The article “Selling stocks at a loss in a TFSA: What it means for your contribution room” was originally published in MoneySense on April 10, 2023. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

Before holding speculative stocks in a TFSA, consider what reporting a capital loss means for your contribution room going forward.

“I lost $20,000 dollars in my TFSA account in the market correction, and my broker sold the losing stocks. Can I put more money in to bring me back up the to the limit the government allows?” Wayne

Capital losses in a TFSA

A capital loss is when you sell an investment at a lower price than what you purchased it for originally. In a taxable non-registered account, like a cash or margin account, capital gains and capital losses have income tax implications. You report them on your tax return. In a tax-sheltered account like a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) or a tax-free account like a tax-free savings account (TFSA), a capital loss is relevant for investment purposes, but not for tax purposes.

That means there are no tax savings if you sell an investment for a capital loss in a TFSA. Mind you, there is no tax payable for a capital gain—selling for a profit—either.

To answer your question directly, Wayne, you do not get additional TFSA room if you have a capital loss. Likewise, you do not lose TFSA room if you have a capital gain. But keep reading; there’s more to know.

How does TFSA contribution room work?

TFSA room is based solely on your age, residency, deposits and withdrawals.

  • Age: If you are 18 or older, you accrue TFSA room based on the TFSA limit for that year. If you were born in 1991 or earlier and have never contributed, your cumulative room would be $88,000 as of January 1, 2023.
  • Residency: If you are a non-resident of Canada for the entire year, you do not accrue new TFSA room. In the year you depart Canada or return to Canada, your TFSA room for the year is not pro-rated. You are entitled to the annual maximum. But non-residents cannot contribute to a TFSA after their date of departure.
  • Deposits: Deposits reduce your TFSA room immediately.
  • Withdrawals: Withdrawals increase your TFSA room, but not until January 1 of the following year, when your TFSA room is adjusted

What should you keep in a TFSA?

The potential to have a capital loss and lose out on tax-free room in your account may be one reason to avoid holding speculative stocks within a TFSA. At the same time, the possibility of a big tax-free win on a stock makes it tempting to hold these investments in the account.

When you are considering the sale of an investment for a capital gain or loss, the tax implications in a taxable account may cause you to reconsider the sale, or at least the timing or magnitude of the sale.

In a tax-free account or tax-sheltered account, tax implications have no impact on the timing of an investment sale. Investor sentiment or psychology may drive decision making, though. My advice in a non-taxable account is to ignore whether you are selling for a loss. Some investors get fixated on waiting until a stock recovers to its original purchase price so they can recoup their losses.

To the contrary, I would be inclined to consider the value of the investment.

If it is worth $5,000, and you have $5,000 in cash, would you invest that $5,000 into the stock today? If the answer is no, sell it. If you are a self-directed investor, the cost to sell is probably $10 or less. If you are a fee-based investor working with an investment advisor, you probably do not pay transaction costs. So, in my mind, that $5,000 stock can be turned into cash for free, or close to it, anyway.

If you are going to make your money back, do it in an investment you want to buy, which might recoup your money faster. There is no reason you have to recoup your money in the same investment. This is an emotional response to an investment decision that should be unemotional, in my opinion.

Are TFSAs good for stocks?

So, should you buy speculative stocks in a TFSA? I think people need to proceed with caution, so that they do not lose valuable tax-free account room. At the same time, investing is not without risk. If you want to earn a large tax-free gain, you have to take on some risk.

I suspect, Wayne, your losses may have been based on general market conditions last year as opposed to speculation. It is one thing to have a market correction where all stocks go down in your TFSA, but be careful about holding too large a position in a single speculative stock that is subject to single company risk. You could come out a winner, but you could also lose TFSA room.

Jason Heath is a fee-only, advice-only Certified Financial Planner (CFP) at Objective Financial Partners Inc. in Toronto. He does not sell any financial products whatsoever.