How to get an easy pay rise... plus other tips to boost your pension for FREE

Pensions don't have to be boring, maybe we just need to think about them in a different way. In the more than 20 years I've been writing about pensions, I've heard them described as dull, complex and a rip-off. But what if I told you that having a workplace pension can amount to an easy pay rise? And that there are ways to boost your retirement nest-egg for free – without paying in more of your hard-earned cash?

Don't leave it too late to start thinking about your pension. Here are eight simple and easy-on-the pocket ways to grow your pension now.

1. Getting a workplace pension = a pay rise

If you're an employee (aged 22 and over and earning at least £10,000 a year from one job) you'll be automatically opted in to a workplace pension – which your employer must contribute to. 'Auto-enrolment' rules mean your employer must put in at least 3% of your salary (within certain limits), though some employers are more generous.

Think of this 3% (more if you're lucky) as an easy pay rise. The downside is that to get the employer cash you may also have to contribute from your salary. Under auto-enrolment, total contributions must be at least 8%, so if your employer only puts in the minimum 3%, your contribution has to be 5%.

Read Martin's blog on the latest auto-enrolment pension changes.

2. Some employers are more generous than others

With most workplace pensions, both you and your employer pay in. So getting that pension contribution from your employer often comes at the price of lower take-home pay.

However, some employers offer 'non-contributory' pension schemes where only the employer pays in – there's no cost to you and no deduction from your salary.

More commonly, your employer may offer extra pension contributions if you also pay in more – often called 'contribution matching'. While getting these extra employer contributions means a further hit to your take-home pay, matched contributions can be a great value way to plump up your pension.

If, say, your employer pays in £1 per £1 that you contribute, then you're only paying half the total of £2 that goes into your pension pot – and the £1 you put in costs you less because of the tax relief (see below) you also get.

To make the most of any workplace pension, check with your HR department that you're signed up from the earliest possible date the scheme will allow after becoming an employee.

Note that if you're self-employed, sadly you don't benefit from auto-enrolment, non-contributory pensions or matched contributions. But personal pensions have perks too...

3. Claim all the tax relief you can

When you pay money into a pension, the Government boosts the value of your contribution with tax relief. With both workplace and personal pensions, you should be automatically given 20% basic-rate tax relief as an additional amount in your pension.

This means that if you pay in say £80, it will be topped up to £100. But if you're a 40% or even 45% taxpayer, you're also entitled to the extra 20% or 25% relief, respectively.

With some workplace pension schemes the extra relief goes into your pension automatically, so you don't need to do anything to get it. But with other workplace pensions and all personal pensions, you'll need to claim it through your self-assessment tax return, if you file one, or by contacting HM Revenue & Customs directly.

You can go back four years with these claims. So if you haven't claimed the higher-rate tax relief that you were previously entitled to, you can still put in claims going back as far as the 2015/16 tax year.

This extra relief – whether given automatically or if you have to claim it – reduces the cost of your pension contributions. And if it comes in the form of a cash rebate from HMRC, you can always put the money straight back into your pension – boosting your retirement pot for free.

4. Salary sacrifice gives extra savings

With some employers, you won't pay national insurance (NI) on the salary you contribute to the workplace pension – giving an extra 12% saving for a basic-rate taxpayer, or 2% for a higher-rate or top-rate taxpayer.

To get this NI relief, your employer needs to operate 'salary sacrifice' (also called 'salary exchange') for pension contributions.

If salary sacrifice is available on your workplace scheme, the NI saving makes this a cheap way of contributing to a pension.

Want a pensions primer? Read MSE's pension need-to-knows guide.

5. Dig up lost pensions to boost your pot

You may have forgotten about a pension from an old employer, or a personal pension that you once signed up to. Industry research suggests there are as many as 1.6 million pensions – with an average plan value of more than than £12,500 – that people have lost touch with.

If you suspect you might have a pension with an old employer or other provider, contact the pension administrators. The Government's online pension tracing service may be able to help with contact details.

You can also search for lost pensions via the Unclaimed Assets Register (UAR), although this will cost a £25 fixed fee. The UAR, which is run by Experian, does a search of all companies signed up to the register – 4.5 million records from around 75 different providers.

To keep on top of all your pensions, see our blog for how to keep track by setting up your own pensions dashboard.

See the MSE News story on how to track down lost pensions and MSE's Reclaim Forgotten Cash guide.

6. Claim national insurance credits to top up your state pension

How much state pension you are entitled to depends on how many so-called 'qualifying years' of national insurance (NI) contributions you have. These generally depend on how many years you're in work and paying NI.

To get the full amount of state pension (£168.60 in 2019/20) you need 35 years of NI contributions/credits. To get anything at all, you'll need a minimum of 10 qualifying years. You can see how much state pension you have built up so far, based on your NI record, at Check your State Pension.

But you can also build up qualifying years with national insurance credits – including for time spent raising a family, caring for the sick or disabled, or being enrolled in full-time training. There is a list of the benefits and other circumstances which could make you eligible for NI credits on Gov.uk. While NI credits are awarded automatically for some benefits/circumstances, for others you have to apply.

Be sure to check the gaps listed in your NI record. If you have gaps when you think you were working or should have received NI credits, contact HMRC.

Read the MSE News story on double-checking your state pension forecast after the Government admits to "significant" errors.

You can also buy extra qualifying years to boost your state pension if you won't get the full amount. This could lead to a big increase in your state pension payout over your retirement.

7. Cut costs so you've more in your pension

You could be paying more than you need to in charges on your pension plan and funds you are invested in, leading to reduced returns, particularly over the long term.

There can be fees on both the pension plan and the funds in it – especially in the case of personal pensions – so it's important to consider the full picture on charges.

Of course, you shouldn't pick a pension plan or fund just because it's got low costs – after all, what really matters is what you get for those charges in terms of plan features, service and investment performance.

But just like products sold through different retailers, the cost of some investment funds can vary depending on the pension plan you buy them through. And if you can invest in the same fund at lower cost, the saving in charges should translate into better returns.

Read MSE's low-cost Sipps guide.

Workplace pensions will often have lower charges than personal pensions, so if both plans offer the ability to invest in a particular fund, the workplace pension may be the better deal.

8. Review your investments to boost growth

It's worth reviewing what your pension is invested in. Many workplace pensions put your money into default investment funds. These funds may be conservatively managed – aiming for decent returns and a relatively steady performance, rather than something more dramatic.

This more cautious approach could be exactly what you want for your retirement nest-egg. However, for some people it may not be the best choice available – particularly if you are young with many years until retirement, are confident picking your own investments or have enough financial security already to be able to go for a more racy fund.

Many default pension funds are about two-thirds invested in shares. You may be comfortable with the risks of a higher exposure to the stock market, in the hope of earning higher investment returns over the long term. Boosting investment returns by just 1% a year could translate into tens of thousands more in your workplace pension pot at retirement for an average earner in their 20s, according to pension company Hargreaves Lansdown.