact than your investment returns. Here’s an example: if you contribute $167 a month beginning the year your child is born and ending the year she turns 18, you’ll collect the maximum grant ($7,200) and wind up with about $56,200 assuming an annualized return of just 3%. If you contribute $100 a month, you would need a return of about 8.5% to end up with the same amount. So are you better off trying to come up with an extra $67 a month, or trying to triple your investment returns?

Simple isn’t settling

To return to the readers’ questions, I would suggest Karen use XBB for her bond holdings now. Starting when her child is 11 or 12, she can gradually move some of the money to cash until the proportion reaches 80% to 100% by the time her child starts university. For Bryan, I would just opt for an allocation that is close to what one might use for the oldest child—even a straightforward 50% equity, 50% fixed-income blend would be fine until the oldest reaches high school, after which I would start dialing down the risk. But there are several other strategies that would work just as well—and none of them require a spreadsheet with complicated formulas.

Karen and Bryan were asking the right questions, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest  investors shouldn’t care about the details of their strategy. Indeed, one of the frequently misunderstood ideas about “satisficers” is that they have low standards and are happy to settle for mediocrity, which just isn’t true. My point is simply that it’s possible to adopt an RESP strategy that is low-cost, broadly diversified, easy to implement, and fully capable of meeting your goal, even if it is less than optimal. More important, there is a lot of evidence that satisficers tend to be more content, less paralyzed during the decision-making process, and less likely to be plagued by regret—and those qualities are almost certain to make you a better investor.

66 Responses to Why RESPs Should Be Kept Simple

  1. nabeelj January 27, 2015 at 10:40 am #

    @Steve: It’s a proportional amount.

  2. Canadian Couch Potato January 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    @Steve: With some restrictions, you can choose whether you want to make a capital withdrawal (i.e. take out your contributions, which are not taxable) or an EAP (which consists of grant and income, taxable in the students hands). It’s often better to take out the grant and income first, because if your child later drops out of school the government will not take those withdrawals back. But you also need to consider whether the student might have employment income in a given year: if so, they might end up paying tax on the EAP withdrawal that year. As you can tell, it’s not necessarily a straightforward process.

  3. Steve January 27, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    Thanks Couch and Nab

  4. Steve February 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    I recently bought into BMO Target Education Mutual Fund inside an RESP.

    Curious if its holdings seem to be well balanced or are they missing something large.

    Appreciate any input.



  5. John March 2, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    We are new to investing and have started a RESP for our 2 year old with a Mutual Fund from a bank. 2.5% MER
    I am now realizing what kind of fees we will lose over the life of this RESP.
    My math tells me that it will be over $7,000.
    I have a hard time believing our fund will provide that amount of increase over the indexes.
    Seems to me it is worth moving away from the Mutual Fund.

    I don’t think I can use Tangerine for an RESP. Is my only option to go to a discount brokerage?


  6. Canadian Couch Potato March 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

    @John: Unfortunately Tangerine does not offer RESPs, so for a self-directed account you would have to open a discount brokerage account. Is it possible to simply switch to a lower-cost mutual fund at your bank? You can’t expect ETF-like fees, but 2.5% is high for bank-sponsored funds.

  7. John March 3, 2015 at 9:45 am #


    I will have to look at lower MER funds.

    My other thought is when is it worth moving to a self directed ETF? I see #’s like $50,000. does it make no sense for someone at 5,000 to 10,000, if they are applying the Couch Potato Method and only trading once per year?

  8. Bibi April 13, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    @CCP could you please extend on RESP rules and specifically regarding the different withdrawal limits? I recently came across RESP Bulletin No.1 at:

    I find it especially confusing with the family RESP accounts. I realize it might not be related directly to investing but it does affect my investing decisions.

  9. Canadian Couch Potato April 13, 2015 at 11:29 am #

    @Bibi: RESp rules are quite complex. I would recommend this book as the most comprehensive source:

  10. Le Barbu June 12, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Hi Dan, my RESP is at RBC Banking for 10 years now and is now getting close to the 6 figures now, so, I’m more and more concerned by 0.70% MER (cant believe it was 1.7% before I knew CCP!). When my wife took the parental leave in 2008, we received 2×25$ (2 kids) as additional grant from Québec Gov. because of our salaries back then.

    Now, I filled a transfer form to switch to RBC Direct Investing and buy some ETFs like ZCN and VSC. This would save me about 450-500$/year. Now, they just answered they cannot accept accounts holding that kind of grant. I cannot even repay that 50$ to the gov without giving back the whole 3,500$ of grant they gave through the years.

    Anyway, I openned a new RESP with RBC Direct Investing and will use it for the future contributions. Not that I want to focus over MER but now, this account as more fees than the rest of my entire investments.

    Going through this process, a friend of mine whose RESP is at TD Banking, told me he cannot even hold some TDB900 or TDB909 because of the same reason (additional grant) and his only option is super-charged-MER funds from TD.

    Did you know about that kind of issue? Are we alone and is there any clue?

  11. Canadian Couch Potato June 12, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    @Le Barbu: Yes, this is a fairly common issue: some brokerages do not support the provincial grant programs. TD Direct, for example, does not support the Alberta grant program. I am less familiar with the restrictions for Quebec’s QESI. If you transfer an RESP from one brokerage to another you risk losing the grants you’ve accumulated. This almost certainly outweighs any advantage from lowering MERs.

    These links may help, but remember that the banks have several divisions (e.g. TD Bank vs. TD Asset Management) and it’s possible that one will support the grants and another will not.


  12. RJ June 12, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    I used to have my Alberta Grants at TD Canada Trust and my RESP and TD Waterhouse. 2 years ago I was able to move and merge both accounts to Questrade. I am now able to invest in lower MER etf with no commissions on buys. Their fees for withdrawals were lower than TD if I remember correctly. Perhaps they could handle Quebec Grants as well.

  13. Le Barbu June 12, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    I can understand that some RESP providers don’t support some of the grants but how come I cannot return my additional grant only to the QC gov without returning everything? This is the issue in my case especially because we talk about 50$ in this particular situation. Should I try to contact QESI directly?

  14. Canadian Couch Potato June 12, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    @Le Barbu: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the specific provincial rules, so contacting QESI directly would be a good idea.

  15. Mayoo June 2, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Dan, Thank you for all the information. I am following TD e-series portfolio for my son RESP. He is 8 months old now. I received his firs grant $500 from government and want to invest it back in. I am following aggressive portfolio. I used Re-balance excel sheet to find out the amount to buy. For TDB909, it came up $54.52 to invest. When I try to buy, I am getting a message that there is minimum amount to buy the fund. When I look at the fund details, it says minimum $100 to invest. So in this case, what can I do ? how do I maintain the fund ratio. Thank you

  16. Canadian Couch Potato June 4, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    @Mayoo: You don’t have to worry about rebalancing with precision, especially when your portfolio is small. Just get as close as you can while investing at least $100 at a time.

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