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Blog: It’s difficult not to feel pessimistic about my pension

John Fitzsimons
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John Fitzsimons

I got a pension forecast from my pension provider this week, and it made for pretty bleak reading, to put it mildly.

Let’s just say that the £3,000 a year my private pension will apparently provide me once I pack up work is going to have an awful lot of work to do.

Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones in that I have actually got some money saved at all, while at a sprightly 37 there’s still time to get that pot in better shape. Nonetheless there are still some enormous hurdles ahead.

Lessons from auto enrolment

The first is the fact that, when it comes to saving, I’m on my own.

There’s no escaping the fact that the government’s auto enrolment scheme has been a tremendous success. It’s not exactly a secret that lots of us aren’t saving enough for retirement, and so the auto enrolment scheme was introduced to nudge us into putting money aside for our later years, without even noticing as it disappears from our monthly pay packet, with the added selling point of contributions being topped up by our employers.

It’s clearly been incredibly effective too, with 78% of employees now paying into a workplace pension, a big jump from the less than half of staff who were doing so before the scheme was launched.

But there is a big problem here. Millions of us aren’t employees, and instead work for ourselves. I’m one of them, and according to recent estimates there may be more than five million self-employed workers in the UK.

And there is no auto enrolment scheme in place for self-employed workers. After all, I’m both boss and worker here ‒ there’s no separate employer in place to top up the contributions I already make.

While there has been plenty of talk about coming up with some sort of scheme aimed at replicating the success of auto enrolment in terms of encouraging self employed people to save for their retirement, it’s nothing more than that currently, which is why so many self-employed people aren’t paying into a pension.

As someone who writes about money for a living, it would be a bit worrying if I was one of them. Yet evidently the money I pay into my SIPP every month is not going to be enough.

Iffy projection figures

Even for those who are making the most of the auto enrolment scheme, there are worries that an unpleasant surprise is on the way.

A new study by pension consultancy LCP and Interactive Investor released this week pointed to the fact that investment assets like equities, government bonds and corporate bonds have been delivering declining returns for more than a decade.

And this is important because the brains behind the auto enrolment scheme came up with the minimum contribution levels we currently have based on the higher returns previously seen. In other words, what the authorities thought would be enough to provide a decent standard of life in retirement may now fall seriously short.

As Becky O’Connor, head of pensions and savings at Interactive Investor, put it, the likely long period ahead of low growth could mean the difference between scraping by and being comfortable in retirement.

She added: “Now we live in a potentially lower growth world, this needs to be reflected by recommendations for higher minimum pension contribution amounts.”

So even if you’re doing the right thing and contributing, you will still end up counting the pennies once you give up work. That £3,000 a year my pension will apparently provide me may actually be an over optimistic prediction.

When should I pay more?

The answer, clearly, is to pay more into a pension.

Paying more is easier said than done of course. Part of the reason so many self employed people aren’t contributing to a pension, for example, is because of how unpredictable it can be actually getting paid. Getting your finances into a position where you can pay anything on a regular basis is something of an achievement, let alone hiking the amount you pay.

But there are similar pressures for people who are enrolled in a workplace pension scheme, and who find multiple demands on their cash beyond pension contributions, like saving for a deposit.

The answer may lie in nudges from the government to up your contributions at certain life periods, such as when your children leave home or the student loan is paid off, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies think tank.

Rowena Crawford, associate director at the IFS, said that it was crucial for the government to consider ways to boost pension saving at the best time in people’s lives, rather than simply hiking the amount being saved irrespective of their circumstances.

She added: “Default minimum employee contributions to workplace pensions that rise with age are an obvious option. A smart, joined up, approach across Government could also involve employee pension contributions rising when an individual’s student loan repayments come to an end.”

Ultimately, I’m far from alone here. Millions of us, irrespective of our employment status, are likely not putting enough cash aside to pay for a retirement that provides at least some level of comfort. That means some difficult budgeting decisions ahead, while the government also needs some fresh thinking about how it can support greater levels of saving so that the success of the auto enrolment scheme doesn’t peter out.