It can be hard to know where to start with pensions, especially if you don’t have an employer to make some of the decisions for you. John Firth takes us through some pension essentials.
- short-term needs and long-term saving
- risk you can live with and risk to protect against
- costs and benefits (protection costs but provides a benefit)
- what advisers can offer and what you must do yourself.
I say a little about growth over time. Finally, when you want to draw on your savings you have options.
Most of this article comes down to ‘what do you want?’, ‘that all depends’ and ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’: rather like editing.
Saving is Good, and we Ought to Do It, but first, we must put food on the table and then some bills we must pay because, if we don’t, we could lose our home. Not everybody can save.
This article is focused on the UK; pension options and legislation will be different in other countries.
Short term and long term
If you can manage to put money aside, first plan for the short term (today, tomorrow, next week). The best way is to put money aside regularly (out of every invoice paid, say), but a good second-best is to put something aside today, no matter how small. Doing nothing till you can afford to save regularly is a bad idea: rainy days come, whether you’re ready or not.
That money needs to be somewhere easily accessible. Find a bank deposit or building society account paying some interest; some people keep a cushion in such an account, and the rest in vehicles that earn a bit more, but can’t be drawn on so easily: different kinds of ISA, say. How many balls are you happy to juggle at once?
The National Insurance pension gets a lot of undeserved criticism. You would struggle to live on your state pension alone, but it’s the cheapest way to make a real difference to your standard of living in retirement, because
- it’s guaranteed, no matter what the markets do between now and when you retire, and
- it’s inflation-proofed.
If there’s a gap in your NI record you can pay voluntary contributions to fill it (check at gov.uk/check-state-pension). I think doing that is more important than making private pension savings.
So, you’ve planned for the short term and made sure you’ll get the full state pension. Now you can start to think about the long term. Pensions offer tax relief on what you put in (the government pays roughly 20% of your contributions to your pension provider, more if you pay higher-rate tax); also, tax breaks on the interest or investment growth you earn. But once you are in a pension, it is difficult and expensive to pull your money out until you retire: so think about whether you can afford to lock money away.
If you can afford a private pension, think about risk. Would it worry you if your pot’s value went down this year? Decide your ‘risk appetite’, on a scale from 1 (‘it would keep me up at night’) to 10 (‘not at all’). What about timing? While you’re younger you might be happy to wait out a slump; however, you probably want to protect your savings if you plan to retire next year, and after you’ve started to live on them. A good adviser will suggest when one investment approach is likely to suit you better than another, and many fund managers offer investment switching options. Some packaged products offer ‘lifestyling’ (higher-risk investments when you’re young; safer ones after 50 or 55): the government’s NEST scheme, for example.
If a slump comes, don’t stop saving! If you think the market’s overvalued, don’t stop saving! The times you bought when investments were cheap will compensate for the times when you had to pay more for them. This ‘pound-cost averaging’ will save you money; moreover, would you be able to spot ‘the right moment to invest’? Consistently, over 20 or 30 years?
Next, when could you retire? If your family all live to be 100, you need to save for as long as possible; if your genes are not so kind, you might want to retire sooner. It all depends …
Hidden and visible costs
Remember risk? Investment guarantees are often provided by ‘smoothing’ returns: the investment manager holds on to some growth in good times, to protect the fund in bad times. You will pay something for this protection, but that cost is hidden.
Index or ‘tracker’ funds aim to ‘track’ a particular investment index, more or less (some funds ‘track’ closely, others within a band above and below the index). These offer some protection – you never get significantly less than the market average – at some cost – you never get significantly more, either.
You could invest ‘actively’, in stocks, shares and other things that can be valued. These go up and down, and your fund manager tries to limit risk by spreading across different types of investment. There are many kinds of specialised fund, including ‘ethical’ funds. Active investment managers usually state costs clearly: often they make separate charges for managing the fund and for new investments, and specialised funds may charge more.
You could do all the investment yourself: many providers market ‘self-investment personal pensions’ (SIPPs).
It’s good to know what you’re paying, but don’t let the tail wag the dog. If ‘active’ investments would keep you awake at night, they probably aren’t right for you; simply accept that you may have to pay a bit more for a safer approach.
Advisers charge for their services, some by billing you, some by collecting from your fund’s manager. A good adviser will help you make all the decisions we’ve talked about, tell you whether you’re on track or need to pay more (in an annual report) and help you when you retire. You can expect high costs when everything’s being set up and when you start to draw your benefits, and lower costs in between. Some advisers offer ‘smoothed’ charges, which will probably cost more overall (because they gave you credit during the setting-up, and anticipate costs when you retire).
Most of us should find a good adviser and trust them, but ask lots of questions. The Financial Conduct Authority offers guidance on finding advisers and what to ask (fca.org.uk/consumers/finding-adviser), and a register that you can search for firms qualified to offer advice on pensions (register.fca.org.uk/s/); Unbiased.co.uk is also quite good. Ask friends and colleagues who they trust, and who they don’t – and why.
Recently, you might have earned 30% in some years, and lost 15% in bad ones. Over time, the good and bad years average out. What matters is outpacing inflation. If your pot grows (on average) by 7% while inflation (on average) is 2%, you’re earning 5% in real terms (7 – 2 = 5). But future charges are probably going to average somewhere between 1% and 2% a year, so your net return may be 3% or 4%. A simple spreadsheet model focusing on the net return is a good way to work out how your savings might grow in real terms.
You should be able to earn a net 4% a year over shortish periods (five or ten years), but there will be bad years and could be bad decades (remember the 1970s?). Over longer periods you’re safer assuming low net returns (2% a year, say). You won’t mind if you do better than budgeted; although, budgeting for 4% and actually getting 2% would mean a big shortfall.
Drawing your savings
Retirement is more flexible than it used to be. You can start to draw benefits from 55 (that will shortly increase to 57), or you can wait: there is no upper age limit. You can even draw some benefits and carry on contributing, but then a tighter ‘annual allowance’ will limit what you can contribute.
Up to one-quarter of your pot can be drawn in cash, tax-free; in stages, if you like (the one-quarter limit applies to whatever is left, so if your pot grows, so will the cash you can draw tax-free).
You can draw the remaining three-quarters in cash, and if your pot is very small, this would be tax-free; however, above this ‘triviality’ limit, HMRC charges a special tax rate to claw back the tax relief you received.
So, most people will use that three-quarters to provide an income, which will be subject to income tax. If you make the necessary arrangements before you retire, you won’t need to buy an annuity with this money: you could leave it invested and ‘draw it down’ (monthly or whenever). Annuities (insurance policies that pay a guaranteed income for a guaranteed period – usually, the rest of your life) don’t deserve their bad reputation. While interest rates are low, and because many of us are living longer, they are expensive in our 60s; but they can be good value when we’re older, or if our health is bad (some insurers offer special rates for particular medical conditions). An option to consider is buying an annuity at (say) 75, to guarantee (say) half the income you want to draw, and continuing to draw down from your remaining pot.
I’ve just described what the law allows. However, your plan’s documents might contain tighter terms than this: ask your financial adviser. Don’t ask me: I’m not FCA-registered.
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