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Introduction to Saving for Retirement

Unless you think you could get by on the Government's flat state pension (currently £155.65 per week) when you retire, you need to give some thought as to how you'll survive financially during retirement.

This doesn't necessarily mean starting a pension, there are other ways to provide for retirement, but it's unlikely state provision will become more generous so try to have some sort of plan. We're tending to live for longer and projections suggest there will be fewer people working to support retired folk in years to come, placing an ever greater strain on the state pension system.

What age can I retire?

The earliest age that you can receive a state pension is currently 66, rising to 67 by 2028 and 68 by 2046 for both men and women, reflecting the fact that we're all, on average, living longer.

Of course, there's nothing to stop you retiring earlier or later if you want to. Retiring earlier means you'll need to have a way of supporting yourself. If you retire later you could either start receiving your state pension or defer it to increase the amount you'll finally get.

If you have a pension then the earliest you can take it is age 55.

The real question for most of us is 'What age can I afford to retire?". Sadly, the answer is probably very different to the age at which you'd like to retire, especially as employers can no longer force you to retire at state pension age.

Use our Retirement Age Calculator to estimate the age at which you might be able to afford to retire.

Ways to get retirement income

There are a number of ways, including:

State PensionOccupationalPersonalEquity ReleaseSavingsWork

The flat rate state pension is a weekly pension from the Government, currently £203.85 per week, provided you've worked at least 35 qualifying years.

The key to saving and investing for retirement is being able to enjoy an income and/or capital withdrawals, preferably without having to pay too much tax. The table below shows the pros and cons of popular options:

Ways to save and invest for retirement
Saving / Investment Type Pros Cons
Savings Account
  • Safe, very unlikely you'll lose money.
  • Easy access to your money when you need it.
  • Inflation could reduce your spending power over time.
  • Interest is potentially taxable.
Stock Market
  • Provides scope for both income and capital growth.
  • Dividends tend to rise over time, potential for a growing income.
  • Gains could be tax-free if within your annual CGT allowance.
  • Risky, you could lose money.
  • Dividends above £5,000 a year are taxable.
Gilts / Corporate Bonds
  • Can provide a steady income with limited potential for capital growth.
  • Gains on gilts are tax-free.
  • Some risk, you could lose money.
  • Interest is potentially taxable.
Individual Savings Accounts
  • Interest and gains are tax-free.
  • Potential dividend tax saving for higher and top rate taxpayers.
  • Wide choice of underlying investments available.
  • Some of the underlying investments can be risky.
  • Annual limit on how much to can contribute.
  • No tax relief on contributions unlike pensions.
  • Good source of income if successfully rented.
  • Bricks & mortar tends to be a good long term investment.
  • If you need to sell, it could take some time to get your money.
  • Gains likely to exceed CGT allowance so taxable.
  • Ongoing maintenance costs could be high.

What will I get?

This can vary markedly depending on your situation. Use our 'How Much?' Retirement Calculator to estimate how much you might get in retirement.

Pension Tax Benefits

One benefit of using a pension to save towards retirement is that the Government effectively pays you to contribute by giving an initial 'tax-relief' on contributions. Pension income, when taken, is taxable but the initial tax-relief can nonetheless provide a welcome boost.

Tax relief on pension contributions - equivalent net cost shown
Gross Contribution Non-taxpayer* Basic Rate Taxpayer Higher Rate Taxpayer**
£100 £80 £80 £60
* Limited to a gross contribution of £3,600. ** Assuming sufficient higher rate to reclaim.

Tax relief is given on pension contributions of up to your earnings or £60,000 a year (including any employer contributions), whichever is lower. However, this reduces for higher incomes: if you earn over £200,000 a year and your combined earnings and pension contributions (called 'adjusted income') exceed £260,000 a year your allowance will reduce by £1 for every £2 your adjusted income exceeds £260,000, subject to a minimum allowance of £10,000. Your allowance could also fall to £10,000 if you have already taken benefits from a pension.

Find out how much tax relief you might get on your contributions using our Pension Contribution Tax Relief Calculator.

Pension funds do not have to pay tax on gains or interest, but thanks to a Gordon Brown 'stealth tax' dividends received by pension funds (through investing in shares) have not been 'tax-free' since 1997.

When you retire you can take up to 25% of your pension fund as a tax-free lump sum. However, pension income is taxable as normal.

To view a comparison of pension tax benefits versus individual savings account (ISA) tax benefits, click here.

How the tax relief is given depends on the type of pension:

Company & Public Service PensionsPersonal Pensions

Your employer usually makes contributions directly from your pay before deducting tax, so you enjoy the full relief straight away.

Pension Unlocking

Provided you're age 55 or over, you can take the tax-free cash from your pension before you retire, this is known as 'pension unlocking'.

However, unless you're really desperate for cash this is almost always a bad idea, especially if you have a 'final salary' pension. You could severely impact your pension income when you retire and some pension providers will charge you a penalty for doing so.

Candid Tip Beware of financial advisers who suggest you unlock your pension, as some charge excessive fees in the process.

If you do go ahead then choose an independent adviser who'll carry out a comprehensive analysis and clearly outline charges and commissions. At least you'll know exactly what you're letting yourself in for.

Ways to buy a pension

InsurersSIPP PLatformsEmployerFinancial AdviserDiscount Broker/Platform

Some insurers offer their pensions, especially stakeholder, directly. While generally cost effective, you may sometimes find a cheaper deal on the same pension via a discount broker.

Pension Mis-selling

Pensions have historically enjoyed a miserable reputation, with many people being 'ripped off' by unscrupulous salesmen and pension providers.

The root cause was the sky high upfront commissions that insurers paid to advisers for selling their pensions, often equal to the first two year’s worth of contributions. This often led to advisers shackling their clients to onerous regular premium pensions rather than suggesting a series of ad-hoc one-off contributions which would have normally been more flexible and cost effective (but paid far less upfront commission).

High commissions also led to the 'pension transfer scandal' of the 1980s and mid 1990s, whereby advisers recommended individuals move from perfectly good occupational pensions into personal pensions, often leaving them worse off while the adviser typically pocketed thousands of pounds of commission. This led to the Financial Services Authority (FSA) ordering advisers and insurers to review pension transfer cases and, where necessary, pay compensation to the victims.

Thankfully the pension industry has generally cleaned up its act and commissions are now banned where advice is given, but this doesn't excuse the events of the past and many individuals continue to suffer as a result.

Because insurers paid out crazy upfront sales commissions on regular contribution pensions, they used a variety of cunning ways to claw back this money and ensure a fat profit over the life of the pension policy.

Common practices included:

  • Contributions for the first two years being classed as ‘capital units’ and suffering an annual charge of 4% throughout the life of the pension.
  • Subsequent contributions having a 1% annual charge.
  • Underlying funds with a 5% bid offer spread and 1-1.5% annual management charge.
  • Penalties for transferring to another provider, ensuring the provider could recoup costs not yet deducted up until retirement.
  • Additional charges for stopping premiums or retiring early.

If you started a personal pension or retirement annuity contract (RAC) before the mid to late 1990s then there's a fair chance it suffers from the types of charges outlined above.

Auto-Enrolment workplace pensions

Because the majority of the working population is not saving enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, the Government is trying to improve matters by automtically 'enrolling' employees in to a workplace pension.

Under auro-enrolment, which is being phased in over the next few years, employees aged over 22 and earning at least £10,000 a year are automatically enrolled (although they can opt-out) and will need to contribute 4% of their salary unless they choose to opt out. In turn, employers must contribute 3% and the Government contributes 1% via tax relief (higher rate relief is given where appropriate).

Will this solve the pension crisis? Probably not, but it should at least do more good than harm.

While auto-enrolment should actively encourage all employees to make provision for retirement above the State Pension, which is largely a good thing, there are potential flaws:

  • An 8% total contribution may not be enough to provide employees with a comfortable retirement income.
  • Many employers, unhappy at the prospect of higher employment costs, may simply pass on some or all of the 3% cost to employees via a reduction in salary and/or other benefits. This has already occurred in Australia, where a similar system has stifled wage increases.
  • Employers who would otherwise contribute more than 3% into a pension for employees could be tempted to cut back to this new level.
  • The Government has a poor track record at encouraging individuals to save, so will individuals simply choose to opt out in droves?
  • Who will pay for employees to receive advice on investment choice? History suggests the public are mostly unwilling to pay for advice.
  • As underlying investments are largely trackers, is it a good idea for the nation’s retirement prospects to hinge on the share price performance of a handful of large companies?
  • A large proportion of the target market is probably in debt. Should they be clearing these first given debt interest is likely higher than potential pension investment returns?
  • Although there’s no doubt individuals need to save more, saving rather than spending could adversely impact the economy.

'A' Day

6 April 2006 was the day the Government turned the pension world on its head by introducing 'pensions simplification'. The aim was to replace the vast number of complicated rules for different types of pension with a single set of rules applying to all pensions. By and large it has succeeded. For more details of current pension rules click here.

Retirement Jargon

Here's some of the more common retirement jargon you might come across:

'A' Day6 April 2006, the day the government pension simplification rules came into effect.
Annual Earnings AllowanceThe amount that you contribute into a pension each tax year and enjoy tax relief (capped at your annual earnings if lower).
AVCAdditional Voluntary Years, a way of increasing your potential occupational pension by contributing money into investment funds.
Death In SeviceA benefit, similar to life insurance, paid by occupational final salary pensions should you die while still working.
Deferred annuityAn annuity that starts paying an income for life in future, not straight away.
Final Salary SchemeAn occupational pension scheme where your pension is linked to your salary and the number of years you've belonged to the scheme.
Group Personal PensionA type of occupational money purchase pension scheme, where individual pension policies are administered by an insurance company.
Guarantee PeriodIf an owner dies soon after buying an annuity, income continues to be paid for the duration of the guarantee period, e.g. 5 years.
Impaired Life AnnuityPays a higher income than usual because the owner has a shorter than average life expectancy, e.g. smokers or those with a history of illness.
Income DrawdownLeaving your pension fund invested when you retire and drawing an annual income within set limits.
Index-Linked AnnuityPays an income for life which increases each year with inflation.
Investment-Linked AnnuityPays an income for life, the exact level depending on the performance of a particular investment.
Joint LifeA pension annuity that continues paying an income (to a spouse or depenents) when the pension owner dies.
Level AnnuityPays a fixed income for life.
Lifetime AllowanceThe amount your pension fund is allowed to be worth when you retire or die without having to pay a penalty tax.
Money Purchase SchemeAn occupational pension scheme where your pension depends on how much money is contributed during your career, investment performance and annuity rates when you retire.
Occupational PensionA pension scheme offered by employers to their employees.
Open Market OptionThe right to shop around for the best deal on a pension annuity, you're not obliged to buy from your pension provider.
Paid in AdvanceThe annuity income is paid at the beginning of the payment period, e.g. month/year.
Paid in ArrearsThe annuity income is paid at the end of the payment period, e.g. month/year.
Pension Protection FundIntroduced by the Government in 2005 with the aim of protecting employees in final salary schemes (against their employer becoming bankrupt).
Pension Tax CreditA state benefit that's effectively a minimum income guarantee for those age 60 and over.
Protected RightsThe part of a pension fund which was used to contract out of the State Second Pension (or SERPS).
Protected Rights AnnuityThe part of a pension fund used to contract out of additional State Pensions (SERPS /S2P), must buy a protected rights annuity.
Purchased Life AnnuityAn annuity bought with your own money, not using your pension fund.
S2PState Second Pension, a 'top-up' to the basic state pension (for employees only) based upon NI contribution history and earnings over your working life.
Single LifeA pension annuity that stops paying income when the pension owner dies, there's no income for their spouse or dependents.
SIPPSelf Invested Personal Pension, a money purchase type pension that allows you to hold any investment that is allowed to be held within a pension.
Small Pension FundsPension funds that do not exceed 1% of the lfetime allowance at retirement, allowing you to take the whole amount as a tax-free cash sum.
Stakeholder PensionA money purchase type of pension that has high flexibility and low charges.
State PensionA weekly income paid by the Government to the vast majority of the population once they reach retirement age.
Tax-Free CashThe sum of cash you can take from your pension fund, tax-free, when you retire. Currently 25%.
With ProportionIf income is paid in arrears and the owner dies before the next payment, the balance owed is paid to their estate.