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Pensions vs ISAs

Updated 28 March 2022

3min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

Ding ding! The fight is on. Pensions vs ISAs.  But which will win?  Robert Little investigates.


Many people have built up sizeable pension pots in the hope that it will see them through retirement.  However, there are alternative savings vehicles available that could be considered, such as Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs).

There are many pros and cons of both investment types, so we will explore the significant differences and how they may affect you.

Round one: upfront tax relief

One of the main benefits of a pension is that you get income tax relief on any money you invest.  For example, if you are a basic rate taxpayer (20 per cent) and you want to add £1,000 to your pension, you would write a cheque for £800 and HMRC would add £200.

But, there is no tax relief available when putting money into an ISA.  So, although your ISA isn’t taxed, if you wanted to save £1,000 into your ISA you would have to write a cheque for £1,000.

Round two: investment limits

Pensions have different limits regarding how much you can invest and still receive tax relief.  Each year you can contribute up to the “annual allowance” (which is currently £50,000).  If you have no UK earnings you can still contribute up to £3,600 each year. There is also a “lifetime allowance”, which caps the maximum value of your pension over your working life.

So, for example, if you have a salary of £60,000 you can add this full amount into a pension.  However you will only get tax relief up to £50,000 because of the annual allowance.

With ISAs there is only an annual contribution limit.  This is £11,520 in total but only half of this (£5,760) can be invested in a cash ISA.

Round three: What happens when I retire?

With a pension you normally have to wait until age 55.  You can then take up to 25 per cent of your pension pot as a tax-free lump sum.  The remainder is normally used to provide taxable income.  There are many options available here including purchasing an annuity, which provides a guaranteed income for the remainder of your life.

You can cash an ISA at any age.  All withdrawals are completely tax-free and you can choose to make a big one-off withdrawal or a series of smaller withdrawals.

Round four: what happens if I die?

If you die before drawing your benefits your pension will normally pay out a tax-free lump sum.  For a company pension this could be based on a multiple of your salary.  For personal pensions this could simply be the fund value on the day you die.  This value is normally not included as part of your estate, which is useful for anyone with an inheritance tax liability.

If you die after taking your pension benefits the situation is very different and it fully depends on how you have taken your pension.  Your spouse may get a percentage of your pension (e.g. 50 per cent) or they may be able to take a taxed lump sum.  In some cases they may get nothing.

ISAs are relatively simple: if you die, the entire ISA will be cashed in and paid to your spouse.  Bear in mind that when your spouse passes away this money can then be passed onto your children.  This isn’t always possible with pensions because many schemes only provide death benefits to your spouse.

So, which won?

There are many benefits and drawbacks of both investment types.  Pensions have generous tax-relief up front but you are then subject to numerous rules and restrictions about how and when you can take your money out.  You are also taxed on most of the money you take back out.

ISAs are much simpler but you are held back by the lower annual investment limit.

In practice, a combination of ISAs and pensions will be suitable for most people.  It is important to understand the ins-and-outs of any investment you choose so you know what to expect when you retire.  A financial adviser will be able to work out the right combination for your lifestyle and income.  Find a financial adviser near you.

About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.