03/01/2012 02:00 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

RRSP contributions appear to be consistent with those in past few years: BMO

TORONTO - Slightly fewer Canadians contributed to their RRSPs this year, but those who did invested a little bit more, says a Bank of Montreal retirement expert.

A bank survey showed about 38 per cent of Canadians had contributed or planned to put money into an RRSP before Wednesday's midnight deadline for the 2011 tax year

That was down slightly from 39 per cent the year before and close to 38 per cent for the 2009 tax year.

Worries about the stock market, weakening job prospects and the slumping economy have made many Canadians cautious with their money. Yet there hasn't been a big decline in the popularity of the tax-deducted RRSP retirement account.

"It's been pretty much consistent for the past three years," said Tina DiVito head of the BMO Retirement Institute. "It's good news that it hasn't significantly declined."

"The numbers this year were a little bit lower than last year, which can be a bit of a concern, but they're not so significantly lower that it's something that we can't recover from."

Those surveyed said they contributed an average of $4,670 this year, up slightly from $4,538 last year.," DiVito said.

"We've had such volatility in worldwide economics," said DiVito, who still sees a lot of "confusion and uncertainty out there."

"So people are being cautious," she said.

"But you still have to take accountability and responsibility for saving for your retirement regardless of what else is going on in the world."

However, recent polls have suggested many Canadians wait until the last minute to make an RRSP contribution — if they do so at all.

A recent survey by Scotiabank found that just two in five Canadians — roughly 39 per cent — said they planned to contribute to an RRSP for the 2011 tax year.

That was down sharply from 53 per cent a year earlier.

Meanwhile, CIBC issued its own poll last week that found about one quarter of Canadians who planned to make a contribution this year still had not done so.

Half of them said they planned to wait until the final two days before contributing.

But DiVito said the number of those procrastinators has been dwindling over the years. She believes the poll numbers compiled for BMO —from Feb. 21 to Feb.23 — should hold up even if some Canadians scrambled at the last minute to make contributions.

Among those respondents in the BMO survey who said they did not make a contribution, 61 per cent said they didn't have enough money, 14 per cent said they already had enough money for retirement and nine per cent said they didn't have enough confidence in the economy.

Retirement saving responsibilities have been shifting onto individuals as companies cut back on their pension offerings in a move to save money.

At the same time, Canadians have been racking up debt and drawing down on savings, causing some experts to sound alarm bells about a potential pension crisis.

"Many Canadians are financially stretched and saving for retirement often gets pushed down on the list of financial priorities," DiVito said.

"However, saving for retirement doesn't have to happen all at once. The key is to make regular contributions to your RRSP, regardless of the amount."

Canadians are getting better at putting money into their RRSPs as they read more and more headlines about how they're expected to live longer and face tougher financial choices in their golden years, said Sun Life financial adviser Brian Burlacoff.

For the clients he advises "our contributions are actually up this year," Burlacoff said.

"At least in our client base, people are getting a little more confident so we're probably up about 20 or 30 per cent over last year."

Burlacoff said those who miss the 2011 deadline should turn their focus to putting a plan in place for the 2012 tax year — such as a biweekly or monthly automatic deduction system.

Your contribution limit will carry over to next year, giving you plenty of time to set up a monthly contribution plan to avoid the deadline rush next year.

"The small deadline is the tax deadline, the large deadline is retirement," Burlacoff said.

Around the world, a retirement crisis looms as debt-strapped countries scale back benefits, raise the retirement age or make other moves to deal with rising obligations and weak economies.

In Canada, the federal government wants to scale back the long-term costs of its Old Age Security program, and has met harsh criticism over suggestions it may raise the OAS retirement age to save money.

"People are starting to see that the government's not going to be there for us when we're 65... People are starting to realize they've got to fund this themselves," Burlacoff said.

"But what we're not so good at is doing a plan."

Sun Life Financial's (TSX:SLF) annual Unretirement Index poll, released last week, found that only about three in 10 Canadians surveyed said they plan full retirement by 66.