Personal pension: arranging your own retirement saving

A personal pension is a private pension that you can set up for yourself, outside any workplace scheme. Open a personal pension plan and your contributions could be boosted by tax relief too.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby, Tim Leonard Published on 25 January 2021. Last updated on 20 August 2021.
Personal pension: arranging your own retirement saving

Preparing for retirement is always important, and a personal pension can help you along the way if a workplace pension isn’t available to you. The plans that personal pension providers offer can be straightforward and flexible to try to make it as easy as possible to save for your retirement.

What is a personal pension?

A personal pension is a form of defined contribution pension. It is a great option if you are self-employed or don’t qualify for a workplace pension, but it is also possible to open a personal pension plan to sit alongside a workplace pension if you so wish.

How a personal pension works

What you pay in is invested to try to grow the pension fund you will have at your disposal at retirement – tax relief on contributions provides a valuable boost as well. The value of your personal pension will depend on how much you have paid in and the performance of the pension funds that you invest in.

You will usually have the ability to monitor your progress online and switch investments if you see fit. Your personal pension provider will also send you an annual statement with details of how much your pension is worth.

» MORE: Everything you need to know about pensions

How does personal pension tax relief work?

The contributions you make into a personal pension are eligible for tax relief. That means your pension provider can claim 20% from the government as basic-rate income tax relief and add it to your pension pot. So if you pay in £80 yourself, a total of £100 will be added to your pot once tax relief has been applied. If you pay the higher or additional rate of tax, you can claim the remaining tax relief you are entitled to through your tax return.

» MORE: All about pension tax relief

Are there limits on personal pension contributions?

You can pay up to 100% of your earnings into your pension each year up to a limit of £40,000, while still benefiting from tax relief – this is known as the annual allowance. The limits are different if you earn more than £150,000, have already withdrawn money from a pension or earn less than £3,600 a year.

There is also a limit on how large your pension pot can become. The lifetime allowance for the current tax year states that your pension pots cannot be worth more than £1,073,100. If you exceed this or any of the allowances, you will have to pay an additional tax charge.

» MORE: Pension contribution rules and limits

Who can contribute to a personal pension?

Anyone can contribute to a personal pension, so you could pay into your spouse’s pension to ensure they have an income in later life. Non-taxpayers can pay a maximum of £2,880 into a pension each year, which after tax relief at a rate of 20% will be boosted to £3,600.

These rules also extend to children, meaning parents can set up a pension for their child. This is also something grandparents may want to do, but the account would need to be opened by a parent or guardian.

» MORE: How to set up a pension for a child

Can my employer pay into my personal pension?

If you set up a personal pension for yourself, your employer is not obliged to pay into it. For this reason, if you qualify for a workplace pension, it may be preferable to join this rather than arranging your own personal pension.

However, some employers will offer a personal pension as their workplace pension – if this is the case, they will pay into your pension.

When can I draw my personal pension?

When you turn 55, you can start to access your personal pension; this will increase to 57 in 2028. You can take 25% of your pension as a tax-free lump sum, or you can make smaller withdrawals where the first 25% is paid tax free and the remaining 75% taxed at your own marginal rate of income tax.

Although it is your age rather than your working situation that dictates when you can access your personal pension, it is sensible to avoid dipping into it before you retire if you can. This not only maximises the amount of time your money has to grow but it also reduces the risk that you will run out of money.

Once you start accessing your personal pension, it is a good idea to get financial advice to make sure you use your pension savings wisely and endeavour to make them last as long as possible.

There are a number of options to turn your pension pot into an income including buying an annuity or going into income drawdown, or a combination of both.

» MORE: How to draw an income from your pension

How to open a personal pension

Opening a personal pension plan should be relatively easy if you follow these steps:

1. Choose a personal pension provider

Different personal pension schemes might carry different fees and charges, all of which will affect the final size of your pension pot. Annual fees can be fixed or a percentage of your fund – fixed fees are usually preferable for large pots, and a percentage charge might be preferable for smaller pots. Expect to be charged for trading in and out of funds as well.

2. Make your investment choice

The investment options on offer can vary between personal personal providers. So if you have an idea of the type of fund you would like to invest in, make sure it is available through the personal pension plan you are considering. If you are not sure where to begin, personal pension providers usually offer ready-made investment portfolio options, based on how much risk you are prepared to take on. For example, you may be able to choose between a balanced, cautious or adventurous fund.

However, personal pensions won’t generally offer all investment options. If you want to have complete control over where you invest and the ability to put your money into shares, investment trusts, gilts, bonds, commercial property or exchange traded funds (ETFs), you might want to consider getting a self-invested personal pension (SIPP) rather than a traditional personal pension.

» COMPARE: SIPP providers

3. Contributing and managing your personal pension

To open a personal pension, you will need to have your bank details and National Insurance number to hand. Once your personal pension is set up, you can choose to make regular contributions via a direct debit as well as one-off payments. Your pension firm will claim basic-rate tax relief from the government and automatically add it to your pension pot. Higher-rate and additional-rate taxpayers can claim their remaining tax relief back via their tax return.

Who offers personal pension schemes?

When looking for a personal pension provider, insurance companies, banks, building societies and brokers are all options to explore. Shopping around for your personal pension plan is essential to make sure you are getting a good deal in terms of charges and that the investments you want are on offer.

» COMPARE: Personal pension providers

What happens to a personal pension when you die?

Generally, if someone dies under the age of 75 they can pass on the pension benefits tax-free. If you are over 75, there will be income tax to pay on what is passed on.

If you die after buying an annuity with your pension pot, what happens will depend on the type of annuity you have bought. Your dependants may get an income or a lump sum paid to them or they may get nothing at all.

» MORE: Learn about your pension and passing on

How many personal pensions can I have?

There is no limit on the number of personal pensions you can have. This means you could have a personal pension as well as a workplace pension and a SIPP.

But the balance across all your pensions cannot exceed the lifetime allowance, which is currently £1,073,100 and you cannot pay more into your pensions than the annual allowance (£40,000) and continue to benefit from tax relief.

WARNING: We cannot tell you if any form of investing is right for you. Depending on your choice of investment your capital can be at risk and you may get back less than originally paid in.

Image source: Getty Images

About the authors:

Ruth is a freelance journalist with 15 years of experience writing for national newspapers, magazines and websites. Specialising in savings, investments, pensions and property. Read more

Tim draws on 20 years’ experience at Virgin Money, Moneyfacts and Future to pen articles that always put consumers’ interests first. He has particular expertise in mortgages, pensions and savings. Read more

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