Why it pays to move your occupational pension out of its default fund

If you’re a member of an occupational pension scheme, moving your savings out of its default investment fund could significantly increase your wealth in retirement.

Car with piggy bank on top

It may be time to take your savings elsewhere
(Image credit: ©Colin Anderson/Blend Images LLC)

What's the one thing you could do today to increase your wealth in retirement? If you're a member of an occupational pension scheme, there's a good chance the answer is simple: move your savings out of its default investment fund.

If, like most occupational pension-plan members, your scheme is a defined-contribution, rather than a defined-benefit scheme that pays guaranteed pensions, your pension in later life will depend on how well your money is invested. That comes down to the returns that managers achieve and the charges they deduct. On both counts default investment funds tend to score badly.

Switching out of your occupational pension's default fund should pay off

Recent research from financial adviser Hargreaves Lansdown suggests that the ten most popular funds with savers who have moved away from the default options in their pension scheme are performing far better. Over the past five years, savers in these funds have earned 5% more than those in default products.

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Such outperformance can have a huge impact. A saver currently earning £28,000 who starts saving 8% of pay at age 22 and retires at 68 could expect to have a pension fund worth £191,000 if they earn an average return of 5% a year. An average return of 6% would produce £250,000.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a different fund will outperform your default option. Bear in mind, however, that employers tend to be conservative about default investment options.

If you're many years away from retirement, you can invest in higher-risk alternatives in the hope of achieving higher returns; there is plenty of time to recover from any setbacks.

As for charges, default pension funds aren't normally allowed to charge an annual fee of more than 0.75% a year. But many stay close to or at this cap and there are far cheaper alternatives available. The cheapest index tracker funds cost less than 0.1% a year.

Again, charges make a huge difference. A saver putting £100 a month into a pension for 40 years and earning an annual return of 5% would end up with a fund worth £145,000 if they paid charges of only 0.1% a year. A 0.75% fee reduces this to £124,000.

If default funds cost more and perform less well, why do nine in ten occupational pension-scheme members stick with them? Doing so is the easy option it requires no action. But the danger of not seizing the initiative and exploring better alternatives for your savings is that you'll pay heavily for your apathy later in life.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.