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Invest in a tax-free ISA

Updated on August 4, 2014

ISAs: Individual Savings Accounts

In the UK Individual Savings Accounts or ISAs are little more than an official tax-wrapper into which other investments may be hidden from the tax-man, but they are a useful way to reduce tax. This article is about the advantages and disadvantages of ISAs, what can be invested in them and the alternatives.

The rules for ISA (Individual Savings Accounts) have changed recently, so here is a review of this valuable tax-avoidance scheme for investments ranging from lower risk cash, gilts/government bonds, corporate bonds to commodities, gold, silver and mining companies, blue-chip stocks and smaller company shares or high-yield "junk" bonds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). The tax treatment varies depending on the type of investment.

This article covers the pros and cons of ISAs, tax advantages over other types of investment, such as personal pensions, SIPPs or standard stock-broker accounts or cash in the bank. What is the best investment to put in your ISA?

After George Osborne's 2014 UK Emergency Budget ISAs look set to remain for some time to come. The annual limit was dramatically increased to £15,000, with no restriction on how much is held in cash (The allowance was just £10,680 in 2011/12 and £11,280 in 2012/13 with a maximum of just half in a Cash ISA).

Disclaimer: Information in this and other linked articles is unregulated and for general information only and is not intended to be relied upon in making specific investment decisions. Appropriate independent advice should be obtained before making any such decision.

What is an ISA?

ISAs are little more than an official tax-wrapper into which other investments may be hidden from the tax-man. Each tax year every adult has an allowance of £15,000 (increased a lot from just £7,000 when launched) and cash, shares, unit-trusts and investment trusts may be held inside this tax wrapper. Cash was treated differently to other investments in that there is a maximum of just half the total, although that restriction was dropped in the 2014 Budget and money can now be moved freely between equities, funds, unit trusts etc. and cash

What has Changed since the 2008/2009 tax year?

Apart from the increase in allowance from £7,000 to ã7,200 then £10,200 and now £15,000 in 2014 (and ã3,000 to £3,600 then £5,100 for the cash ISA - now with no restriction from 2014) the other changes are that now any money held in a cash ISA may be transferred to the equity part of the ISA at any stage in the future or vice versa. Previously ISAs were far more complicated and you had to either opt for, up to £7,000 in a "Maxi" Equity ISA, or up to £3,000 into a Mini Cash ISA and up to £4,000 in a Mini Equity ISA and then you were stuck with that forever (although Cash ISAs from previous years may also be transferred now) There was a catch however: You could not move the money back to a Cash ISA at a later stage, although now even that restriction has been dropped. Overall ISAs are now simpler and far more useful.

Are they really tax free?

No, Equity ISAs are not completely tax-free, but they are better than almost anything else on the market. Cash ISAs are completely tax-free, in that all interest is paid gross, although you have to check the rates are competitive, because you probably don't want to keep moving your money. The Equity part of the ISA is more complicated in that payments from bond funds (corporate bonds or gilts) are classed and interest and therefore tax-free, whereas true equity investments (share funds: investment trusts; OIECs and unit-trusts) no longer have the dividend tax credit refunded, so tax on company dividends, which are taxed at source, cannot be reclaimed by the ISA to make them truly tax-free (this is complicated and not understood buy most, so Gordon Brown removed this in one of his many "stealth" taxes) This is effectively a 10% tax on dividends.

ISAs are capital gains tax (CGT) free, although there is a personal allowance for CGT of £9,600 for 2008/2009 which means there is no tax advantage unless you are a 40% tax payer, or you are going to make a significant capital-gain.

Why bother investing in an ISA?

The cash ISA makes a lot of sense for most people, especially those paying 40% tax, as long as you can get a good rate of interest, as there is no tax on interest. The reason to bother with an Equity ISA, is in time, you really could be hitting the CGT allowance, if you keep trickling money in over many years and don't dip into the fund. You also won't have to worry about declaring gains or dividends and of course, if you do pay 40%, it makes a huge difference, because an additional dividend tax would otherwise need to be paid. If you don't use your annual allowance, you will lose it and in general it is no more expensive to hold investments inside the ISA than outside. Investing in corporate or government bonds is still tax-free inside an ISA and also makes a lot of sense for everyone (they are generally safer than shares, but over the long term tend to pay out less)

What can I invest in my ISA?

What can I invest in?

You can invest in unit-trusts, investment trusts or individual shares. Investment trusts are my favourite equity investment. I have also reviewed these here, but they are shares in investment companies and generally have lower charges and better performance than unit trusts, which are often recommended by advisors (investment trusts do not pay commission to advisors, so they are unlikely to recommend them) There are hundreds of investment trusts and thousands of unit-trusts to choose from, ranging from UK larger companies or low-risk bonds to emerging markets and Japanese smaller companies, gold, mining and commodities. If buying unit-trusts for your ISA it is best to buy the ISA from a "fund supermarket" or discount broker, who will return most of their commission in the form of a discount (e.g. or Hargreaves Lansdown) Individual shares are riskier and should be treated with care. It can also be expensive in charges to build up a diversified portfolio of individual shares.

What are the alternatives to an ISA?

For people with large sums of money willing to take a lot of risk there are EIS and VCT schemes (Enterprise Investment Schemes or Venture Capital Trusts) which allow reduction in capital gains tax liability and other tax advantages, in exchange for investing in start-up businesses, but there are a few alternatives for the ordinary investor too. National Savings and Investments (NS and I) have a few tax-free products: Premium bonds, reviewed by me in the past, which are tax free, but with fairly low return; Fixed Interest Savings Certificates, which pay out a fixed but low, tax-free rate for three or five years and Index Linked Saving Certificates, which at the moment look rather good, paying 1% plus RPI inflation rate (currently heading up towards 5%) tax free. All NS and I products are completely backed by the government. The Savings Certificates have a limit of £15,000 per issue of which there may be two 3-year and two 5-year certificates per year and they can be rolled over at the end of the period, so theoretically you could invest £60,000 tax free per year, in index-linked certificates (not a lot of people know that)

Another alternative to the ISA is the Personal Pension which have the tax advantage that income tax at your marginal rate, is refunded (20% rebate for everyone and the remainder claimed back through the tax return for higher-rate tax payers) Dividends inside a pension are taxed at 10% as with ISAs and Pension income is taxed at a later date when you take your pension, whereas ISAs are not. You can take a tax-free lump-sum at retirement of 25% of the fund, but you cannot take any money out at any stage until then (and there is no guarantee that the government won't change the minimum age - currently 55, increased recently from 50)

Are ISAs recommended.

I certainly think these are a good idea. Probably the best deal you can get for equities and definitely for bonds. Equity investment is risky, but no more risky in an ISA than outside. As for cash, I prefer to use NS and I index-link savings certificates at the moment, although this is more restrictive, but for most people Cash ISAs are an extremely good deal too.

Summary: One of the best tax schemes available at the moment

Alternatively buy gold and hide it under the bed

Gold sovereigns are capital gains tax free in the U.K. but usually cost a bit more over the value of the gold when compared to other coins such as Eagles or Krugerands. Coins are generally easier to authenticate and sell, than gold bars.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      How can I make sure Iâm getting the best rate on my Cash ISA?

    • Andy-Po profile image

      Andy 7 years ago from London, England

      Foreign and Colonial (F&C or FandC) have written to me to tell me that the Pacific Assets Trust Plc Investment Trust is no longer eligible to be kept in my F&C ISA, it is must be sold, transferred to another F&C Investment Trust or transferred to an ISA held with Alliance Trust. I hate it when I am forced to sell, especially at a random date, which could hit a bad day in the markets etc. so I would like to keep the Pacific Assets IT shares until I am ready to sell.

      I have two options: Transfer the Pacific Assets Trust Plc Investment Trust shares to Alliance Trust for free, in which case timing is not important. I simply need to get a share transfer form from Alliance Trust web-site and set up an ISA account. I don't really want an Alliance Trust ISA account though - I would rather transfer to Interactive Investor or SelfTrade but to do this F&C will charge a huge fee of £58.75 transfer out fee. The Foreign and Colonial Individual Savings Account is generally a good low-cost account, with very reasonable annual management charges both for the funds and for the ISA itself, but this seems rather excessive. Another option is to transfer to Alliance Trust ISA for free then transfer out from there for just £15, but that seems like a lot of effort. I suppose I shall have to opt for the transfer fee, or hope the Pacific Assets Trust Plc Investment Trust shares rally in the next few weeks so I can sell them at a decent price.

      The deadline for the transfer is 30th September 2010.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Well I fear it is too late for me to invest my money -- should have pulled it out of that 401k fund that has lost it over 40%! Makes me ill to think about it -- so I won't be thinking about it now.

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 8 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Great timing!

    • SylvianeNuccio1 profile image

      SylvianeNuccio1 9 years ago

      Very up-to-date subject here!

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      I believe metals & commodities is the way to go. I have a saying about investments, "Bulllets, bandaids, and boulions." I'm firm on that! *****