How to start a pension: your complete guide

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Updated on
August 21, 2022

In a nutshell

Even if you already have a pension through work, starting a personal pension is a great way to boost your income in your sunset years. Plus, it’s super easy. You just need to choose a pension provider (which we can help with!) and start adding your hard-earned cash. It’ll soon add up!

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Your sunset years may seem far off, but we promise, the earlier you start saving for them, the more you’ll thank yourself later. So, how do you get started? Here’s the lowdown.

What actually is a pension?

First things first, you might be wondering what a pension actually is. It’s basically a savings pot that you (ideally!) pay into regularly throughout your working life. You can then access those savings when you hit a certain age, to help tide you over during retirement. 

There are 3 main types of pensions…

  1. Personal pension. A personal pension, is one that you set up yourself. It’s what you’ll need if you’re self-employed, but it’s also a great idea if you’re employed too.
How to start a pension
  1. Workplace pension. A workplace pension is a pension that your employer sets up for you. You contribute a percentage of your earnings each month (at least 5%), and your employer then tops that up themselves (they have to add at least 3% from their own pocket). Not bad!
Workplace pension
  1. State Pension. The State Pension is a weekly payment you can get from the government when you reach a certain age, currently 66. At the moment, the full State Pension is £185.15 a week. It may not sound like much, but the good thing is that you can get it on top of your workplace pension (and on top of your personal pension if you have one). So it’s a nice extra!
State Pension amount

You can have as many workplace pensions and personal pensions as you want. And you can receive money from them all on top of your State Pension too. So, if you’re not thinking about starting a pension yet, why not?!

If you’re ready to get started right away – skip to how to start a personal pension.

Why is it good to start a pension?

You don’t need to start a personal pension. There are no laws telling you to. But trust us, it’s a really good idea to have one – even if you already have a workplace pension and you qualify for the State Pension. Here are the main reasons why.

1. Boost your income in old age

First things first, the State Pension is not that much. It’s a nice extra to have on top of other pensions, but if you had to live on just £185.15 per week, you’d probably struggle. 

By starting a personal pension, you can set goals for how much you want to be able to live off when you're older, and then make sure that you’re saving enough to be able to maintain your lifestyle in your sunset years.

It just gives you that control and flexibility you need to make sure your pension is working for you. We promise, you’ll thank yourself later!

2. Get the best deal

Second, even though workplace pensions are great, you can maximise your income when you’re older by getting a personal pension as well. Why? 

Well, your employer will set your workplace pension up for you. While that has its plus side, it does mean you’re probably not going to end up on the best-performing pension scheme or the one with the cheapest fees. 

Lots of employers just take the easy route and use the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest) pension scheme, which was set up by the government. 

Don’t get us wrong, it’s absolutely fine. But when you put your money in a pension, it gets invested by experts who know how to make your money into more money.

The Nest pension scheme and lots of other workplace pension schemes are typically quite low-performing which means your money probably won’t grow very much or very fast. 

On the other hand, if you start a personal pension, you can take your pick from all the pension providers out there (pension providers are the guys that give out pensions). 

That means you can choose the best-performing provider with the cheapest fees, meaning your savings should increase way more than they would with just a regular savings account. Awesome!

3. Get tax benefits

Now for some really good news. Any money you put into your personal pension will come with a lovely government bonus because of this amazing thing called tax relief.

Let us explain. To reward you for saving up for retirement, the government won’t charge you tax on any money you put into your pension.

That means any tax they take out of your earnings will be refunded straight back into your pension pot, boosting your savings. Kerching! They call this ‘tax relief’.

If you’re a basic-rate taxpayer (meaning you earn less than £50,270 per year), you’ll get 20% tax relief.

That means if you pay £80 into your pension pot, the government will add in £20 to turn it into £100. 

If you’re a higher-rate taxpayer (or additional-rate), earning over £50,270 per year, the bonus you get from the government will be even higher – you’ll get 40% or 45%, depending on how much tax you are paying.

What this means is that starting a pension is a brilliant way of reducing your tax bill now as well as saving for later in life.

4. Control & flexibly 

With a workplace pension, you’ll need to pay a minimum of 5% of your salary into your pension pot every month. But the great thing about a personal pension is that you can pay as much or as little into it as you fancy. There are no rules!

Don’t fancy setting up a monthly payment? No problem! You can just pay in a little bit every now and again when you have some spare cash.

Want to pay into your pension regularly but don’t have much cash to spare? Fine! Why not just pay in £10 per month? Sure, it’s probably not going to give you much to live on when you retire, but it’s better than nothing and you can always up your contributions once you start earning a bit more money. 

Of course, if you have a pension pot that you don’t feel like paying into anymore, that’s not an issue either. Even if you don’t pay anything more in, your money should still keep growing as it continues to be invested. Nice!

And, if you do have lots of different pensions with loads of previous employers, you can merge them all into one personal pension, called consolidating your pension, and have a clearer view of how much you have, and more control over where your money is being invested. Plus, you might benefit from cheaper fees having more money in one pension pot.

5. If you’re self-employed

Now, we keep saying how starting a pension is a good idea for everybody, but it’s especially important if you’re self-employed. Why? Well, if you’re self-employed, you won’t have an employer to set up a workplace pension for you! 

That means unless you set up a personal pension yourself, you’ll be left relying on just the State Pension in your old age. Remember, that £185.15 per week we told you about? Of course, that’s assuming you qualify for the State Pension, which not everybody does. More on that in a bit!

Anyway, setting up a personal pension is the best way of making sure you’re preparing yourself for retirement. It can be tempting to think you’ll be able to keep working forever, especially if you run your own business and you love what you do. But the truth is, it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in your old age, and it’s best to be prepared for every eventuality.

Even if you do keep working long past retirement age, you can still take income from your personal pension (currently you can start taking money from your personal pension from the ripe old age of 55, although it’s rising to 57 from 2028). So, if nothing else, look at it as a treat you can look forward to when you’re older!

When should you start a pension?

Now! We mean it… no matter how young you are, you should start a pension as early as possible. Trust us, the earlier you start, the easier it will be to save up a decent amount for when you retire.

This is because of two main things…

1. Small contributions add up

If you start saving with only a few years to go before retirement, you’ll need to contribute quite a lot to your pension each month to give yourself enough to live on when you retire. 

But if you start in your 20s, you’ve got loads of time. That means you can contribute smaller amounts over a longer period of time, without overstretching yourself.

2. Compound interest

The longer you leave your money sitting in your pension pot, the longer it has to keep growing and making you more money. This is known as compound interest.

For example, if you invest £1000 in your pension’s first year and you make a 5% return, which is £50, you’ll then have £1,050 going into your second year.

Let’s say you make 5% again the next year, your £1,050 now makes £52.50, so you now have £1,102.50, and this carries on every year, plus you are adding to it too! This is how you can start to grow a small figure into a large amount over time.

If you continue that for say, 45 years, and if you were adding £100 per month to your pension, you’d have a massive £212,000 when you retire!

Compound interest

It’s true that retirement might seem like a long way off right now. But it will creep up on you quicker than you think! By starting a pension now, you’ll be able to put money aside for later on in life without worrying or overstretching yourself. 

How to start a personal pension

Luckily, starting a personal pension has never been easier. A whole host of awesome pension services have sprung up to reinvent the world of pensions and make it super easy for people like you and us to save for our sunset years. Hooray!

Here’s all you have to do.

How to start a private pension

1. Pick a pension provider 

First things first, you’ll need to choose a pension provider. They’ll manage everything for you, and invest your money safely and securely so it grows over time. Providers can vary over the service they offer and the fees they charge.

Don’t worry if that all sounds complicated. We’ve picked out the best pension providers for you.

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Best overall

PensionBee

PensionBee are leading the way with modernising pensions. The investment options are great for many pension savers, it’s an awesome app and website, which are both easy to use, and have tools and charts to show you how your money is growing – and importantly, how to hit your retirement goals.

It's easy to set up and get going, you can start a brand new pension, or simply transfer your existing pensions across.

You’ll pay one simple fee that decreases the more you save.

Fees: low (0.5% to 0.75%) for their core plans

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PensionBee rated 5 stars

Our friends at PensionBee are giving our readers a £50 pension contribution when they sign up with Nuts About Money too, just use the button below to get started.

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Best overall

Moneyfarm

Moneyfarm is like a financial advisor on your phone (or website), their experts will work with you to determine the best investment strategy. It’s low cost, with an excellent investment track record and great customer service.

You’ll pay one simple fee that decreases the more you save.

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Moneyfarm rated 5 stars

Get up to £500 cashback when you sign up before 28th October. Hurry!

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2. Pick a pension plan

When you sign up with your new pension provider, they’ll ask you what type of plan you want. 

This will often just be based on your age and how many years away from retirement you are – with the older you are, the less risk you’ll want to take with your money, as you’ll want to be using it soon.

With modern pension providers, you’ll also have the option for your money to only be invested ethically and socially responsible – so no harm to the environment or local communities. We’re big fans of these. Why not have your pension help the world rather than harm it?!

Our recommended providers have these options - Pensionbee and Moneyfarm.

3. Get started!

Now all you need to do is simply sign up through their website or mobile app if they have one, and start paying money in!

Some pension providers will ask you to put in a minimum payment each month. But the really great thing about personal pensions (compared with workplace pensions) is that they’re much more flexible. You can pay in whatever you want, whenever you want.

In other words, if you want to just pay in a little bit every now and again, that’s fine. Or, if you want to set up a regular payment for as little as £5 per month, that’s fine too. The more you add, the more you’ll have to live off when you’re older, but it’s important not to overstretch yourself now either. Ultimately, it’s all up to you!

Prefer things old-school?

We love mobile apps and websites that make setting up and controlling your pension easy (and even fun!). But we get that not everyone’s the same, and you might prefer things a bit more old-school.

If that sounds like you, another way of starting a pension is to speak to a financial advisor. These are professionals who can help you find a pension provider and set your pension up for you, either in-person or over the phone. 

Just be aware that financial advisors can be expensive as they’ll normally add their own fees on top, and will often have pension plans with more expensive fees too. That said, if you’re still keen, just can use Unbiased¹ to find the right financial advisor for you.

When is it not a good idea to start a personal pension?

Okay, so you already know how much we love pensions. And you already know that you can (and probably should!) start a personal pension even if you already have a workplace one. But there is one instance where starting a personal pension might not be the best idea for you. 

Remember how we said that with a workplace pension, your employer has to contribute every month alongside you, out of their own pocket? Well, the minimum they can contribute is 3% of your salary. But they can contribute more.

Many employers choose to up their contributions to give their employees a perk and attract great people to their companies. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see employers offering to match your contributions. In other words, if you pay in 5% of your salary (the minimum you’re allowed to contribute to your workplace pension) then they’ll pay in 5%. But if you pay in 7%, they’ll do the same and pay in 7%.

So, why are we telling you all this? Well, if you’re one of these lucky employees and you have the capacity to pay more into a pension pot than what you’re currently doing, your best decision is to up your contributions to your workplace pension. 

That way, you can boost the amount that’s going in there by getting your employer to pay in more. It’s free money after all!

You should only think about starting a personal pension when you’re maximising the amount you can get from your employer (most employers will cap their contributions at some point). In other words, don’t start a new pension until you’re getting as much from your employer’s pocket as possible. Makes sense, right?

Do I need to start a workplace pension?

If you’re employed and you earn more than £10,000 per year, the chances are your workplace will have to automatically create a pension for you, known as auto-enrollment. So, you’ll get to benefit from a workplace pension without having to do a thing!

The only exceptions are if you’re working outside of the UK, if you’re under the age of 22 or you’re over State Pension age (we’ll explain what this is in a minute, but at the moment it’s 66).

Do you earn less than £10,000 per year? Don’t worry, you can still get a workplace pension (as long as you’re earning at least £6,240 per year). However, your workplace won’t have to automatically enrol you. Instead, you’ll have to ask them to set a pension up for you (but the good news is they can’t say no!).

You can opt out of receiving a workplace pension but it’s really important that you get one if you’re entitled to one. Not only does it help you save up for later on in life, but your employer also has to contribute at least 3% of your salary to it each month alongside you. And you don’t have to pay tax on the money you put in there either!

Do I need to start a State Pension?

No, you don’t need to start a State Pension. As long as you qualify for it, you’ll be able to start claiming it once you reach State Pension age. Hooray! The State Pension age is currently 66 but it’s slowly getting higher –  for people born in April 1960 or after, it’ll be 67 and then it’s going to gradually climb to 68.

That said, even though you don’t have to start a State Pension, it’s important to check that you qualify for one. Let us explain.

To qualify for the State Pension at all, you’ll need to make National Insurance contributions for at least 10 years (National Insurance is a payment you make to the government alongside your taxes, to cover things like healthcare). And to qualify for the full State Pension (that £185.15 per week we told you about earlier), you’ll need to make National Insurance contributions for at least 35 years. We know, it’s a long time!

Now, if you earn more than £184 per week (or make a profit of at least £6,515 per year if you’re self-employed), you’ll have to make National Insurance contributions. So, you should qualify no problem. 

If you earn more than £120 per week (but less than £184), you don’t have to make National Insurance contributions. BUT your contributions will be marked as paid on your record all the same, so you can still qualify. Nice one!

The tricky bit comes in if you earn less than £120 per week. If this applies to you, you don’t have to pay National Insurance. You might think that’s a good thing, but sadly, your contributions will be marked as unpaid on your records, which could easily mean no State Pension for you later on in life.

To avoid this from happening, you can make voluntary National Insurance contributions (in other words, you can volunteer to pay National Insurance even though you don’t have to). We know, we know, paying something you don’t have to pay may not sound like your idea of fun. But at least it means you’ll qualify for that State Pension. Your older self will thank you for it!

Ready to start a pension?

Retirement may seem like a long way off right now, but trust us, it’s never too early to start thinking ahead.

In fact, the earlier you start a pension, the easier it will be to make sure you’re happy and comfortable in your old age – so less worrying about how to pay for the family lunch when you retire and more worrying about how to make that garden perfect.

If you’re ready to start a pension, check out our reviews for our favourite providers – PensionBee and Moneyfarm. They make it easy and even fun (yes, it’s true!) to see what your money is doing and watch it grow. 

Oh, and you’ll thank yourself when you’re old and grey, we promise!

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Retire in style

Find the best personal pension for you – you could be £1,000s better off.

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Retire in style

Find the best personal pension for you – you could be £1,000s better off.

Best pension providers

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