How Much Are You Paying For US Dollars?

Currency conversion remains one of the biggest rip-offs in banking and investing. It’s made worse by the lack of transparency: if you call your discount brokerage they’ll quote their current rates, but it’s still hard to calculate the actual cost of your transaction. Don’t expect your brokerage to help with the math.

The first key point is, in practical terms, there isn’t a single exchange rate. While we might say “the US and Canadian dollars are at par,” that’s never quite true. On a day when the two currencies are theoretically equivalent, it might cost you $1.01 CAD to buy $1 USD, and if you sell $1 USD you might receive $0.99 CAD. That’s because currencies have a bid-ask spread just like stocks and ETFs that trade on an exchange.

There’s a simple formula to calculate the size of the bid-ask spread in percentage terms:

= (Ask Price – Bid Price) ÷ Ask Price × 100

Note that the bid price is always the lowest of the two rates you’re quoted. So if we plug in the numbers in the example above, the math works like this:

= (1.01 – 0.99) ÷ 1.01 × 100
= (0.02) ÷ 1.01 × 100
= 0.0198 × 100
= 1.98%

The bid-ask spread in this example works out to 1.98%, which represents the brokerage’s profit. But it’s important to appreciate that any time you buy or sell an asset with a bid-ask spread, your cost is only half the spread:

  • If you convert $1,000 CAD, you receive $990.10 USD (that’s 1,000 ÷ 1.01). So your cost is $9.90, or 0.99% of the transaction.
  • If you then convert your $990.10 USD back to loonies, you would receive $980.20 CAD (990.10 × 0.99), for another loss of 0.99%.
  • Overall, the round-trip transaction turned your $1,000 CAD into $980.20 CAD, for a total loss of $19.80, or 1.98%. But each individual transaction cost you only half as much.

Calculating your real-world cost

The above example is very straightforward: the two currencies are theoretically at par, and the bid-ask spread is a tidy two cents. In the real world things are rarely that simple, so let’s consider an example using numbers obtained last week from RBC.

For transactions less than $50,000:

  • Buying $1 USD costs $0.9969 CAD
  • Selling $1 USD gets you $0.9689 CAD

For a $100,000 transaction:

  • Buying $1 USD costs $0.9888 CAD
  • Selling $1 USD gets you $0.9770 CAD

Plugging these numbers into the formula, we get the following for transactions less than $50,000:

= (0.9969 – 0.9689) ÷ 0.9969 × 100
= (0.28) ÷ 0.9969 × 100
= 0.0280871 × 100
= 2.81%

And for a $100,000 transaction, we get the following:

= (0.9888 – 0.9770) ÷ 0.9888 × 100
= (0.0118) ÷ 0.9888 × 100
= 0.01193378 × 100
= 1.19%

Assume you’re an investor who wants to convert $10,000 CAD to US dollars. How much would it cost? You can calculate this by dividing the spread by two (2.81% ÷ 2 = 1.405%) and multiplying that by the amount you’re converting ($10,000 CAD × 0.01405). That works out to a cost of $140.05 CAD.

If you exchange $100,000 CAD, you benefit from the tighter spread. Now the cost of a one-way transaction is 0.595% (that’s 1.19% ÷ 2), which works out to a cost of $595 CAD.

There’s another crucial point investors need to understand: the cost of converting currency does not depend on the exchange rate. Today the two currencies are close to par, while in 2003 a loonie was worth about $0.65 USD. But if your brokerage has always used a 2% bid-ask spread, your cost to convert $10,000 CAD would have been $100 CAD in both cases. So when the loonie is riding high, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re getting a deal from your brokerage. Yes, your loonies are buying more US dollars, but the transaction cost (measured in CAD) is the same.

I’m a big fan of using US-listed ETFs because their management fees are extremely low, and they’re often more tax-efficient. But it’s always important to weigh fees and taxes against the considerable costs of converting currency. Unless you are able to reduce the cost of buying US dollars, your brokerage may be the only one who sees the benefit.

51 Responses to How Much Are You Paying For US Dollars?

  1. John December 17, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Thanks for this heads-up as this was something that confused me!
    What about simply buying a US listed stock (on NYSE, etc.) via a TD or RBC (or any other Cdn brokerage) trading account? Your post above discusses converting funds. But if you simply buy US-listed stocks using CAD funds, is the conversion fee higher?

  2. Canadian Couch Potato December 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    @John: When you buy a US security with Canadian dollars, the currency should be automatically converted at the quoted rate, so the calculation should be the same.

  3. Guy December 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    If you have a US$ bank or trader account with an IBAN in the US then use a currency trader such as CanadianForex to minimise the typical bank or dealer FX cost. Typically about 25% of bank FX and other charges or even less. You can book the FX trade and rate and settle within three working days. E-transfer from your Canadian account to the FX trader’s Canadian bank account. They will do the FX and credit your US$ account in the US. Because of currency controls a US account in Canada won’t work. This can literally save you thousands of dollars a year if you are active buying or selling in an overseas market. The logical alternative is to NEVER exchange money and have separate currency accounts in these markets.

  4. DaveL December 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Another great article Dan.

    Bank rates are such a rip off. At work we use companies such Cambridge Mercantile, Firma Foreign Exchange, Custom House (now part of Western union). I’m not sure what restrictions they have for individuals (I called Cambridge Mercantile and my conclusion was that they wouldn’t be a suitable solution for an individual).

    Once an account is set up for electronic transfers, the exchange is complete by the next business day.

    For an example I got a quote to buy and sell $100,000 USD today at about 12:30 pm (the rates change continuously):

    Buying $100,000 USD costs CA$ 98,740
    Selling $100,000 USD get you CA$ 98,210

    Using your formula I calculate a spread of (.9874-.9721) / .9874 * 100 = .54%

    This would be a one way cost of $268. Compare that to the RBC cost of CA$ 595 (55% lower).

    As I said, I’m not sure that this is even a possible solution for an individual, but it does illustrate the high cost of dealing with a bank / brokerage account.

    Also, these type of solutions would only be possible with non-registered accounts.

  5. Mandy @ MoneyMasterMom December 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    If you trade forex (buying and selling currency) you can generally exchange with a smaller bid ask spread. Although I would describe it as a perk to trading forex, not a good enough reason to open an account, and definitely not a good enough reason to try a new form of investing.

  6. Ed December 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Great post Dan!
    I have been purchasing VTI for my couch potato portfolio, and was contemplating about switching over to Vanguard Canada’s new VFV, but was hesitant because of the higher MER fee. However, after reading your post, I am now convinced that the extra MER fee of 0.11 (0.15 vs 0.06) is worth it, given the currency transaction fee (which I did not know was that high).
    Is this strategy something that you would agree with? Thanks.

  7. Derek @ Freeat33 December 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    David, I was surprised that any subsidiary of Western Union offers a better alternative to the banks. My last experience with Western Union was 10 years ago. But at the time they charged a 15% fee to send money to Jamaica or Mexico. They really took advantage of the many offshore farm works we have here that were looking to send money home to their families.

  8. Canadian Couch Potato December 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    @Ed: If you think forex fees will overwhelm the MER difference (and they probably will), then yes, that’s a good decision. You may be interested to know that Vanguard Canada has hinted they’ll be bring out an unhedged version of VUS in 2013.

  9. Gino Gauthier December 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    For asset outside registered account, you can open a US$ cash account. You will save subsequent trades/dividends/distributions

  10. DaveL December 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    @Derek. Western union’s involvement (takeover) with Custom House is fairly recent.

    We haven’t noticed any change, but we always get three quotes and go with the one that works for us. You do have to get the quotes within a few minutes of each other because the rates change quickly.

    Your experience with Western Union sounds dreadful. That should be illegal.

  11. sleepydoc December 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Another great post. You’ve previously written about using DLR and DLR.U for foreign exchange. If I recall the bid-ask on DLR is kept constant – can one use the same idea to calculate the cost for using DLR to exchange USD, (with the addition of the trading commission)

  12. Dick B December 17, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Because of the fees, I maintain Canadian and US $ sides to my TDWaterhouse non-registered margin account and only occasionally transfer small amounts of funds between them. While the $ amount of the fees is not large, I still begrudge having to pay them.

    When the time comes that I (or my estate) has to cash in and repatriate all funds from the US$ side of my account, is there a cost effective way to do so?

  13. Canadian Couch Potato December 17, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    @sleepydoc: Yes, you can use the bid-ask spread of DLR to calculate the cost of the currency conversion. It is typically 2 cents on a share price near $10, so it works out to about 0.20% (plus the trading commission).

  14. BRI December 17, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Investing costs are one thing we can all control.

    It was driving me nuts holding VEF, VEE and VUS in my RRSP at TD Waterhouse and being hit with unrecoverable withholding taxes and higher MER expenses.

    I switched to a BMO RRSP specifically because of their flawless dual currency accounts.

    Using Norberts Gambit I was able to covert $US at the spot rate (CAD =$1.02) :D of the day for free (thanks to my 150 free trades) and now hold VWO, VEA, and VTI.

    MER cost are .20% .12% and .06% respectively.

    I am a long term investor and I know that I am going to save a fortune in expenses over the years!

  15. BRI December 17, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    Continuing from my previous post I used to own:

    TD Emerging Markets (2.88% MER)—>VEE (.49% MER)—>$US VWO (.20% MER)

    TD International Index (1.01% MER)—>VEF (.37% MER)—>$US VEA (.12% MER)

    TD DJIA (.89% MER)—>VUS (.15% MER)—>$US VTI (.06% MER)

    Thanks to this site for helping with the transition!

  16. Donj December 18, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Hi Dan and BRI,
    I find your posts conflicting. Dan first mentions that VFV is a better choice than VTI because forex fees will likely overwhelm MER. How then is it a good thing for BRI to switch from VUS to VTI? The MERs for VFV and VUS are the same, 0.15%

  17. Canadian Couch Potato December 19, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    @Donj: There is no single strategy that is right for everyone. If you can convert your currency to US dollars at a very low rate, then a fund like VTI (with an MER of 0.06% and better tax-efficiency in an RRSP) is likely the better choice. But if you are forced to pay hefty forex fees, then VFV may make more sense.

  18. Donj December 19, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Thank you Dan for this post and for answering my question. It is very timely. This forex stuff is confusing enough. Then you add on the fact that you can’t recover withholding taxes on VFV in an RRSP account and it gets really confusing. Forex fees are the only thing holding me back from buying VTI and VXUS. But I think I’m slowly getting my head around it. Just trying to build up the courage to perform my first Norbert Gambit.

  19. CCP Fan December 19, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    So, if my calculations are correct, as I make too relatively small ETF transactions (<10000$), it would take ~10 years for a VTI investment to win over a VFV investment in a RRSP taking into account lost withholding taxes. I am assuming ~2% conversion fee (roundtrip), ~0.3% withholding taxes, VTI 0.06%, VFV 0.15%.

    My question: At what point the additional ~0.39% cost of VFV would accumulate to a big enough amount to make a significant difference for long term investors (in RRSP & TFSA accounts)? What about taxable accounts?

  20. CCP Fan December 19, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I think I made an error: it would take ~5 years to break even.

  21. Oldie December 20, 2012 at 12:29 am #

    @CCP: In your answer to sleepydoc

    “…so it works out to about 0.20% each way (plus the trading commission)”

    did you mean 0.20% in buying DLR, and another 0.20% when you sell DLR.U? Or does “each way” in this context mean the whole trading sequence involved in converting CAD one way into USD?

  22. Canadian Couch Potato December 20, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    @Oldie: Yes, by “one way” I meant converting CAD to USD or vice-versa, but not both. The spread on DLR/DLR.U is about 0.20%, so your cost would be 0.10% when you buy DLR and another 10% when you sell DLR.U.

  23. Noel December 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Please bear with me. I know I belaboured this point a bit on the previous blog entry, but never did get a definitive answer on whether using a heavily traded equity such as TD and executing a buy TSE & sell NYSE in immediate sequence would not give one a lower cost of conversion than DLR/DLR.U. I tried a number of tests just now, buying at the ask, and selling at the bid, and every time (after commission costs) it resulted in a lower cost than using DLR/DLR.U. Sometimes the resulting exchange rate ended up close to the spot exchange rate listed on wsj.com.

  24. Canadian Couch Potato December 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    @Noel: Sure, if the bid-ask spread on TD or some other stock is tighter than on DLR, then your cost would be lower. You can use the formula above to check it out. Just remember that there is the added risk that the stock price will move in the interval between your purchase and sale. If you can pull off the gambit within minutes, this is not much of a issue, but if your brokerage makes you wait for the trades to settle, the stock could move significantly.

  25. Oldie December 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    @Noel: You’re not belabouring the point at all — you, as I am, are trying to get a definitive answer on what is turning out to be an elusive area, that is, what is actually the most economical (and safe, I suppose, has to be part of the answer) vehicle to exploit in Norbert’s Gambit for exchanging currency in large amounts. The question is particularly pertinent for me.

    Interestingly, a parallel discussion has been going on in the Canadian Capitalist Blog, and I was going to mention the existence of a directional bias in converting CAD to USD using DLR that favoured the CAD to USD conversion, but I just found out right now that this is no longer the case — see the discussion post for today on

    http://www.canadiancapitalist.com/a-foolproof-method-to-convert-canadian-dollars-into-us-dollars/#comment-2379874

    May I ask, in your trial conversions (did you use TD? — you didn’t actually specify) what was the eventual exchange rate you achieved, and the quoted spot rates at the time? Did you take precautions like checking the stock bid-ask spreads at the time of making the trades, and if so, what were the spreads? It appears (see CCP’s helpful explanation above) that 0.20% is the cost for conversion from CAD to USD using DLR and staying in the TSE, and that it is safe and reliable. So to evaluate this cost in context, we need to know what the expected (percentage) cost of the alternative method is, and what, if any, is the relative risk that the stock price drifts to your detriment in the short time that you own the stock, barring any unintended delays in selling the stock immediately.

  26. Noel December 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    Thanks. I do realize that. My advice is always to get a broker on the line that is familiar with the gambit and with the fact that journalling is required and to then execute the buy and sell online while they are on the phone to avoid unforseen complications.

  27. Ash December 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Concerning Norbert’s Gambit, I use RBC Direct Investing, and have performed this twice in the last few weeks with no problem . The $US are in my US RRSP account within seconds. Here is what you do (I will include actual $ values to show how well this works – RBC DI was offering about 1 $US = $0.985 CDN):

    - Bought 230 RY on TSE from my CDN $ RRSP account for $13904 CDN
    - 1 minute later, sold 230 RY on NYSE, with funds going into my US$ RRSP, for 13962.23 US. You must choose your US$ account, and specify to sell on NYSE. As you can see here, I have about $60 more US (ie. more $US than the $CDN I started with), even if you factor in the $9.95 per transaction. Compare that to what RBC DI was offering!
    - Bought more US stocks 1 minute later with the cash I had just placed in my $US account

    I did not have to call RBC DI. The first time I did this, my balances on my portfolio page looked a little off, but after the settlement date, all is well with the world. The $US are available instantaneously when you click on the “Intraday Holdings” tab.

    I will use this again and again.

  28. Ed December 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Ash – correct me if I’m wrong, but if you converted your CAN$ to US$ with RBC’s currency exchange rate, wouldn’t you have $14115.73 US? which is more than the $13962.23 US that you received using NG?

  29. Ash December 27, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Ed – I reread my initial comment, and see where I made an error. I said “RBC DI was offering about 1 $US = $0.985 CDN”, when I should have said RBC DI was offering about 1 $CDN = $0.985 USD. That would mean my $13904 CDN was worth $13695.44 USD. I sold on the US market for $13962.23 USD, which gives me an extra $266.79 USD (or essentially, a 1:1 ratio). Sorry for the confusion, and thanks for pointing it out.

  30. Financial Independence December 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    I look at this like diversification into different currencies. As a matter of fact I intentionally invest into equities and mutual funds in four main currencies.

    Tracking them last four years has been a lot of fun. You could lose a lot (if you would invest in British pounds in 2006 when it was almost 2 USD to 1GBP, now it is 1.6 USD to 1 GBP) or gain.

    I think it is a good idea to have a single currency as it is now USD. Should we have more than one, the banks will rip the customers off on the exchanges. This is what happening when you go abroad on vacation…

  31. Oldie December 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    @Financial Independence;

    Oh, oh, this is outside my area of core knowledge as a Newbie. Quick, look up the relevant discussion on the topic…Are you saying that currency fluctuation is now favouring US dollars, and we should heavily load up on US dollars?

    Doesn’t that go against Couch Potato wisdom — we can’t predict the markets, so we can’t tell what phase we’re in now? Therefore, we can’t predict when it is likely to be profitable to load up on US dollars, or in fact any currency, EVER. The only thing we can predict is that if we intend soon to cash out our investments into the currency we intend to spend our profits in (say Canadian Dollar, for Canadians intending to retire in Canada), then it is prudent to gradually move any significant amounts of investments in other currency (just as it is to move investments other than bonds and cash) gradually into Canadian cash and bonds in the years and months counting down to cash-out, in case there is a currency shift to our detriment just before cash-out.

  32. Oldie December 28, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    @Financial Independence: I should qualify my prescription above for converting everything to the currency you will be spending the proceeds in — I meant only the portion that is imminently going to be cashed out — after all, even if you’re retiring this year, you are not necessarily going to cash out your complete portfolio, in fact, there may be a significant remaining portion that will remain invested for several years to come.

  33. Canadian Couch Potato December 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    @Oldie: For what it’s worth I would argue that currency diversification in a portfolio is prudent, but “loading up” on any foreign currency is nothing more than speculation.

  34. SterlingF January 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    I want to convert some $CAN->US. I’ve done it before with a $0.01 spread stock before but I haven’t found any again so it looks like DLR/DLR.U is the way to go.

    So am I right in thinking that if I buy 300 shares of DLR and sell DLR.U (both with $0.02 spreads) it only costs me $6 ($0.02 x 300) + $9.95 trading fee? That’s pretty cheap if that’s the case. Then I just need to make sure that I’m converting enough cash to make the $9.95 worth while.

  35. Nightrider February 27, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    Hellllllow CCP:
    My first visit to your website. Wish I knew earlier that you existed. Well, better late than never. Your website is excellent.

    My Q: Using US$ to buy US ETFs will incur any other expense other than the broker commission? I know it is a no-brainer question. Just thought I should ask.

    There is a reason whyI ask: back when C$ was 0.67c, I converted (approx. $200K) all kinds of money to US$ with a full service broker. Now I have completely transferred all that out to a discount broker but kept the US$ intact and re-did, redesigned my portfolio, on the conservative side i.e., bought US based ETF using US$. Did I do the right thing? Are there any hidden costs here by the discount broker (Questrade) other than losing my shirt in my original transaction back when it was 0.67c several years ago?

  36. Canadian Couch Potato February 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    @Nightrider: Welcome to the blog. If your cash is already in USD, then the only cost of buying a US-listed ETF is the brokerage commission and the bid-ask spread, so you don;t have to worry about any hidden charges. Sorry about the original transaction at 76 cents on the dollar, however. :(

  37. Adrian March 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    Hello, really enjoy your articles. I switched to the couch potato portfolio about two years ago and have had no regrets. I rebalance on a regular basis (buy low, and selling high on my 4 index funds).

    On to my question. On March 5th I deposited $326 US$ in my Canadian account. I was expecting a small credit adjustment as the US$ was/is a couple cents higher than the Canadian $ however ended up getting a debit of $1.11 on my account. |How much do banks charge for foreign exchange. I look at the exchange rate for March 5th and 6th and it was as follows:

    Low 2013-03-06 $1 CAN = $0.9674 US
    High 2013-03-05 $1 CAN = $0.9745 US

    I know it’s only $1.11 however it’s the principle of the matter.

  38. Canadian Couch Potato March 13, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    @Adrian: Your transaction record should indicate the exchange rate you received when the conversion was made. Compare that to the Bank of Canada’s rate on the same day to see what spread you were charged.

  39. Cliff May 9, 2013 at 12:47 am #

    Just a warning about owning $100,ooo Canadian or more (cost basis) of US ETFs sold on a US stock exchange. CRA asks on your tax return every year whether you owned $100,000 of “foreign property” at some time during the year and these ETFs qualify as such. One has to file a T1135 form with your tax return (software like TurboTax does not automatically do this for you). Penalties are stiff for failing to do so.

  40. Cliff May 9, 2013 at 1:07 am #

    Further clarification about my “foreign property” comment… it applies to non-registered account holdings only.

  41. Mike July 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Great discussion. I am planning on using Norbert’s Gambit, but have been hoping the $CAN/$US exchange rate would improve. At what point is it not worth converting your Canadian money? I read somewhere that when the $CAN falls below $0.95 to its $US counterpart that it is not a good move to convert. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

  42. Canadian Couch Potato July 19, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    @Mike: Trying to determine whether currency is “overvalued” is no different from trying to pick the “right time” to by stocks. If you have a long-term perspective, it makes sense to have both foreign equities and foreign currencies in your portfolio at all times and stop worrying about the currency exchange rate.

  43. Victor August 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    Dan, thank you for this helpful blog.

    I am using TD Waterhouse. According to its website (http://www.tdcanadatrust.com/custserv/rates.jsp), the USD bid-ask today (August 7, 2013) is: 1.0697 and 1.0145. Thus, the bid-ask spread is 5.2%, implying a cost of 2.6% per trade which seems unreasonable high to me. I heard that brokers typically charge 1% to 1.7% for USD conversion.

    Do you know if other brokers charge a similar high conversion spread for USD?

    Thanks.

  44. Canadian Couch Potato August 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

    @Victor: I think that is the rate you would receive at a bank branch. It is outrageously high, but not unusual for retail banks. I suppose you could argue that at a branch you are paying for the additional service of having a human being exchange the money for you in cash. That’s quite different from an online brokerage, where the transaction is electronic.

  45. Victor August 8, 2013 at 7:21 am #

    @Dan, I compared the exchange rates charged by TDW on my recent trades to USD rates posted on Bank of Canada’s website. TDW’s rates are about 1.8% higher. So you are correct that online brokerage FX rates are cheaper than retail banking.

    Question: when I placed trade orders, I can get a quote for the US stock or US ETF that I wanted to trade from TDW website. Shouldn’t TDW give me a quote of its exchange rate too? Am I missing something?

  46. Canadian Couch Potato August 8, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    @Victor: You can get a forex quote from a brokerage, but you have to phone: they don’t post the spreads online.

  47. Patricia October 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    I need to convert $8,000.00Cdn. to US$. It is in the BMO bank. In the past I have had the bank do the exchange which I then take as a draft and deposit in my Florida BMO Harris Bank. How would you suggest I do this to incurr the least expense. I do this transaction once or twice a year but would like to learn how to do it online through this Forex vehicle.

    Patricia

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