Gordon Powers

Thanks to low interest rates, Canadians have been racking up debt and falling behind on savings, prompting Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to sound the alarm bell about a potential pension crisis.

It's no secret that his much-awaited austerity budget is going to tackle Old Age Security in an effort to limit the cost of pension benefits as the baby boomer generation moves to retirement.

And while the details are still unclear, the thinking behind them isn't: Canadians are going to be increasingly on their own when it comes to saving for retirement.

So, did you make an RRSP contribution last month? No? Well, you're certainly not alone.

Fewer Canadians contributed to their RRSPs this year, but those who did at least put aside a little bit more, according to early Bank of Montreal figures.

This decline in contributions is expected to continue for the next several years, says a recent report from the Royal Bank of Canada - but not necessarily because people are saving less.

The report projects that the decline in RRSP contributions will continue to trend lower through 2020. This rate is expected to fall back to under two per cent of personal disposable income -- a level not seen since the 1970s -- from a high of five per cent in 1997 and a little over three per cent in 2010.

"Our research indicates that the downward trend from 1997 to 2010 coincided with the aging boomer generation -- as boomers moved past their higher saving years in their mid-30s through to their mid-50s," explains Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist, RBC. "By comparison, Canadians under the age of 34 tend to be the least likely to make RRSP contributions."

The report also notes that rising house prices are another key factor, as more and more Canadians pour their money into real estate rather than into their RRSPs. But that may not be the way to go for everybody, particularly if you're in a higher tax bracket.

Skipping the RRSP means you're betting that the hot housing market doesn't falter and, despite most predictions, keeps booming for several years to come.

The truth is, most boomers wish they could go back in time and make RRSPs a more important part of their retirement planning.

In a recent BMO study, for instance, respondents in this cohort admitted that not making RRSP contributions was one of their biggest regrets about their financial planning.

Assuming you can adjust your money clock just a little bit, however, you can still get back on board.

First off, try to make your RRSP contributions at the beginning of the calendar year, instead of waiting until the March 1 deadline. That gives you up to 14 extra months of tax-deferred growth each year.

The first business day of the year was Tuesday, Jan. 3. Not only could you have made an RRSP contribution for the 2011 tax year but also for the current year as well.

Granted, that's a lot of cash, but it's the best way to get as much money as possible working for you on a tax-deferred basis -- again providing you can use the tax deduction to the fullest.

But, since you weren't able to do that during the winter, you still have time to get a jump on things for 2012.

If you've had trouble putting money aside in the past, consider a bit of forced savings. A little bit each month automatically deducted from your bank account can really help you kickstart your RRSP. For most people, it's a lot easier to put $350 a month into an RRSP than to come up with $4,200 once a year.

In many instances, your employer may be willing to help you out here as well -- particularly if it doesn't offer the type of guaranteed pensions that most public sector workers enjoy.

According to various studies, less than half of those eligible for employer-sponsored RRSP programs actually take advantage of them. And that's a big mistake.

Since many of these plans include company matching of employee contributions, this means you're leaving money (as much as the three per cent raise you're probably not going to get) on the table each year that you don't participate.

If you've been investing on your own and have been lagging behind, now may also be the time to start using up that idle RRSP contribution room. You can go back 20 years to boost your savings.

Not sure where you stand? Check the Notice of Assessment you'll receive once you file your tax return next month. It'll update you on how much room you've been leaving behind.