Almost four out of every 10 Canadians polled in a recent BMO survey admit they've withdrawn money from their RRSP early, and almost a fifth of them don't ever expect to replenish what they've taken out.

According to the poll of 1,500 people, conducted by Pollara but commissioned by Bank of Montreal, more and more Canadians are dipping into their retirement savings to keep their heads above water financially.

In a similar poll last year, 34 per cent of respondents said they had tapped their registered retirement savings plans early. This year, it jumped to 38 per cent.

The survey was conducted online between Dec. 14 and 19. It carries a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, BMO said.

The 38 per cent figure comes from polling Canadians in general, not just those who have an RRSP — so the percentage of RRSP holders who made withdrawals would be higher.

Of those polled who had dipped into the kitty early, almost a third, 30 per cent, said they had a good reason for doing so: buying a house. Under the Home Buyer's Plan, Ottawa allows an RRSP-holder to withdraw up to $25,000 from their RRSP if they're going to use the money for a down payment.

But more than a fifth of those who have withdrawn money early said they did so to pay living expenses, and 18 per cent reported they did it to pay down debt — two excuses the tax man will not accept as legitimate enough to waive the penalty for doing so.

"It's concerning to see that so many Canadians are dipping into their RRSPs to meet short-term needs, which should only be considered as a last resort," Chris Buttigieg with BMO Wealth Management said in a release announcing the results of the poll.

There are few ways to withdraw money from an RRSP before the age of 71 without a penalty. All things being equal, Ottawa takes a punitive withholding tax of up to 30 per cent of the withdrawal. Some provinces also take a slice.

The funds being taken out don't seem to be small amounts of money, either. According to the poll, the average withdrawal was $17,213 last year, up by more than $1,300 in the past year. Unless it's for a reason the CRA deems to be legitimate, such as to buy a home or to go to school, anyone who took out that much from their RRSP last year would lose $5,163.90 right off the bat to the federal withholding tax. 

While the average withdrawal size and percentage of people who have done so early varies across the country, the consequences can be just as serious.

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"Before withdrawing from an RRSP, speak to a financial professional to make sure you have fully considered the ramifications of the early withdrawal tax consequences, and to consider any additional options that may be available to you," Buttigieg said.