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Defined contribution and money purchase schemes

Understand how defined contribution, or money purchase, pension schemes work. We’ll explain what happens to your pension savings in these schemes.

In this article
Defined contribution pensions – how they work Defined contribution pensions – what happens to my savings? Defined contribution pensions – who manages my money?
Defined contribution pensions - how much will I get? Defined contribution pensions – how do I get an income in retirement? Taking a tax-free lump sum

A defined contribution, or money purchase, pension scheme is a type of workplace pension. It is built up through your own contributions, those of your employer and tax relief from the government.

Defined contribution schemes give you an accumulated sum when you come to retire that you can use to secure a pension income through buying a product called an annuity, or opt for income drawdown. You can also take the lot as a lump sum – but may face a hefty tax bill.

Most company pension schemes are now defined contribution. 

This guide explains how they work and what you need to do to get the highest possible income in retirement. 


Defined contribution pensions – how they work

Until 2012, you would have been asked by your employer if you want to join the company scheme. However, from 2012 onwards, automatic enrolment was introduced, requiring all UK workplaces to enrol their staff in pensions. 

Go further: Pension auto-enrolment: how it works – read our expert guide to the new pension rules.

Your employer will deduct your contributions from your salary before its taxed. They will also usually contribute a percentage to your pension. You'll also get tax relief from the government, too, which can boost the amount you're saving. It works like this.

  • You earn £30,000 a year.
  • You contribute 3% to your pension (£900).
  • Your employer contributes 3% (£900).
  • The government gives you tax relief on your contributions at your tax rate (20%).
  • This is equivalent to £225 a year.
  • Your total annual saving into your pension is £2,025.

If you're a higher or additional-rate taxpayer, you'll need to claim the additional rebate through your tax return. 

Go further: Pension tax relief – learn more about how your pension interacts with tax

Defined contribution pensions – what happens to my savings?

The contributions from you and your employer will be invested in the stock market, with the aim of growing it over the years before you retire.

Unlike those who belong to a defined benefit pension scheme, members of defined contribution schemes have a degree of choice as to where their pension contributions are invested. Many opt to put their money in the scheme's 'default fund' – a fund that has a mix of different assets. 

You could choose more risky investments to maximise your growth, as you'll be saving for a long time until you retire. 

Go further: Different types of investment – find out more about the different types of investment products

Defined contribution pensions – who manages my money?

There are two main types of defined contribution pension scheme.

Trust-based schemes

These types of pension schemes are run by a board of trustees that oversees the management and investments in your pension. The trustees choose the professionals who look after your money and have a duty to you as the member of the scheme to get the best deal on your behalf.

Contract-based schemes

If you're in a contracted-based pension, it means that your employer has appointed a pension provider, such as an insurance company, to run your pension scheme. These are sometimes called 'group personal pensions.'

The contract is not between you and your employer, but between you and the pension provider. These types of schemes often offer you a much greater choice in investments for your pension savings than a trust-based scheme. 

Defined contribution pensions - how much will I get?

The amount of retirement income you’ll end up with depends on:

  • how much you contribute each month – you can usually choose to increase this
  • how much your employer contributes
  • how long you contribute for
  • how well the investments perform
  • how much any charges eat into your pot
  • how much you take as a cash lump sum

Defined contribution pensions – how do I get an income in retirement?

When you reach your retirement date, you'll need to use your pension pot – all of your savings over the years and all the growth they've gained through investment on the stock market – to buy an income.

At this point, you can buy an annuity, which is a product designed to give you a guaranteed income for the rest of your life, or enter into income drawdown. This sees you leaving your money invested in the stock market and drawing an income from it. You can also take the pot in one go (subject to taxation) or in chunks. 

How much income you get will depend on how much you have in your pension pot, with the option then to buy an annuity, draw money from your fund or a mixture of both. 

Since April 2015, you've been able to withdraw as much of the money as you want when you reach 55, although it is taxed as income.

Taking a tax-free lump sum

When you retire, you can take up to 25% of your pension savings as a tax-free lump sum. This reduces your pension income, but may be worthwhile if you need the money – to pay off outstanding debts, for example. The earliest you can draw a pension or take a lump sum is age 55.

Go further: Should I take a lump sum from my pension? – weigh up your options at retirement.