Pension vs. ISA – the Saga continues

There is a huge amount of debate around when it comes to the Pension vs. ISA question. For me the answer is easy – both! The ISA debate is more complicated now that there is the LISA, Help to Buy ISA, and god only knows what others coming (and ISAs were supposed to be simple?!), but there are pro’s and con’s to each. I know this has been done to death all over the FI community and in the papers, but I thought I would add my take on it, so feel free to skip if you are bored of this!

It seems clear that the government is continuing to push people away from using pensions, mainly to target increasing their tax take now, rather than in the future (in my opinion). This to me seems very short sighted as it discourages people from saving for retirement and forcing people to lock their money away and not fritter it away when the feeling takes them.

I also like the idea of in effect deferring my tax (I pay too much IMO, but then I suspect everyone thinks that!). I will pay tax on it at some point when I start to withdraw it from the wrapper, but given the new freedoms I can see that I should be able to minimise the tax, which maybe why they are after it now. How much I can avoid paying tax on I don’t know, but I expect I will still take a tax hit in some way.

In the UK, especially if you are after FIRE, then you may also want to consider other options of investing, however for a couple you have two lots of £40,000 in the form of pension contributions (assuming of course you don’t earn too much), and now two lots of £20,000 post tax income that you can shelter in tax efficient manners. If there is still money left after that, then you can look at Buy to Let (although this is becoming less efficient investing with the tax changes), pay down your mortgage (assuming of course you still have one), or invest in a non tax sheltered account (not that attractive with the tax implications on dividends but a way to take advantage of Capital Gains Tax). There are lots of ways to keep your tax bill to a minimum.

For the sake of this post I am only looking at the Pension vs. ISA side, if you are able to fill both of these, and more, then fair play 🙂 Further, I am only considering Defined Contribution pensions, rather than the rare unicorn that is Defined Benefit.


Most people put the minimum amount they can in, to the default fund, forget about it and don’t look at it until they are almost ready to retire and then wonder why they aren’t even going to be able to afford Aldi own label bread. To me this is a problem with the financial education, people should take the interest, even if it is only tracking to see that they are not having their savings eaten alive by fund charges. With the death of gold plated Final Salary schemes these days it is even more important – the onus is on the individual to make sure they can save enough.

When you start out working in your 20’s, knowing that you can’t access the money for over 30 years seems a tough one – I certainly never had any doubt that I would be alright, but that was some form of self belief and confidence that I had when I was young! If you are wanting to stop working at 40, tying up your money until you are 55 (or maybe even longer depending on government changes), this may not seem sensible.

For what it’s worth – when I first started working I would have been able to access my pension at 50, not so now. Had they not changed these rules than I would definitely be able to retire at 50, now it is a bit more tricky.


  • Tax relief. I don’t think this can be underestimated – whilst not massively beneficial to a 20% tax payer, to a 40% or 45% (subject to allowance) this is a huge perk. I put in my (highly) taxed money, it automatically gets ramped up by the basic tax relief, then I complete my self assessment form and either have a higher tax free level / monthly income for it, or I get a nice little bonus once a year with the refund. If you are in the 40% (or 45%) bracket, I think it’s madness not to put money into your pension and get as low down the tax bracket as possible, accepting the restrictions this may have
  • Handling your income band. This has the advantage of keeping you tucked under a specific banding, be it 40% tax, 45% tax rates, child benefit reductions, the £100k 60% trap or so forth. Nothing else can help like the pension can here and can have a material change on your take home pay as well
  • Safe from any bankruptcy issues. Whilst I would guess the probability of someone who is interested in getting to FI is much lower than average, you never know what the future holds. If you are declared bankrupt or hit issues, people can come after your regular savings and ISAs to help settle bills, whereas your pension is safely tucked away and can continue to grow
  • A fairly hefty contribution allowance (unless earning over £150k) of £40,000 per year means you can keep a large amount of wealth outside of the taxman until retirement – provided you earn that much of course
  • Tax free lump sum available (I need to look into more to see how best this can be utilised from a tax planning perspective). So not only do you get to put in money, tax free. It also grows, tax free. You can then withdraw 25% of the pension, tax free! This is an incredible perk (how long it will last is another matter) – in effect I am expecting to be able to take out nearly all of my contributions (cash equivalent) when I can access my pension, meaning that everything else in the pension is grown capital. How cool is that?!
  • Employer contributions. By law, employers have to provide a work place pension now, and also contribute to it. No matter how small, even 1% extra helps, so it is further free money that you wont get if you don’t join it, so sign up, take an interest, and invest!


  • You can’t access it until 55+, a real drag for a lot of people who are looking for FIRE. Knowing that you may have 5, 10 or maybe even more years before you can get at the money after your targeted FIRE date means you may end up delaying your freedom date because you can’t access the bulk of your funds
  • The Lifetime Allowance (LTA). Whilst this seems nonsensical to me, it is what it is. I would hope over time, as the annual allowance keeps getting cut, that they will drop the stupid LTA. In effect if you get stellar returns from some of your investments (Russian gold miner anyone?!) then through no fault of your own you will get penalised. For me I can really see myself ending up moving money into cash rather than invested so I don’t get penalised. This is insane – why not let me accumulate more as in all likelihood my spending will then go up, so not only will HMRC get more money from direct taxation, but also from VAT, restaurant employees etc. as I spend my hard earned cash
  • Constant Government meddling. Although this budget (March ’17) is one of the first in recent years that has not had a change to the pensions scheme, Mr. Osborne and Mr. Brown have been constantly meddling (ruining!) pensions in their time, and it is highly likely that this will continue in the future. I do have an issue with the government saying it is “losing” money on the tax subsidy for the rich, but in fact the reason the rich get so much back is because they pay so much in tax in the first place. If they do change the tax relief approach, then people risk getting double taxed, so taxed on the way in (similar to an ISA but probably at a slightly lower rate), and taxed on the way out. Talk about discouraging savings!
  • Withdrawals are taxed at the relevant and prevailing tax rates. We have no control over what the future tax rate would be – it could come down (I can dream, right?), it could go up. Tax allowances may change. It is a huge unknown, but at least with the pensions freedom we now have the ability to change how much we withdraw to ensure we minimise the tax hit



So I really do believe that everyone should have an ISA (I am thinking particularly Stocks and Shares not cash) – the only reason to have a cash ISA at the minute for me is if you can’t afford to fill your S&S ISA and need to keep cash. I am not going to go into the details of an Innovative Finance ISA or Lifetime ISA etc. for the sake of simplicity I am only looking at a standard S&S ISA.

The government seems to be smiling on ISAs with the allowance going shooting up over the years to £20,000 per person per year from the ’17-’18 tax year. This is a huge amount of cash to find for the majority of people to find. If you are a city banker, or a high flyer somewhere then it is easier, but £20k of taxed income is a large amount of cash regardless.

I do believe that this is part of the governments attempt to kill off pensions – they get the tax take up front then and can spend it as they see fit (badly in other words!). My concern is how long it will be before we get limits on how much can go into an ISA or how much can be saved there. Whilst Lord Lee became the first person to be an ISA millionaire, nowadays it is becoming theoretically easier and easier to get there (I say this based on the limit, not on the ability to put that much in!).

I am not an ISA millionaire yet sadly, and I am a some way from it, however I would love to get there so the more money I can put into an ISA the better IMO. If I can hit a million in various ISAs when I come to retire then I will be very happy.


  • Currently unlimited tax free growth – you put money in that’s it. If you get stellar returns and end up with millions in there, great. No capital gains tax, no need to fill in a tax return for it, just keep going. Any dividends can be reinvested without any tax implications as well
  • Withdrawals are tax free, regardless of how much you pull out, and when. Suppose you were an ISA millionaire and you decided to cash the lot in, sell everything and withdraw the lot. £1,000,000 into your current account. The tax bill? £0. This gives the potential for almost unlimited upside. This is just fantastic, and considering you could contribute all your life (from Junior ISA on), even if you only start at 18 or 21 in your first job, slow and steady does the job
  • Currently only positive government meddling (I.e. increasing the limit). It seems that the government is very keen to promote ISAs (at the cost of pensions IMO), although they are starting to make it more and more complicated with FI ISA, LISA, Help to Buy ISA etc. But so far no cuts in what can go in or the growth, now is the time to make the most of it!
  • A pretty reasonable allowance, especially when a couple combine. Whilst not as high currently as the pension contributions the new £20,000 is a large whack of post taxed cash to find – with tax free allowance etc. You would need to earn about £25,000 per year to just fund the ISA alone – that’s assuming your monthly living cost is £0!


  • Can be easily accessed, so temptation is always there to dip in. There are no penalties to decide you really need that latest holiday to Ibiza / Walking in Wales / Helping Orphans in Peru (whatever tickles the fancy) which means if things get too much you can harm your long term savings
  • Counts as part of means testing for some benefits. This is a savings vehicle after all, so will count as part of your assets, so for example if you are unemployed, run out of emergency funds, the government will expect you to sell down your ISA before it will give you support
  • Included in your estate should you need to enter debt negotiations (highly unlikely in the FIRE community). No company is going to accept reduced repayment on debt when they can see you have savings, they are going to demand you sell up and repay the debt

So for me, there really isn’t a clear winner between the two, but the importance of the vehicle does vary according to individual circumstances.

When a pension beats an ISA

There are some occasions when it is clear that you should invest in a pension over an ISA. Remember of course that this is my personal view, you need to make your own mind up 🙂

  1. When your employer will match your contributions. You should never turn this down – it is free money. If they match you to 5%, you should put 5% in, as this would give an immediate 100% return. When you are hitting the LTA or over the allowance, then its time to think hard, but I would suspect even with a 55% tax charge you may still be better off taking the hit (I would need to work through the numbers)
  2. When you are around the limit of a Tax or Benefit band. For example if putting an extra £1,000 into a SIPP to avoid paying the 40% tax would be a benefit – after all would you rather have ~£550 in your take home pay (don’t forget the NI charges), or £1,000 in your SIPP?
  3. If you struggle to resist temptation and can’t build up a good pot of retirement funds then the enforced lack of access of a pension will remove this temptation

When an ISA beats a pension

Equally there are times when an ISA would beat a pension

  1. When you need funds in the relative near future (i.e. before 55/57/whatever age the government changes it to) – ease of access being vital
  2. If all your other investments are in pensions – you want some ready investments especially if FIRE is in your sights
  3. When you are at risk of hitting the Life Time Allowance (LTA) in your pensions. £1,000,000 sounds like a scarily big number. Suppose, for ease, your salary is £24,000 and you get a 5% match from your employer, that gives you £200 per month to put in. Do that for 35 years, at 7% return and you will hit £360,000. Make it 45 years and its over £750k! That assumes no pay rises, bonuses, side hustles etc. – not likely if you are thinking about FIRE so this is a real concern
  4. When you have a specific goal in mind, e.g. a wedding or childrens school / university fees and will need the cash


You will notice that I haven’t mentioned Inheritance Tax on this comparison, as this depends on the marriage (or not) and children (or not) situation of each individual, and these will of course change over time.

Despite all of the above, I still don’t believe there is any right answer to this, as it  is down to individual circumstances. For me, it has to be both. I put into my company pension, my personal pension, my ISA and my other half’s ISA. This means I have a spread of companies providing the tax efficient wrappers, and in both our names should the worst happen to me.

In an ideal world, I would like to be able to max out my pension contributions and fill both my and my other half’s ISA. That’s a heck of a lot of money to find but provides a great incentive to really try and maximise my savings. What would I do if I had money left over after that? Pay down the mortgage as much as possible. I will worry about that if I get to that stage!

What do you use – ISA or Pension, or Both? Or do you say to hell with this savings lark, I am going on a luxury world cruise? 🙂


Author: fireinlondon

Fighting the high cost of living in London

8 thoughts on “Pension vs. ISA – the Saga continues”

  1. Great write-up of the debate, FiL.

    However, I struggled to fill my ISA when the limit was £15k, so highly unlikely to be maxing out at £20k – I’ll be happy if I can get to old limit this tax period!

    I’m putting more in my ISA than my SIPPs and soon, the total value of my ISAs will overtake my SIPPs which is what I’m aiming for, for the flexibility. Although timewise, by the time I ‘retire early’, I reckon I’ll be pretty much close to or at the age where I can withdraw from my SIPP.

    What I haven’t worked out so far (just not bothered to track them on a spreadsheet) is what ratio of my dividend income is in my ISA compared to my SIPP. I lump them all together at the moment but I think it might be more tax advantageous to have more of the income in my ISAs, rather than the other way round?


    1. Hi Weenie,

      Glad you liked it! To be fair, £15k or the new £20k – its a huge amount of post tax income to get your hands on!
      Sounds like you are pretty well lined up then – I don’t blame you on going for the flexibility for it, the only thing to make sure is that you are taking your employers contributions and making the most of the tax benefits!

      If it helps, I split out the dividend income across all my portfolios, and then have a total which adds them all up. This means I can see how each one is doing, what is coming from where, and then the overall total.
      Between the 2? Depends on how much income you will get, the tax levels you will be able to get (£11k allowance and dividend allowance) out of the pension, and if you want to leave anything of course. I think it is impossible to say which is the right thing as so much depends on your individual circumstances!

      If you needed say £24k then I would aim for about £11k out of the pension, the rest out of the ISA to make it tax free – or use the 25% lump sum to start pulling out of the pension and into the ISA!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi FiL

        I will be eligible to join the company pension in a couple of months’ time and will be aiming for the maximum match.

        Yeah, I need to know what is coming from ISA or SIPP so I will sort out at some point. I have a feeling at the moment, most of the divis are in my SIPP but I guess I won’t know until I track it properly.

        I’ve read elsewhere about taking out the 25% lump sum and then sticking it in your ISA – something to consider anyway when the time comes!

        Cheers for the insights.


        1. Hi Weenie,

          Sensible plan – I have always done the same when I have joined a new MegaCorp – as soon as I can I get at least the matching pension!

          I would say don’t worry about backdating the income, just start monitoring from now – I have a tab in my spreadsheet for each portfolio including the amount of income it produced, so once setup it is quite easy to keep up to date and it totals for me 🙂

          Tax efficiency is very important and something I am going to be working on as well once I have filled up all my Pension, ISA and other half’s ISA allowances (hahahaha!). Alternatively you could take it and blow it all on a luxury around the world cruise? 😉 Only kidding 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi FiL,

    You should rename this post The Ultimate Guide to Pensions vs ISAs coz that was some mammoth post! You hit every main point there needs to be said about both really. Personally I prefer ISAs due to their versatility and ease of access but the 68 year old me (or whatever the pension age will be then) may differ.

    P.S. Good on you for setting the goal of becoming an ISA millionaire – I’ve heard they exist but didn’t really think it was possible for me. Contributing the maximum every year is a huge feat and even then it would take 50 years. With index funds hopefully it’ll be a bit shorter. Out of curiosity, are you stock picking?



    1. Hi Rory,

      It was a bit longer than I originally expected, but hopefully of interest! 🙂 With that long a view its impossible to know what will change (allowances, limits etc.) in that time. I personally try and put enough into the Pension for any relevant tax breaks or reduce income tax levels – hence I try and do both pension and ISA 🙂

      Yes I would love to make it, who knows if I will or not, but it has got to be worth it to try for it. If you put £1,600 per month at 7% you will hit the million in just 22 years – £800 per month and it will take 31 years. Of course I always go on 4% but it shows that it can be done.
      I do a combination of stock picking and index funds (see my portfolio page for more information). As the portfolio has grown I have taken to loading up on trackers simply to help diversify and give a good easy base – although this will lower my returns to date, but provide a smoother ride!


  3. Hi FiL!

    Great article. One thing I like to add in favor of prioritizing ISA over Pensions is that Annual ISA allowance of 20,000 cannot be carried forward to the next years whilst Annual Pension Contribution limit of 40,000 can be ‘carried forward’ from the past 3 years. As Martin Lewis says, once you miss out on your annual ISA allowance, you miss out on it forever, as it gets renewed every year.

    If the Tax-free rules on ISAs don’t change, the flexibility and the ease of operating the ISA makes it possibly the best Government-endorsed Tax Free haven possibly in the world. (Think Panama papers in broad daylight!) As you pointed out, you need to be earning a decent amount (25,000) before even having a chance of making full use of it. Everyone should make use of it. Unfortunately the people who needs it the most (i.e. people who earn less than that) don’t get the chance and majority of the people don’t make the right choices to make full use of it.



    1. Hi FP,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Very true – however before you can carry forward you need to use this years allowance in full – so 40k before you can do more – but yes a very good valid point!

      I still think that if you pay more than basic tax then a pension is worth using as well to keep the tax down.

      To be honest, I wish vanguard had been around when I first started work, and I had been sensible – I would have put £50 a month into a LS fund in an ISA and before you know it – it will soon build up!


      Liked by 1 person

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