Inflation hits 7%: How surging cost-of-living affects savers and retirees

Tom Selby
13 April 2022

•    UK inflation continues to rocket in 2022, hitting 7% in March and putting pressure on millions of household budgets
•    Savers feeling the pain during the cost-of-living crisis will inevitably be tempted to reduce or cancel pension contributions – but this could cause severe damage to retirement plans
o    A 30-year-old earning £30,000 a year could end up with £37,000 less at state pension age (68) if they delay pension saving for 3 years, analysis shows 
•    For those approaching retirement, the impact of inflation will depend in part on how you plan to access your pension
o    Annuity savers will likely derisk as they approach retirement – potentially leaving their fund exposed to rising prices
o    People planning to take a steady income via drawdown should be able to keep at least a degree of risk on the table
•    Challenges for people receiving an income in retirement will vary:
o    Drawdown savers have flexibility but need to consider sustainability of withdrawals
o    Most annuitants do not have inflation protection and will therefore face a living standards squeeze
o    People in receipt of defined benefit (DB) pensions will usually have some inflation protection baked into their income
o    The state pension increased by 3.1% this week, in line with the September 2021 inflation rate

Tom Selby, head of retirement policy at AJ Bell, comments:

“Whether you’re saving for the future, approaching retirement or already taking an income from your pension, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis is likely to be felt in various ways.

“The extent of this impact will depend on a range of factors including your income, spending patterns and how long spiralling prices persist. 

“A short, sharp bout of inflation would be extremely painful for many, but the real fear is that the cost-of-living will keep rising over a prolonged period.

“People in different stages of their retirement savings journey will also face different challenges in this environment, from maintaining a long-term savings plan when you’re younger to making a pension income stretch further.

“Whatever your circumstances, it’s worth checking your financial position in light of this new reality, cutting back spending where possible and, crucially, setting a clear budget based on your spending and saving priorities.”

1.    Saving for retirement

“If you are saving for retirement the biggest challenge posed by the cost-of-living crisis will likely be maintaining your current pension contributions.

“While saving for the future might feel like a luxury you simply cannot afford at the moment, it’s worth taking some time to write down your incomings and outgoings and think about your priorities. You might be surprised at the difference a few tweaks to your lifestyle can make to the money you have left to save at the end of the month.

“When it comes to long-term saving, the earlier you start the easier it is. What’s more, employees saving in a workplace pension not only benefit from upfront tax relief but matched employer contributions through automatic enrolment.

“Quitting your workplace scheme will effectively mean you are taking a voluntary pay cut, so it is clearly not a decision to be taken lightly.”

Example

Take a 30-year-old who has just started a new job and has yet to make a pension contribution. Let’s assume they earn £30,000 a year and their salary increases by 2% each year. 

If they saved in their workplace pension scheme, then 8% of their salary would go towards their retirement. For simplicity we’ll base their pension contributions on total earnings.

If, despite the cost-of-living crisis, they decided to stay in the scheme and enjoyed 4% annual investment growth, they could have a fund worth £306,000 by age 68 (their scheduled state pension age).

If, however, they opt out of their workplace pension scheme and are subsequently re-enrolled in 3 years’ time – as required by auto-enrolment legislation – then their fund at 68 could be worth around £269,000. 

In other words, putting off saving in a pension for 3 years has resulted in a final retirement pot worth £37,000 less.

Reviewing your investments

“While a short spell of inflation shouldn’t change your investment approach, it might be worth reviewing the risks you are taking and making sure you are comfortable with your strategy.

“As a general rule, younger investors should be able to shoulder more investment risk than older savers, with the aim of benefitting from market returns over the long-term. 

“One of the key benefits of this should be at least keeping pace with – and ideally beating – inflation, something which will clearly be a challenge in the current environment.

“It is particularly worthwhile for anyone invested in an automatic enrolment default fund to kick the tyres of their investments.

“Defaults tend to operate a lower risk strategy than might otherwise be ideal for a younger investor, although you need to be aware that by increasing your investment risk you will also increase volatility, particularly over the short-term.”

2.    Approaching retirement

“The extent of any impact from inflation on those approaching retirement will depend on how they plan to take an income. 

“It’s worth remembering that while for some people retirement remains a fixed point in time, for many it is much more flexible. 

“To provide a bit of context, official figures suggest that around 3 people choose to take a flexible income through drawdown each year for every 1 person who decides to buy a guaranteed annuity income from an insurance company.”

a)    Planning to buy an annuity or take all your pension as cash

“For anyone planning to buy an annuity, the aim of the game in the years approaching retirement is to build-in certainty. 

“This usually involves shifting away from equity investments and into bonds and cash as your chosen retirement date approaches.

“One of the consequences of ‘derisking’ during a period of high inflation is that you’ll almost certainly be locking in real-terms losses on your money.”

Example

Take someone with a £100,000 pension who plans to buy an annuity in 5 years. As a result, their fund is shifted into bonds and cash as part of a ‘derisking’ strategy.

If during that period inflation runs at 5% a year and their fund after charges delivers returns of 1% a year, then in ‘real’ terms when they reach retirement their fund will have plummeted in value to just £82,000.

However, it’s worth remembering bond prices should, in theory at least, move in the opposite direction to annuity rates, meaning if returns on those investments are lower in the run-up to retirement then the annuity rate available should be higher. 

For someone planning to cash out their entire pension then the derisking principle is similar – assuming they have something specific they want to spend the money on. 

Withdrawing all your pension in one go potentially brings into play a whole host of other risks, including paying too much tax on your withdrawals, having your fund eaten away even further by inflation, and running out of money early in retirement. It is therefore a decision that comes with a severe health warning.

b)    Entering drawdown

“For those planning to take an income via drawdown, there is less of a need to derisk your fund as you approach ‘retirement’ as the bulk is likely to remain invested for the long-term.

“If you’re planning to take your 25% tax-free cash and have specific spending plans for that money then you might want to derisk that proportion of your portfolio. 

“It also makes sense to have at least 12 months’ spending in cash once you enter drawdown to fund your retirement plans.”

3.    Taking an income from your pension

“The impact of rising prices on retirement incomes will depend in part on how that income is taken. Let’s take each of the major conventional pension income routes in turn:

a)    Drawdown

“Anyone keeping their pension invested via drawdown has the flexibility to adjust withdrawals to take account of rising living costs. 

“This has the advantage of allowing you to maintain your living standards even during periods of high inflation. However, ramping up withdrawals will also increase the risk of running out of money early in retirement.

“What is sustainable will depend on your personal circumstances and investment returns. Anyone considering hiking withdrawals should make a budget if they haven’t already as inflation varies depending on how you spend your money. 

“Once you have done this, think about the sustainability of your withdrawal plan and see if there are any day-to-day lifestyle changes you can make to help your money stretch a bit further.”

Example

Take a 70-year-old with a £200,000 pension pot in drawdown who last year took a flexible income of £10,000 from their fund. They ideally want to maintain their standard of living throughout retirement.

If inflation runs at 2% on average and they increase withdrawals at this rate each year, their fund could run out around their 93rd birthday. 

However, if inflation runs at 5% on average and they increase withdrawals at this rate each year, their fund could run out 88th birthday – a full 5 years earlier.

b)    Annuity

“For those taking an annuity income, the impact of inflation will depend on whether or not they chose to bake inflation protection into the terms of their contract.

“Anyone who bought an inflation-protected ‘escalating’ annuity is probably pretty pleased with the decision right now – particularly as a few years ago the idea of price rises pushing towards double digits would have been fanciful at best.

“On the other side of the coin, people in receipt of level ‘non-escalating’ annuities will be feeling the pinch in a big way, as rising prices eat away at their spending power.

“Official figures suggest that over 41,000 non-escalating annuities were sold in 2020 versus around 7,000 escalating annuities. Given around 6.1 million annuities were in force in 2019, it’s fair to say millions of people will face a severe annuity income hit in 2022 as inflation rockets.”

Example

Take a retiree who is paid a level annuity worth £10,000 a year. If inflation runs at 2% a year, after 5 years the real value of this income will have dropped to £9,039.

However, if inflation runs at 5% a year, their spending power will plummet to £7,738.

To put it another way, 2% annual inflation erodes their spending power by under 10% over 5 years – whereas 5% inflation slashes their spending power by over 22%.

c)    Defined benefit (DB)

“Those lucky enough to have built up generous DB entitlements are likely to have at least some inflation protection built in, although the extent of this will vary depending on their scheme rules. 

“It’s worth checking the terms of your contract as even inflation increases capped at 5% could mean a real term cut in your spending power over the short-term.

“The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is responsible for paying out DB pensions where the sponsoring employer has gone bust. 

“The inflation protection you might receive varies depending on the period of time during which you built up the benefits. 

“In most cases payments relating to pensionable service from 6 April 1997 will rise in line with inflation each year, but subject to a cap of 2.5% a year. At current inflation rates that means PPF members will be experiencing real terms cuts in their benefits.”

d)    State pension

“Finally, your state pension should have gold-plated protection in the form of the triple-lock – a manifesto commitment to increase the payment in line with the highest of average earnings, inflation or 2.5%.

“However, a combination of the decision to scrap the earnings link for 2022/23 and the use of September’s 3.1% inflation figure to uprate this year means that, in reality, millions of pensioners will see their state pension spending power reduced over the next 12 months.

“It’s worth noting that only the basic and flat-rate state pension usually benefit from the triple-lock. 

“Other elements of the old state pension and pension credit are just linked to inflation, with the September 2021 rate again used.”

Tom Selby
Head of Retirement Policy

Tom Selby is a multi-award-winning former financial journalist, specialising in pensions and retirement issues. He spent almost six years at a leading adviser trade magazine, initially as Pensions Reporter before becoming Head of News in 2014. Tom joined AJ Bell as Senior Analyst in April 2016. He has a degree in Economics from Newcastle University.

Contact details

Mobile: 07702 858 234
Email: tom.selby@ajbell.co.uk

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