Pensions guide: the different types of pensions you need to know about

What are pensions, the different types and how to save for one – we explain everything you need to know

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(Image credit: Jose A. Bernat Bacete)

A pension is a tax-efficient way to put money aside for your retirement.

Pensions are geared up to support you and provide income when you retire so you can maintain the standard of living you had pre-retirement – or even enjoy a better one.

This means you can only access the funds at a certain age, which is where it all gets a bit complicated.

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In this guide, we explain the different types of pensions and how they work.

How does the state pension

The government pays a state pension to men and women aged over 66.

There are two types of state pension depending on when you were born.

A man born before 6 April 1951 will get the basic state pension, as will a woman born before 6 April 1953.

This is currently worth £141.85 a week, but you will need 35 qualifying years of National Insurance contributions to get the full amount. Some people may be able to buy additional National Insurance contributions if they wish to plug the gap.

Anyone who reached state pension age on or after 6 April 2016 receives the new state pension, worth £185.15 a week.

You will need 35 qualifying years to get the full new state pension, and a minimum of ten to get anything.

The state pension is treated as income, so you will be taxed if all your earnings are above the personal allowance.

Both types of state pension are increased each year based on a controversial measure known as the triple lock, which commits to increasing the payments by the highest of earnings, the consumer prices index or 2.5%.

The recent high levels of inflation means that pensioners will get a 10.1% increase in April.

Critics say this is unfair as people still working are unlikely to see similar pay rises.

You can get a state pension forecast to find out how much new state pension you may get on the Gov.uk website.

The state pension is only supposed to support a minimum standard of living in retirement, so most retirees will also need separate savings.

This is where private pensions come in.

If you work for the public sector, you will probably have some sort of defined benefit (DB) pension

This is a set amount you will receive when you retire based on a combination of your final or average salary and your length of service.

Some large private sector companies may also offer DB schemes, also known as gold-plated pensions, but they have become rare as it puts all the investment risk on the employer as they need to ensure they can fund the payouts.

With the government heavily in debt, pension benefits are also being eroded in the public sector too. 

So even if you have one of these pensions – and especially if you don’t – you should still be making other provisions for your retirement.

Since 2012, most private sector workers from age 22 have been automatically enrolled into a pension scheme through their employer.

The aim is to boost pension saving to ensure people have enough funds to support their retirement and aren’t so reliant on the state.

These are known as defined contribution (DC) pensions, with the onus on the employer and employee to put money into the pot, which is then managed by an investment provider and invested in a range of funds, shares and bonds.

The government sets minimum contributions under auto-enrolment schemes.

It is currently 8%, made up of at least 3% from the employer and 5% from the employee.

Unlike a DB scheme, what you get in the end with DC schemes depends on how your investments perform between now and when you retire, as well as how much you contribute.

It is possible to opt out of a company auto-enrolment scheme after three months, but this means you won’t be saving for your retirement.

You don’t only have to rely on your employer for pension savings.

It is possible to set up your own personal pension, which is particularly important for the self-employed who don’t have access to auto-enrolment pensions and won’t benefit from employer contributions.

This can be set up directly or through an adviser, and  an asset manager will take charge of the pension pot for you.

Another option is a self-invested personal pension through DIY investment platforms or robo-wealth managers.

You get to choose exactly what to buy, and you can make changes as frequently or infrequently as you like.

The tax benefits of pensions

Similar to an Individual Savings Account (Isa), the investment growth in a pension is earned tax-free.

There is another benefit in the form of pension tax relief.

For example, when a basic-rate taxpayer puts £80 into a pension, HMRC grosses it back up to £100, effectively giving you the 20% tax you paid on that £100 when you first earned it.

If you're a 40% or 45%-rate taxpayer, you only have to pay £60 or £65 respectively to make a £100 pension contribution.

You get the £20 basic rate tax back from the taxman immediately, and then need to claim the rest back through a self-assessment tax return.

How much can you put into a pension?

You can contribute as little or as much as you like into a pension.

The earlier you start, the larger your pot could be and the more chance you will have of smoothing out volatile times in your pension portfolio.

While the minimum auto-enrolment rate is 8%, the Association of British Insurers has suggested it should be at least 12% and other industry commentators have pushed for closer to 15%.

There are limits to HMRC’s generosity on tax relief though.

Currently, the annual limit is £60,000 a year for most people, with a lifetime limit of £1,073,100.

Anything above the lifetime allowance is added to your taxable income.

MoneyHelper has an online pension calculator that can help you work out how much you need for your retirement and what your pot could be worth.

When can I access my pension?

The whole point of pension saving is to only access the funds when you retire.

While the state pension age is currently 67, it is possible to access your own private retirement savings earlier.

The normal minimum pension age is currently 55, rising to 57 from 6 April 2028.

There are circumstances where you may be able to get the money earlier, such as if you are ill or have a protected pension age in your policy.

You need to start thinking about tax once you access your pension.

The government lets you take a 25% lump sum tax-free. 

The rest can then either be left invested – known as income drawdown – with any withdrawals subject to income tax, or you can use some or all of the money to buy a fixed retirement income, known as an annuity, which is purchased from an insurance company.

There are benefits to waiting longer in both cases to access your pot.

The longer you stay invested, the more valuable your pot and income drawdown withdrawals could be.

Additionally, waiting until you are older to buy an annuity could give you a higher rate depending on your life expectancy. 

Annuity payments are also taxed as income.

The pros and cons of pension saving 

Once you reach retirement, you may work fewer hours or not at all.

This means less income but you will still have bills to pay, such as utilities and council tax, even before you think about playing more golf or travelling the world.

The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA) estimates that a couple seeking a moderate retirement, including annual fortnights abroad in Europe and eating out a few times a month, would need £34,000 a year.

To achieve this level, a couple each in receipt of the full new state pension would need to accumulate a retirement pot of £121,000 each, based on an annuity rate of £6,200 per £100,000.

That is a lot to put away and shows how important it is to have a savings pot dedicated to your retirement so you can still afford to live when your income drops.

The big problem with pensions is that the government can fiddle with them at any time.

The Treasury is often rumoured to be considering cutting higher rate pension tax-relief, although it has so far resisted this.

There have, however, been cuts to the monthly and lifetime allowances in the past and the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week suggested capping the tax-free lump sum.

The state pension age is also set to rise to 67 in 2028, and 68 in 2037 and 2039, so there is always a chance of having to wait longer to get this money.

This makes retirement planning challenging. Experts say it is worth considering other products alongside your pension, such as using your annual £20,000 Isa allowance, which can be accessed any time, or even other assets such as property.

It is also worth checking the fees you are paying for your pension as these can eat into your returns. And keep an eye on fund performance to ensure the portfolio matches your risk appetite and ultimately keeps you on track for a happy retirement.

Marc Shoffman
Contributing editor

Marc Shoffman is an award-winning freelance journalist specialising in business, personal finance and property. His work has appeared in print and online publications ranging from FT Business to The Times, Mail on Sunday and The i newspaper. He also co-presents the In For A Penny financial planning podcast.