Defined-Benefit vs. Defined-Contribution Pension Plans in Canada

There are two main types: defined-benefit (DB) and defined-contribution (DC) plans. DB plans used to be more common. They promise a set income when you retire and are mostly offered by employers in the public sector. DC plans, on the other hand, are becoming more popular, especially in the private sector. For those about to retire, it’s important to know the differences between these plans and how they fit into your overall retirement plan.

Defined Benefit (DB) Plans:

  • Guaranteed Income: Provides a stable, predictable retirement income.
  • Employer Risk: The employer assumes investment risks, not the employee.
  • Early Retirement Options: Flexibility for early retirement with adjusted benefits.
  • Survivor Benefits: Includes provisions for beneficiaries, ensuring family security.

Defined Contribution (DC) Plans:

  • Investment Control: Employees have the freedom to make their own investment choices.
  • Employer Match: Often includes additional contributions from the employer, boosting retirement savings.
  • Portability: Easier to transfer funds when changing jobs, offering more flexibility.

In Canada, only 37% of employees have access to a company pension plan. For those nearing retirement, understanding the nuances between defined-benefit (DB) and defined-contribution (DC) pension plans is crucial. Let’s explore these two types of plans, their benefits, and drawbacks, to help you navigate your retirement planning more effectively.

Defined Benefit Pension Plans: The Traditional Choice

Defined benefit pension plans, common in the public sector, are known for their predictability and security. They provide a specific amount of income in retirement, calculated based on factors like salary and years of service. For example, a typical calculation might be 2% of your average yearly pensionable earnings during your highest 5 years, multiplied by your years of pensionable service.


  • Predictable Income: Offers a guaranteed income, making retirement planning straightforward.
  • Flexible Retirement Dates: Options for early retirement, usually after 55, with adjusted benefits.
  • Survivor Benefits: May include benefits for your beneficiary, ensuring financial security for your spouse or common-law partner.
  • Inflation Adjustments: Some plans include cost of living adjustments (COLA) to maintain your purchasing power.
  • Income Splitting: Allows for tax advantages by splitting pensionable income with your spouse or partner.
  • Employer Bears the Risk: The employer is responsible for investment risks and ensuring sufficient funds.


  • Risk of Working Longer: The allure of a ‘full pension’ might lead to working longer than necessary.
  • Company-Managed Fund Risks: Poor fund management or employer bankruptcy could impact pension payouts.
  • Not Often Indexed to Inflation: Non-indexed plans decrease in value over time.
  • No Individual Pension Account: Contributions are pooled, limiting personal control over the investment.

Defined Contribution Pension Plans: The Modern Shift

Defined contribution plans, increasingly common in the private sector, involve both employer and employee contributions. The retirement benefit depends on these contributions and their investment performance, making it less predictable than DB plans.


  • Immediate Vesting: Contributions are often vested immediately, giving you full ownership quickly.
  • Transferability: Offers options to withdraw or transfer funds, beneficial if changing employers.
  • Investment Choices: Employees can choose how their contributions are invested.
  • Individual Pension Account: Provides a separate account, offering more control over investments.
  • Employer Match: Most plans include employer matching contributions, enhancing your savings.


  • Limited Investment Options: Choices are often restricted to the plan’s offerings.
  • Unpredictable Retirement Income: The final pension amount is not guaranteed and depends on market performance.
  • Employee Bears the Risk: Market volatility directly impacts the retirement benefit.
  • Self-Discipline Required: Requires proactive retirement planning and savings discipline.

Which Pension Plan is Best?

Both DB and DC plans have their advantages. DB plans offer stability and predictability, ideal for those who prefer a guaranteed income and less personal management of funds. DC plans, on the other hand, provide more control and flexibility, suited for those comfortable with taking on investment risks and making active financial decisions.

Regardless of the type, having access to any company pension plan is a significant advantage in your retirement planning. It’s essential to participate in these plans as early as possible to maximize their benefits. Remember, having a pension plan impacts your RRSP contribution room, so it’s crucial to consider this in your overall retirement strategy.

In Summary

Whether you’re part of a defined-benefit or a defined-contribution pension plan, the key is to understand the specifics of your plan and how it fits into your overall retirement goals. Consulting with a financial advisor can provide valuable insights, helping you make the most of your retirement savings and ensuring a comfortable and secure retirement.

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