If the world were a bit more normal right now we’d be seeing ISA ads all over train station billboards, black taxis, buses and tubes. If it moves around this time of year, it’s probably screaming ISA at you.
But even with all that advertising, what a lot of the financial industry fails to do is actually explain the full extent of what those three letters represent.
If ISAs don’t feel accessible, because their benefits aren’t immediately clear, it means we’re less likely to engage with them and find out if they’re a good fit for us, let alone chart a course to become an ISA millionaire.
But even worse than that, the knowledge gap can end up being filled by half-understandings and just plain wrong information.
So, let’s clear up 15 of the most common ISA myths that have sprung up, and replace them with what you need to know instead.
1. You need a lot of money to get started
You can open a stocks and shares ISA (Individual Savings Account - there’s a misunderstood acronym cleared up already) with as little as £2 on Freetrade.
Everyone has a £20,000 allowance each tax year but there’s nothing to say you have to hit that upper limit. Some people will, some won’t, and it’ll reset come the next tax year.
The current tax year ends on 5 April 2021, with the 2021/22 tax year starting on 6 April.
You can find more information in our full guide to individual savings accounts.
2. ISAs are just for cash savings
You can opt for a cash ISA, normally offered by banks and building societies but ISAs aren’t just for cash. There are four flavours of ISA:
- cash ISAs
- stocks and shares ISAs
- innovative finance ISAs
- Lifetime ISAs
Another misunderstanding along this line is that you can only have one ISA each tax year. You can put money into one of each kind each tax year, as long as you don’t go over your £20,000 allowance overall.
For example, if you had opened a stocks and shares ISA with a provider in the current tax year you couldn’t then open a second one with another firm in the same tax year.
3. Opening an ISA is complicated
It’s really not. Just keep your national insurance number handy and the rest should be relatively straightforward.
Before you click anything though, here’s a bit more information on who can open an ISA.
You have to be:
- 16 or over for a cash ISA
- 18 or over for a stocks and shares or innovative finance ISA
- 18 or over but under 40 for a Lifetime ISA
And you also have to be either:
- A UK resident
- a Crown servant (working overseas in the civil service, for example) or their spouse/civil partner if you do not live in the UK
You can’t open or hold an ISA on behalf of someone else.
4. The best time to open an ISA is at the end of the tax year
It’s probably when you’ll hear most about ISAs because the 5 April deadline is looming but it’s not necessarily the best time to open one.
Despite how many people leave it to the last second to open their ISA, or squeeze in their last contributions to make the most of their allowance, you can open an ISA at any time.
If you’re planning on contributing to an ISA regularly, maybe monthly right after you get paid, it could be a good idea to start your account sooner in the tax year rather than later. It’ll give you more time to make your savings and investments tax efficient, and is especially relevant if you think you might get near the £20,000 allowance.
The last thing you want is to not use your allowance in a way that suits you just by being a bit disorganised.
5. Stocks and shares ISAs are for seasoned investors
There’s something of a mental barrier behind this myth. Investing can conjure of images of old city traders but the reality is that we can all get involved in taking control of our financial futures, with help from a stocks and shares ISA.
In fact, stocks and shares ISAs can be particularly helpful the longer you leave them. If your investments begin to grow over time, the benefit of being able to hang onto those gains and not have them liable for capital gains tax grows too.
Whether you’re maxing out your allowance every year or just contributing smaller sums over the years, there’s no need to put on your red braces and Savile Row suit to get started.
It might be worth looking at which providers are set up to help new investors as well as old hands when you’re on a mission to choose the best trading app.
6. An ISA won’t help me, I don’t pay tax on my savings anyway
We’ve touched on this above but it’s worth laying out what purpose ISAs serve in helping us take responsibility for our own financial futures.
While a lot of us stockpile cash in general savings accounts, record low interest rates have meant the benefit of doing so has faded quite a lot in recent years.
If you are using a cash savings account, chances are you won’t pay tax on any interest you get because there just won’t be very much.
This low rate environment has made a lot of people ask themselves where else they can put their money and get a return on it rather than just gather dust.
The move from cash account to cash ISA might be an initial thought but even then rates there are in and around 1% currently.
For those making the step from cash into investing, there has to be an acknowledgement that risk becomes a factor. And where people are ready to accept the risks that come with the stock market, they could begin to invest outside of an ISA.
But what if your gains exceed the £12,300 capital gains tax (CGT) allowance? You’ll be liable for tax on those gains above the threshold.
Stocks and shares ISAs offer a way to invest in the knowledge that any gains you make won’t be liable for CGT.
So, you might not be currently paying tax on any savings or investments but if there is the possibility that you might have to in future it’s worth considering how to make your money tax efficient now.
And if the goal of long-term investing is to build up the snowball effect of compound interest over time, the last thing you’ll want is to penalise your gains later on because you chose a different account to begin with.
If you want to know more about it, have a read on paying tax on investments in the UK.
7. If I get a stocks and shares ISA I’ll have to do a tax return
Tax seems to be a word that strikes fear into savers and investors, or just turns us off completely. But if that’s a reason you’re unsure of ISAs, remember the goal here is to be tax-efficient.
That means not getting involved in any tax calculations later on because your gains inside a stocks and shares ISA won’t attract CGT.
There is no explicit need to fill in a tax return either when you open a stocks and shares ISA.
8. You have no control over what you invest in within your stocks and shares ISA
It’s never been easier to decide exactly what goes into your stocks and shares ISA. There are a range of options, including UK and US stocks and shares, ETFs and investment trusts to pore over and use for portfolio diversification.
Where the latter two are concerned, it might be that the companies or weightings change in the portfolios through natural market movements or because the portfolio manager (more commonly in trusts) has bought or sold a holding.
But even in that case, you’ll still be able to see at least the top 10 names in their trust on the fund factsheet.
In short, it’s not the opaque industry many people believe and you can select the assets to fit your own goals, risk tolerance and time horizon.
9. ISAs are a better way to save for your retirement than pensions
Workplace pensions and self-invested personal pensions (SIPPs) benefit from tax relief, as well as a host of other unique characteristics that don’t apply to other accounts.
And while ISAs and pensions are both tax efficient in their own ways, ultimately how you plan to use them can be the key differentiator in which is a better choice for you.
You can currently only access your pension savings and investments from the age of 55. So, if you have goals that require money before then, and you want to invest tax efficiently, a stocks and shares ISA could come in handy.
Where the two can complement each other is if you plan to retire before you can access your pension. ISAs could help bridge the gap between your working life and your retirement savings kicking in.
In general though, most people will use pensions to build up their investments for their third age, and use ISAs for savings goals before then. As we’ve seen though, it doesn’t have to be a case of ISA or SIPP, both can work together.
10. Once investments in your ISA hit the annual allowance you start paying tax
This one blurs a couple of concepts around ISAs so let’s separate them.
Your £20,000 allowance refers to how much you are allowed to put into your ISA each tax year. It has no bearing on tax thresholds, it’s just the upper limit to the amount of cash you can add to your account from April to April.
The second part here risks missing the point of stocks and shares ISAs entirely. They offer a way to invest so that you can keep your gains instead of worrying about exceeding the £12,300 CGT limit and doing all the maths about any tax you might have to pay.
The fact is that we don’t know how our investments are going to perform. ISAs allow us to acknowledge that and accept that, whatever happens, CGT won’t come into the equation.
11. ISAs are risky
It’s not the ISA itself that carries risk, it’s the stocks and shares you put inside it.
Think of a stocks and shares ISA like a sweet wrapper. All it does is house the sweet, it has no taste of its own.
That’s why you’ll often hear it referred to as a ‘tax wrapper’. It’s up to you what you want to put inside.
You get to select the assets and determine your own level of risk. If you’ve never done that before or would like a refresher, have a look at our beginner’s guide to investing in the stock market.
12. You need to decide where to invest straight away
You don’t. The good thing about being able to hold cash in a stocks and shares ISA is that you can add money while you are deciding on what to invest in, as well as after you’ve sold one asset and want a bit of time to look at what to do next.
This aspect can be useful at the end of the tax year, if you know you want to secure your allowance but haven’t decided what to invest in yet.
Be careful though, cash drag is a real thing and ultimately, stocks and shares ISAs are for investing, not for hoarding cash.
13. You can’t take your money out
There may be different types of accounts with lock-in periods or terms that penalise savers for taking money out early.
Thankfully, stocks and shares ISAs don’t carry these rules. You are free to buy and sell assets in your ISA, and withdraw your money when you need the money.
It should be said though, good investing is about letting time do the work. Having a long-term view from the beginning is a key part of developing strong investment principles.
14. You can’t take money out and pay it back in
This can be a tricky one because individual ISA providers will approach this differently.
Some providers offer flexible stocks and shares ISAs. This means you can deposit and withdraw money in the same tax year and your allowance will be adjusted accordingly.
It is worth noting this often applies to any cash you’ve added but haven’t actually invested.
Other ISAs are not flexible. This means any money you deposit contributes to your allowance. Take money out and your allowance will not be adjusted accordingly.
As an example of the difference between the two, imagine you have an allowance of £20,000.
You deposit £20,000 in cash and then decide you only want to invest £10,000, so you withdraw £10,000.
In a flexible ISA that will mean you still have an allowance of £10,000.
But if your ISA is not flexible then the £20,000 deposit will mean you’ve used all of your allowance for the tax year.
If in doubt, check with your provider before you take action.
15. You need to keep your ISA in the same place forever
If you’ve spotted another ISA provider with a range of investments or cost that suits you better you can transfer an ISA over to them. It might be that you’ve opted to calculate your annual ISA fees and are looking for a better option elsewhere.
You can move your existing ISA to another provider or change your existing ISA to another type with the same provider. For example, you could move a stocks and shares ISA from your bank to a stockbroker. The account type remains the same but the provider has changed.
Alternatively you could transfer from a cash ISA into a stocks and shares ISA. You could do this with the same provider or move to a different one.
An ISA transfer should be handled by the provider you’re moving to, so check with them to see how you can start the process.
The first thing to be aware of is a possible exit fee. This a fee you may have to pay for moving your ISA from one provider to another. It will be charged to you by your existing provider.
Make sure you know if you’ll have to pay one before you do anything.
The actual ISA transfer process can take two routes:
- 'In specie' transfers
This type of ISA transfer will keep your existing investment portfolio intact and move it to another company.
So if you were wondering, “Can I transfer shares into an ISA from another ISA?”, the answer is ‘yes’, if you do an ‘in specie’ transfer.
In specie transfers can take around six to eight weeks, whereas cash transfers usually take about four weeks. You can check with either provider for more information on how to transfer an ISA.
- Cash transfers
This is where your existing holdings are sold and the resulting cash is transferred to an ISA with another provider. You might already be holding cash in a cash ISA.
Cash transfers are generally faster than in specie transfers.
Important information on ISAs and SIPPs
SIPPs are a pension product designed for people who want to make their own investment decisions. You can normally only access the money from age 55 (potentially 57 from 2028). Current rules can change, and tax relief depends on your personal circumstances.
Before transferring an ISA or pension you should ensure that this is the right thing for you to do and in particular you will not lose valuable guarantees or incur excessive transfer penalties.
Pensions are usually transferred as cash so you will be out of the market for a period and therefore there is a risk you may lose out on investment gains during this period.
Freetrade does not currently offer drawdown products for our SIPP.