How much money do you need to save for retirement?

The most common way to save for retirement is with a pension, but even with auto-enrolment, the majority of us are still not saving enough.

In 2018, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA) published research showing 80% of us are not confident that we are saving “enough” for retirement. While in September 2020 the financial adviser service said 1 in 6 over 55-year olds had no pension savings. 

But just how much is enough? And how much should you try to save to have a comfortable retirement? To answer that, we first need to look at the different pension types available to you, and how they might impact your retirement savings strategy.

What types of pension are there?

In addition to the government State Pension, there are a few different types of pension that generally fall into two main categories:

  • Defined contribution – established by the amount you’ve gradually paid into your pension pot during your working life

  • Defined benefit – based on your final salary or your career average and the length of time you have been with your employer

To complicate matters, there are further sub-types within each of these.

Defined contribution & money purchase pensions

With these schemes, the pension provider invests the money you have paid in. This means how much you get when you retire depends on the performance of these investments as well as how much you have contributed and for how long.


The government first introduced auto-enrolment in 2012. It rules that all employers must enrol workers aged 22+ who earn more than £10,000 per year into an occupational or workplace pension.

You can opt out if you want, but you would essentially be missing out on free money and government tax relief.

Company/workplace pensions

You may have already had a pension through your employer before auto-enrolment was introduced, in which case you would not need to be auto-enrolled into a scheme.

Workplace pensions can also be defined benefit pensions explained below, although these are becoming less common.

If you are unsure exactly what your employer offers, speak to the HR department. You could always get an additional personal pension if you’re dissatisfied with what they offer.

Private/personal pensions

Set up by individuals rather than companies, private pensions are often used by, but are not limited to, the self-employed.

Like other types of money purchase plan, they too attract tax relief up to the annual limits – for the 2020/2021 tax year, it’s up to the lesser of £40,000 or 100% of your earnings.

At retirement, up to 25% of the total pension pot can be taken as a tax-free lump sum and the remainder can be used to buy an income for life, usually in the form of an annuity.

Other types of money purchase pensions

  • Small self-administered scheme (SSAS)

  • Self-invested personal pension (SIPP), and Group self-invested personal pension (GSIPP)

  • Stakeholder pension

  • Trust-based pension

  • State Pension

Defined benefit & final salary pensions

Defined benefit schemes pay out your pension as a percentage of your final or average salary, factoring in how long you have been with your employer and your age.

Unlike defined contribution schemes, no money has been invested so the amount cannot go down if an investment has underperformed.

It is primarily your employer who contributes to it – though you can too – and it is down to them to guarantee there is enough for you to live on after retirement.

This type of pension has become far less common than it used to be and is most prevalent in the public sector.

How to calculate your target retirement income

The basic calculation of the amount you’ll need is two-thirds of your previous annual income. This method assumes you’ll need less than when you were working because you will not have a mortgage or rental costs.

Of course, if you still have these payments to make, you’ll need a higher retirement income.

However the amount of money you need will depend on the kind of life you want and expect when you retire: simple or lavish?

The Money Advice Service has an online calculator to help you work out how much retirement income you’ll need.

How much money will I need when I retire?

The PLSA has calculated how much it thinks people need on average in retirement in its ‘retirement living standards’ data.

It says the minimum amount for a single person is £10,200 and for a couple It’s £15,700 which would cover basic costs with some extra money for leisure activities.

For a moderate income in retirement it estimates a single person would need £20,200 and a couple would need £29,100 which would provide a little more financial flexibility and security.

While for a comfortable retirement, you would need £33,000 as a single person and £47,500 as a couple, which would allow for financial security and some luxuries. 

Consumer group Which? found its members needed on average £26,000 per year, per household. In addition to basic costs, this covers extras like a two-week holiday in Europe, regular meals out and hobbies.

According to the same research, a luxurious retirement that includes long-haul holidays and changing your car every 5 years, requires around £39,000 per year.

In general, a single person needs about two-thirds of the amount a couple needs. This is because some costs such as heating, insurance and the costs of running a car are the same for one person as they are for two.

How much do I need to save per month to hit my pension goal?

How much money you need to save per month depends on when you actually start saving and how much you want to save in total.

The earlier you (and potentially your employer if they match your contributions) start adding to your pension pot, the less you will need to save each month because the cost is spread over a longer period.

Moreover, if you start saving early, your funds will accrue the extra benefit of compound interest throughout the duration of your savings. Making money from the interest means you can actively save less and still end up with the same amount.

What is compound interest and how does it work?

Compound interest works like this: if you put £2,000 into your pension per year (roughly £166 per month), and the growth rate of the pension is (a conservative) 5%, you will earn £100 in interest. That amount gets added to your pension pot so you’ll have a total of £2,100 at the end of year one.

The following year, you’ll earn 5% interest on £2,100 plus the £2,000 you pay in during that year, giving you £205 in interest. Your total at the end of year two would be £4,305 (£2,100 + £2,000 + £205), even though you’d only put in £4,000.

If you follow this logic year after year, compound interest really starts to kick in. After 10 years, your net contribution would be £20,000, but your pension pot will be worth around £29,000.

After that, assuming you keep contributing the same amount and the interest rate stays the same, your pension will roughly double every 10 years.

So you can see you could potentially keep the monthly amount you save the same for the duration of your pension or indeed your working life (if you change jobs and get a different pension with your new employer) and earn a decent amount by the time you retire.

What is an annuity and do I need one?

Bought with your pension fund, an annuity is an insurance product that provides a regular income for life. 

More costly than they once were (because of low interest rates and rising life expectancy), they still remain a good option for many.

The income from an annuity is taxable and the amount you pay for one depends on lots of factors including the value of your pension.  For a £100,000 pension, for example, it could cost £5,645, according to data from Hargreaves Lansdown

Your pension income is usually made up of income from a private (and/or company) pension alongside your State Pension. It can be supplemented by savings income, part-time work or other sources of income like investments.

Pension freedom rules

In 2015, the government introduced new rules about accessing retirement savings.

The new rules provide greater access and more options as to what you can do with your pension pot:

  • You can take out the whole pension amount when you are 55

  • There is no tax on the first 25%

  • The rest is taxed as if it was a salary at normal rates

Generally, it’s not a good idea to withdraw money at 55. This is because many people are still in the process of saving what they need for a comfortable long-term retirement. The sooner you withdraw the money, the less interest you will earn on it.

Last November the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) introduced new rules to make pensions clearer, in the wake of fears pensioners were withdrawing the money early.

From November 1, 2019, these changes were introduced and mean those aged 50 are sent packs telling them the risks of withdrawing their savings early.  Pension providers are also now required to give consumers quotes for enhanced annuities, which can provide a higher income for those with low life expectancy.

What should I do with my pension pot when I retire?

There are 6 main options here:

  • Keep the pension pot as-is and live of other sources of income

  • Buy an annuity

  • Get an adjustable income (Flexi-Access Drawdown)

  • Take cash in chunks (Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum)

  • Cash in the whole pot in one lump sum – remember only 25% of it will be tax-free

  • Mix and match any of the above

Pensions are a complex financial product – but they’re also a very important way to ensure your long-term financial security.

If you have more questions, it might be worth talking to an independent financial adviser to find the right pension strategy for you. The Pensions Advisory Service offers free advice by phone and email.

21 October 2020