Choosing between an ISA or pension can be tricky. ISAs offer tax-free income / growth and easy access to your money, while pensions come with upfront tax relief and are designed for long-term retirement income.

This blog post will explore the key differences to help you decide which might be a better fit for your financial goals.

I’ll start by briefly explaining what each of them are:

What is an ISA?

ISA stands for Individual Savings Account, a type of tax-efficient savings account offered in the UK.

There are 3 main types of ISAs to suit various needs:

  • Cash ISAs: 
    Function similarly to regular savings accounts but with tax-free interest.

  • Stocks and Shares ISA: 
    Allow investing in the stock market for potentially higher returns but with inherent risk.

  • Lifetime ISA (LISAs): 
    Designed for first-time homebuyers or retirement saving, offering a government bonus on contributions (up to a limit) but with withdrawal penalties outside those purposes.

There is a maximum amount of money you can pay into one or more ISAs any individual tax year.

What is a Pension?

A pension is a long term investment or retirement savings plan specifically designed to help you financially during your retirement years.

You pay money into a pension fund (you may end up with more than one) on a regular basis throughout your working life, and in the case of a workplace pension, there can be employer contributions too.

In addition to any personal pensions or workplace pensions you may have, the government also provides a basic state pension to all eligible British citizens, which is funded by National Insurance contributions made throughout your working life.

What are the tax benefits of paying into an ISA or pension?

ISA Tax Benefits

  • Tax-Free Growth: 
    Any interest or capital gains earned within an ISA are completely exempt from income tax. This allows your money to grow faster without being eroded by taxes.

    This tax-free growth is particularly beneficial for a higher or additional rate taxpayer who would otherwise pay income tax on any interest or capital gains earned.

tall stack of coins representing the growth of ISA or pension savings

Pension Tax Benefits

  • Upfront Tax Relief:
    Contributions to a pension receive tax relief at your highest income tax rate. This essentially means the government reduces your tax bill for the amount you contribute.

    For example, if you’re a basic rate taxpayer, currently 20% in the UK (2023/24) contributing £1,000 to your pension, you only pay tax on £800. The government essentially “tops up” your contribution with the £200 tax relief.

    Again, this upfront tax relief is particularly valuable for additional or higher rate taxpayers as it essentially reduces their tax bill at their marginal rate. For example, a higher rate taxpayer (40% in the UK for 2023/24) contributing £1,000 to their pension would only pay tax on £600 (1000 – (1000 * 40% tax relief)).

  • Tax-Free Growth:
    Similar to ISAs, money held within your pension fund grows free from income tax and capital gains tax.

Key Differences to Remember:

  • Tax on Contributions:
    You contribute to ISAs with your after-tax income, so you don’t get the immediate tax relief in the way you do with pension contributions.

  • Tax on Withdrawals:
    With ISAs, you can generally withdraw your money tax-free at any time (though Lifetime ISAs have penalties for withdrawals outside of specific uses – read more about this here). In contrast, you typically pay income tax on withdrawals from your pension pot, although there is a tax-free lump sum allowance available.

Can I access my pension or ISA when I need the money?


Generally, you have easy access to your ISA money. You can typically withdraw your funds at any time without tax implications (though some Cash ISAs might have withdrawal restrictions).

Lifetime ISAs are an exception. They are designed to be used in one of two ways, buying a first home or for retirement. There ia a 25% withdrawal penalty if you access the funds for other reasons.


Pensions are designed for long-term saving and typically restrict access to your money until a certain age. Currently in the UK, that age is 55 (rising to 57 in 2028).

What happens after you reach the minimum age?

Once you reach the minimum age, you still don’t have complete freedom like an ISA. However, you have more options for accessing your pension savings:

  • Lump Sum: You can usually take a tax-free lump sum of up to 25% of your total pension pot.

  • Pension Income Drawdown: This option allows you to make withdrawals from your pension fund as needed, while the remaining amount continues to be invested. There are tax implications for these withdrawals.

  • Annuity: This option converts your pension into a guaranteed income stream for life. Once you choose an annuity, you typically cannot access the remaining funds.

Inheritance and Benefits After Death


  • ISAs generally bypass your estate, meaning they don’t automatically form part of the assets distributed according to your will.

  • You can nominate beneficiaries for your ISA. These beneficiaries will receive the funds directly from the ISA provider, typically avoiding probate delays and inheritance tax liability

  • If there’s no nominated beneficiary, the ISA will usually be distributed according to the intestacy rules (rules outlining inheritance when there’s no will) or the terms and conditions of the ISA provider.


  • Similar to ISAs, pensions can be passed on to nominated beneficiaries, outside of your estate. This can be particularly beneficial as it allows the beneficiary to receive the funds without incurring inheritance tax (up to certain limits).

  • If no beneficiary is nominated, the pension provider will usually follow a set order of precedence, typically looking towards your spouse or civil partner, then children, and so on.

  • Please note not all pensions have benefits after death. It is always best to check the specific terms of your pension plan.

Additional Points To Consider:

Types of Pensions: 
There can be slight variations depending on the type of pension. For example, with defined contribution pensions (the most common type), beneficiaries have more flexibility in how they receive the funds.

Tax Implications: 
While generally inheritance tax-efficient, there might be some tax implications for beneficiaries depending on their age and how they choose to receive the pension money.

Both ISAs and pensions offer the advantage of being passed on to beneficiaries outside of your estate, potentially saving them from inheritance tax, but it’s crucial to nominate beneficiaries for your ISA and pension to ensure your wishes are followed.

ISA or Pension – Key Feature Comparison

Tax on ContributionsPaid from your net income (no upfront tax relief)Gets tax relief at your highest income tax rate (tax paid on a lower amount)
Access to MoneyGenerally easy access, can withdraw anytime (Lifetime ISA exceptions)Restricted access until minimum age (currently 55, rising to 57 in 2028)
InheritanceCan be passed on to beneficiaries outside your estate (avoiding inheritance tax)Can be passed on to beneficiaries outside your estate (avoiding inheritance tax)
Contribution Limits£20,000 Annual Allowance (all ISA types combined as at 2023/24)No set annual limit, but tax relief applies up to your earnings
Investment GrowthTax-free growth within the ISATax-free growth within the pension pot
Tax on WithdrawalsGenerally tax-free withdrawals (Lifetime ISA exceptions)Income tax applies to most withdrawals (except a tax-free lump sum allowance)

In Summary

Both pensions and ISAs offer unique benefits, but the best choice depends on your personal circumstances. ISAs provide flexibility and tax-free access to your money, while a pension comes with upfront tax relief and is geared towards long-term retirement income.

Consider factors like your age, annual earnings, income tax bracket and tax status, retirement goals, and risk tolerance when making your decision.

Consulting an Independent Financial Adviser (IFA) is crucial. An IFA can provide personalised guidance on ISAs and pensions, taking into account your financial situation, risk appetite, and long-term objectives. They can help you create a tailored savings plan to achieve a secure financial future.

If you would like to book a free 30 minute initial chat, please click the button below, or contact Tony Thomas on 07585 592494 or

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