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Are pensions 'finished'? Yes, because ISAs are better

Pensions expert Michael Johnson prefers to do his retirement saving in ISAs and says we should all pay down our debts before saving.


by Michelle McGagh on Feb 22, 2013 at 14:39

Are pensions 'finished'? Yes, because ISAs are better

Forget pensions, adopt the ‘negadebt’ school of saving and keep topping up your ISA (individual savings account) if you want to have a decent retirement. These are the recommendations of pensions expert Michael Johnson, who believes ‘pensions are finished’.

Johnson practices what he preaches. Although he has a ‘very small’ self-invested personal pension (Sipp) he said ‘all of my wealth, apart from my house, is in ISAs’.

However, he is also entitled to a generous defined benefit (DB) pension from his previous life in investment banking. He is now a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, the right wing think tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s before she became prime minister.

This penchant for ISA saving has led for Johnson (pictured) to call for a combined pension and ISA allowance of between £30,000 and £40,000 a year. Each year savers could decide where to save and which tax break to receive.

‘Those who have access to a decent occupational [workplace] pension scheme should save into it, it makes sense because you get your employer contribution,’ said Johnson.

‘But I think pensions are finished. Pensions are from a bygone age before things like college debts and unaffordable housing existed. Equally important is the change around culture – we have emerged from an era of thrift post-world wars to a population living for today.’

Johnson believes that many young people are looking at their parents who are pensioners or coming up to retirement and have a good lifestyle, and thinking that they will recreate it.

But what younger people fail to realise, he says, is that the older generations benefited from the sort of defined benefit pensions of which he is a member, where they received a pension based on how long they worked and a percentage of their final salary. Now employers offer defined contribution (DC) schemes where the income is based on how much the employee contributes.

Encouraging saving

It is not just the type of pension that has changed, attitudes towards pensions have changed, says Johnson.

Last year the Office of National Statistics released figures that showed £14.3 billion was saved into personal pensions in 2010/11 but £15.8 billion was saved into stocks and shares ISA – the first time ISA saving has surpassed pension saving in a decade.

Johnson said the figures signalled ‘a sea change in attitude to pension saving’.

‘A pension is like any other consumer product but unlike any other consumer product there is no immediate return, you have to wait 20, or 30, or 40 years,’ he said.

‘You are waiting decades to receive an uncontrollable return that has been eaten away by annual charges.

‘With Generation Y, we need to get them to save at all. It is not about what mechanism they save in to.’

Encouraging Generation Y-ers, those in their 20s and 30s, to save is a tough job and the reason why Johnson supports pensions early-access, which he describes as ‘the lesser of two evils’.

Although the pensions industry has warned early-access would lead to poverty in retirement, Johnson doesn’t subscribe to the idea.

‘The risk is that someone blows all their money but that argument doesn’t make sense because most people with the common sense to save will not have a glitch and spend all their money,’ he said.


Of course, the government is pushing everyone to save more with the introduction of auto-enrolment, which will see workers who are not yet contributing to a workplace pension automatically placed in one.

Johnson believes there are many people who ‘should not be compelled to save’ because of on-going debt problems.

‘I asked a Department for Work and Pensions select committee how they can ask people to save when the average family is paying interest on consumer debt of £2,000 a year…I didn’t get an answer,’ he said.

Johnson believes ‘negadebt’ – or negative debt – is the best form of saving and quite simply involves paying down debt before saving.

Brits have a combined £228 billion consumer debt, which equates to £8,000 for each household, and increases to £56,000 per household when mortgages are taken into account.

‘The average interest rate [on unsecured debt] is 18% which is serviced out of post-tax income and equivalent to paying an interest rate of 22%. If you repay your debt then you are earning 22% on your income,’ said Johnson.

He believes that the government should help people to pay down their debt through the auto-enrolment mechanism before encouraging them to save.

‘When someone is auto-enrolled they should be asked if they are a serial borrower of consumer credit. They should be asked: ‘are you servicing credit cards every month?’ Then if yes:  ‘can we have your permission to use the money to pay off your debt?’ That is a responsible thing to do,’ he said.

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48 comments so far. Why not have your say?

Lee Whitehead

Feb 22, 2013 at 15:10

exactly where I see myself saving my money over the 25 years of my mortgage, that way I can pay down my mortgage ahead of term with gains from the shares ISA and avoid CGT - gives me flexibility should anything happen before set retirement age

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Feb 22, 2013 at 15:49

There is a place for both, especially for those in a higher rate income tax bracket a pension still makes sense combined with ISAs.

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al young

Feb 22, 2013 at 15:53

Pensions are down - but not out. Even if your employer isn't contributing the tax relief can be attractive - especially with salary sacrifice - and double your "net" contribution. Also remember you can take 25% of your pot a tax free as a lump sum.

If Gov. removes these benefits, stay well clear.

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Dislexic Landlord

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:08

Another thought

I can only put about 3K a year in a stakeholder Pension (Not that I would though)

all my income is investment income

I dont have nett relivent earnings so I cant have a personal pension

so ISA is the way forward

you cant trust pensions the rules change all the time

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Tony Peterson

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:09

al young

What you have not thought about is what happens when you actually retire. You have lost all control over your contributions, even under present rules, and will almost certainly be looted by future governments.

The unretired are still wearing rose-tinted glasses. Ask us retirees for our take on these tax bribes. They are con tricks.

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a moss

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:13

I'm no expert but I do wonder if for young people the tax relief means that the extra sum is invested and growing for a long, long (and getting longer) time, feeding on itself tax free. That will be worth paying tax on the income later.

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Rosemary Pettit

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:15

Quite so, I was self-employed, no employment pension, and the best thing I did was pay off my mortgage of £55,000 over time. That left the way clear to top up my pension payments and take out an ISA every year. It's worked, not a huge income now - the single largest contributor is the state pension, not to be sneezed at - but it's enough to pay the bills with a bit over for extras and savings. If you want more you have to put in more. What I find limiting about the article is the implied assumption that life (and government) is somehow going to stay the same. It surely won't and so everyone needs to make provision.

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al young

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:16

You are of course right Tony. Do you have a sound grounds to believe that ISA holdings will be exempt from a tax raid? Indeed, given recent, and carefully leaked lunacy proposing the taxation of family heirlooms, will any asset class be safe? I fear our rulers may stop at nothing.

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Private Investor

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:27

There is truth in Tony Peterson's position. A pension should be a 40 year deal. Constant tinkering with the lifetime and annual allowances discredits the entire system and makes it impossible to plan. As a result of the recent changes a lot of prudent people in the middle income range will be stung with tax charges as high as 55%.

Another disgrace is the short range tinkering with retirement age for women. A woman born in the mid 1950s has had her state pension age raised not once but twice. Many such women have already given up work to care for elderly relatives and/or grandchildren

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Malcolm Mattok

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:27

Sensible to have a mixture of both. The advantage with a pension is that, once it's arranged, you can forget about it and not worry about the swings of the stockmarket. The problem with having an ISA only pot is that you've got to actively manage what could be a very large portfolio of multiple investments. As one gets older this could become difficult to handle oneself..

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Paul Eden

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:45

A mixture of ISAs and pension funds (stakeholders too) seems advisable for the present time. However, any substantial holding in a fund being built up would take time to place in ISAs. The limits on ISA contributions would need surely need to be raised.

Pensions certainly don't look promising what with the low gilt returns, but these will surely be going back up what with the end of QE - won't they?

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Private Investor

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:47

Reply to Malcolm: The only pension that doesn't need management is a defined benefit one and not many people have access to those now. Even if you do have a DB pension you have to pray that your employer does not fold leaving the scheme underfunded.

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Malcolm Mattok

Feb 22, 2013 at 16:56

Hi Private Investor. I was referring to a personal pension, purchased as an annuity.

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Feb 22, 2013 at 17:04

Yes of course there is a place for both, ISAs on top, pensions right at the bottom.

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Feb 22, 2013 at 17:13

The average male will now live to 80.The best single mail life annuity with no guarantees is circa £5758 per annum per £100k fund . Check the result using Excel. Assume say 3.5% income growth on the remaining fund each year after the annuity . My machine states that the annuity provider will retain £56k assuming you die at age 80. This is outragous.

Pensions were destroyed by Gordon Brown and are being decimated by the charges built into annuities .

Use ISA's and property - that way you keep control .Only 40%/ 45% tax payers should use the pension route for tax mitigation and then probably only through a SIPP .

All final salary schemes in the public sector effectively defraud the average tax payer and should cease for all new employees in the spirit of fairness, which appears to be the latest idiology.

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Mario via mobile

Feb 22, 2013 at 18:29

Both pensions and ISAs should be used.

Pensions for tax relief (which ISAs cannot give) and no tax paid within fund

ISA for no tax within fund but more importantly no tax when income is drawn. Pensions can't offer that!

Hence both should be used.

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Tony Peterson

Feb 22, 2013 at 19:00


No, I have no grounds for supposing that ISAs will not one day be the subject of a tax raid.

It amazes me that they continue. When you look at the amount of the exempt annual allowance it seems that MPs and cabinet ministers must (like me) be in a position to be very grateful for the opportunity it gives them aggressively to avoid tax.

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Roger Bailey

Feb 22, 2013 at 19:36

Strange, I posted my comments which were initially added and then deleted. Is this normal?

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Anonymous 1 needed this 'off the record'

Feb 22, 2013 at 19:52

Tax relief on pensions is a myth - it's tax deferral and you do not know how much you will benefit until you retire.

In my case, the tax deferral for many decades was nearly all at the basic rate of tax.

I was successful later in life and and I am now paying higher-rate tax on that pension income.

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Tony Peterson

Feb 22, 2013 at 20:36

Roger Bailey

Try again. I've had a few problems on this site, and sometimes wonder why.

If comments are solicited they should be worth publishing.

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Roger Bailey

Feb 22, 2013 at 20:52

Tony Peterson

I agree, but you maybe it is mandatory to agree with the Author's sentiments in order to have your comments published.. So much for freedom of speech etc.!!

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Tony Peterson

Feb 22, 2013 at 21:00


I don't think I've ever agreed with author's sentiments. So...what were you saying.

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J Thomas

Feb 22, 2013 at 21:01

For a self employed higher rate taxpayer paying into a private pension still makes excellent sense. You can pay all your excess income over the basic rate into your pot and save 20% tax, plus one quarter will be tax free on retirement.

Another point not mentioned is if you do this any dividend income from privately held shares will be taxed at 10% and not the higher rates which go all the way up to 42.5% I believe.

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Roger Bailey

Feb 22, 2013 at 21:25

Tony Peterson

I was saying that pensions were not finished, but except for State Pensions, they should be. The government should cancel all tax relief on pensions contributions, add the employers contributions to wages and increase the basic State Pension by 80% so that it takes into account a basic housing cost The £50 billion extra tax revenues ,if housing benefits for pensioners were taken into account also ,would pay for this.

I I also I suggested that tax relief on charitable contributions should be abooished. If Richard Branson wants to donate half his wealth to charities, why should every taxpayer have to contribute also .Good on him. he can afford it. There are many very good charities such as RNLI,RNIB, Macmillan,Hospiscare but surely it would be more economical if the governemnt stepped up to the mark and provided the services that these charities carry out.

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Tony Peterson

Feb 22, 2013 at 21:49


Thank you for your post. I agree with every word.

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Chris Clark

Feb 23, 2013 at 10:03

I very much disagree the entire premise of Michael Johnson's argument. Human behaviour in this country clearly links pensions + thoughts of personal mortality + kick it into the long grass.

Plus you have to practically save half a pension to get a house deposit.

A Pension mechanism has to be used to get most of the country to provide for their futures, and for the majority, nothing else is.

On the mechanics of Mr Johnsons' approach, the maths work of course, but rare is the person truly aware of the financial 'swim' and with the mental discipline to do this.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 10:31

There seems little point in investing in personal pensions for those who are on average income or indeed for most who are not paying higher rate tax. Also the issue of charges has not been raised much in this discussion, but it is very real. Initial and ongoing charges nibble away constantly at what is put into a personal pension, significantly reducing the total capital in the long term.

I agree with most of what has been said above but would add that not many employers now make additional contributions as there are few remaining pension schemes, though it has been my experience that some continue to run pensions specifically for board members and similar whilst stopping those for other employees.

I believe that pensions as they currently stand are simply a tax avoidance method for those who already have more.

I should add that my spouse and I have always made the most of our PEP and ISA allowances when we could, and have not had to touch them yet. They have proved to be much better value than our own pensions.

Obviously the charges are an issue, but in many cases the initial and annual charges are at least partly off-set by the company managing them on your behalf. Or in the case of individually chosen stock and share ISA's they are really so low as to be negligible. However even though we have put in the maximum most years we would still not get enough income from them to give us enough pension to live on.

I have a small pension which I have deferred to get the most income possible out of it and I am one of those whose state pension has been delayed (in my case by almost two years) so I will not get my pension when I had expected to. But I am luckier than some whose pensions will be delayed far longer.

I appreciate the the tax system is already hugely complicated - surely it is time to both simplify it and to encourage those who are not high earners to save more.

The current pension tax relief would be better applied to ISA rather than pension contributions. This should, in the grand scheme of things, might make very little difference to the general tax "take" or may even increase it. I fully appreciate that this would make more difference to those on higher rate tax and higher incomes but it would encourage those on lower incomes to save. It could be suggested that they might then use this capital for purposes other than an income in retirement - I would argue that somebody who has bothered to save at all is less likely to use it on a whim.

Since the ISA allowance is already much lower than the pension contribution allowance this would also take some benefit away from those who have higher incomes - I can feel some of you shuddering at this outrageous suggestion. But in such a time of austerity those who have more should not be allowed to claw back a larger proportion than those who have less.

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Rathin Gupta

Feb 23, 2013 at 12:57

A well written personal view & I wellcome it. It should not be either or ; Pension & ISA both have a place in any portfolio only the proportion should vary from one person to another.My fear for an all ISA option is a) lack of discipline by younger people b)a future chancellor raiding the ISA pot may have detrimental effects on

the size of your final pot.

Saving for future is not easy; it requires, discipline ,dedication,management & time. There is not a silver bullet which would provide for the future with very little effort.

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Chris Clark

Feb 23, 2013 at 13:43

@Rathin Gupta Well written, I think you have it exactly right. Chris

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Bob Foster

Feb 23, 2013 at 17:27

Nobody seems to have touched on the tax treatment of the two options:-

Pension you contribute 100% plus 20% from HMRC = 120% + growth

ISA you contribute 100%

When you come to retire your pension of 120% + growth is taxed @20%

which leaves you with 94%+growth less 20% tax

With the ISA you get your 100% +growth less no tax

Therefore under the current tax rules I see the ISA as the better option.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 17:53

Assume a lump sum investment of £x, a tax rate of t% and an annual growth of i%, invested over n years.


Invest £x, receive no tax rebate, pay no tax on withdrawal.

ISA = x * (1+i)^n


Invest £x, receive tax rebate at t%, pay t% tax on withdrawal

Pension = x/(1-t) * (1+i)^n * (1-t)

= x * (1+i)^n


Mathematically there is no difference between paying tax on contributions into an investment or on the proceeds when your tax rate is unchanged.

As mentioned there is the zero tax on a 25% pension commencement lump sum, but this advantage will be reduced by the generally-higher charges on the 75% of your pension fund - just look at some of the annual SIPP fees for drawdown.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 17:54

As I understand it you do pay a non-refundable flat rate on dividends within an ISA, obviously not applicable to income fom funds but tax has been deducted from their divs. If you are reinvesting the income you pay the same flat rate on returns again. I always think this is a bit of a cheek as it reduces your long-term growth.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 17:55

As I understand it you do pay a non-refundable flat rate on dividends within an ISA, obviously not applicable to income fom funds but tax has been deducted from their divs. If you are reinvesting the income you pay the same flat rate on returns again. I always think this is a bit of a cheek as it reduces your long-term growth.

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Bob Foster

Feb 23, 2013 at 18:16

Malcolm. Sorry do not understand algerbra, that was too many years ago, these days only work with numbers. But if you only consider the growth on your investment. Pension growth less 20% of 75% of the growth(25%tax free)

Isa growth less 0%

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Keith Snell

Feb 23, 2013 at 20:07

Of course there is still a very major case for pensions, tax relief at whatever rate you pay income tax. This gives you not less than 20% return on amount you pay into your pension that year without investing it any further, ISAs are tax efficient but do not have any tax relief you merely avoid paying either corporation tax or income tax on your investment earnings. Of course the government can remove any or all tax benefits if they wish however labour governments are far more likely to do so as they are economic morons as are the liberals whose tendencies are very similar to labour, hence the increasing support for UKIP who would not gather enough votes to govern anyway. Personally I prefer a combination of SIPP and self invested ISAs such as those available as wrappers from investment supermarkets such as Hargreaves Lansdown, however you do need to learn a little about investment which can easily be done well enough to out perform many professionals.

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Rosemary Pettit

Feb 23, 2013 at 22:44

It was suggested that ISA levels be increased, even as high as £40,000. In my view that would be a mistake. PEPs, TOISAs (and then ISAs) were set up to help the small to moderate saver. So long as they stay in that bracket they will be seen as a benefit to those who don't have a lot of extra cash but are trying their best to provide for themselves and - increasingly - for their old age. Over time, as we know, ISAs can accumulate to give a very useful sum. Make them attractive to the well-off, however, and they will be subject to criticism and a twitchy Chancellor.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 23:09

Bob and Malcolm. I'm no pensions expert, and maybe Lolly could or has written something on the tax benefits of pensions, but my understanding is this. As a basic rate taxpayer, for every £100 contributed to a pension, you only pay £68 because you don't have to pay any deductions from it. In addition, for many schemes the employer will match your contribution to some extent, so you get even more benefit. If an employer matches equally, then a £200 pension contribution costs you just £68.

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Feb 23, 2013 at 23:10

oops... could write or has written, before someone else corrects that one for me :-)

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Brian Pearson

Feb 25, 2013 at 10:24

I think that there is a place for both in a savings culture, but only after debts have been paid off. After all, a debt is a debt and will always be there until its paid, so it does not really matter whether you pay into an ISA or pension, the debt will always be there. I understand that there is a difference in saving rates between the two savings vehicles, but surely the charges on Debt will always be higher than the saving rate you will get for the same money. I teach my children to pay their debts first and save after that if they can, so hopefully they will take this advice on as they get older. I have been fortunate in that I have paid off two mortgages on two different houses and have no (known) debt, so this has freed me up to save in both ISA's and Pensions taking advantage of the tax breaks on both and company contributions. I am also fortunate to be in the 40% tax bracket, so when I take my pension, I will be taxed at 20% (currently :)) so again I will benefit there. But I could only do these things after paying my debts off. I suppose that this is something (apart from changing debt payment rules and rates) which the Gov can't mess with. Having said that, I am sure they will find a way.... Lol

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Dislexic Landlord

Feb 25, 2013 at 10:54

Dear Brian Pearson

Your views are very much akin to my fathers views Pay off Debt save after

Its not always the best way there is good borowing and bad Borrowing

If I had not borrowed I would not have the lifestyle I have at present

My Golden rule is I only Borrow Money to make money

It is very strange indeed that the savers of the UK are now paying for saveing by low intrest rates

On the other hand me as a Borrower have now Tracker Intrest rate Mortgages and we are makeing a killing

Maybe it is better to pay off your home but in the long term inflation will eat into the borrowings over time

You may say this thinking has brought the country to its knees but its the way of bussiness now

I belive Now the British Army own very few trucks there all leased as are all the major airines

and dont forget Debt for IHT is a very good thing as long as you can service the debt and mae money its not a bad thing and it has to be managed withLong Term Fixed rate mortages

after all Intrest rates will rise in the long term

Brian you are50% right

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Brian Pearson

Feb 25, 2013 at 11:12

Dislexic Landlord.

I agree with your comments and there is both good and bad debt. My aim was to get my kids to understand debt and that at some stage it will have to be paid back. I also think I was refering more to my own personal circumstances, hence my generalism regarding savings and debt. Havings said that, I am very happy to be 50% correct. :) Now I can focus on the other 50% and ensure we have a decent life after retirement. Thanks for your comments. :)


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Rosemary Pettit

Feb 25, 2013 at 11:14

Mr Micawber's famous recipe for happiness:

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

If you are borrowing to invest, that's different. Most of us wouldn't have got our houses if we hadn't borrowed on a mortgage.

But otherwise? Why make yourself vulnerable when you don't have to?

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Brian Pearson

Feb 25, 2013 at 11:27

I totally agree Rosemary. If you borrow to invest, you cant be sure you will get a return. If you could, we would all be rich. Live within your means and any extra could be saved, but service your debts first.

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magic beans

Feb 25, 2013 at 12:59

I am currently going through the process of setting up income streams for my retirement next month. It has been a real eye opener running into the poor returns on offer from the pension pot. The rules on draw down seem very restrictive and the annuity is laughable. I can remember a Pru man sitting in my kitchen some forty odd years ago trying to sell me a pension plan that would have a pot of £100,000 at retirement. We have accidently got more than that in our SIPPs now and the return on offer is frankly not worth it because of GAD rates and drawdown rules.

I understand the argument about tax relief on pension payments and it sounds compelling but the reality right now for us is a very poor SIPP pay-out taxed topped up by a huge (in comparison) ISA pay-out tax free. 'I are a Injineer' and not involved in finance or investments but to me it is a no brainer.

The investment side has not been without drama though mainly on Mrs Bs side as we have kept things separate. I did my own but she used the professionals – Ha. There was the zeros scam -tick. Dotcom bubble - tick. Blue chip shares that crashed - tick. Shell American class action - tick. Her IFA working the old one two with a colleague to set up a Skandalous investment with three levels of charges - tick. Cost me £1800 to get her out of that. I persuaded her to go to H&L after that.

In the end we are wiser and not as poor as we would have been had we not taken control of our own planning and investments. You can produce all the graphs and formulas you like but in the end it comes down to actual retirement income and I am glad we are where we are now and not where the ‘experts’ told us - and are still telling others - we should be.

The thing I find most incredible is the glazed look that comes over younger colleagues when I try and explain all this to them. “Oh I’ve got a pension don’t know what its worth and know idea what it will payout”. ARRRGH

My grandson has been introduced to compound interest through his JISA. I don’t know if he will blow it at eighteen or keep it growing but at least he knows. I wish someone had done that for me.

I am so grateful to everyone for this discussion it could not be more relevant in my opinion.

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glyn linder

Feb 25, 2013 at 14:40

Have both.

Solely investing in ISAs is dangerous. ISAs are too accessible, and human nature being what it is, the chances of reaching retirement without having drawn some out for an "emergency" are slim.

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Feb 25, 2013 at 15:18

Pensions are also dangerous, not only annuity rates are abysmal, if you die within a year or two you leave nothing.

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Brian Pearson

Feb 25, 2013 at 15:32

Other than paying in and guessing what is the best place to put our money, we have little or no control over what happens to it. Even the "Experts" are only really guessing what will happen based on data or reports they receive, so pensions are a gamble like stcoks and shares ISA's Having said all that, dont go for an annuity, go for income drawdown and if you die before you use the pot up, then you can (after tax) leave the rest to your estateand family. simples!

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Ian Pet

Feb 25, 2013 at 21:22

One possible disadvantage (depending on your point of view) of using ISAs exclusively as pension savings is that they count as capital when means-tested benefits are being considered. Most people have a rosy view of growing older and do not foresee health problems occurring in their fifties when they are younger. They could find themselves using all their ISA funds up before retirement age. A SIPP and expensive residence would seem to be a reasonable idea at present, but that is with hindsight. Nobody has 30+ years of foresight!

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