Chapter 6: Understanding Pension Plans


Pension plans, also known as defined benefit plans, were once the cornerstone of retirement planning for many workers. Although less common today, they still play a crucial role for many retirees. Pension plans promise a specified monthly benefit at retirement, typically based on factors like your salary, age, and years of service.

Understanding how your pension plan works can help you make informed decisions about your retirement planning. In this chapter, we’ll explain the key features of pension plans and provide you with the knowledge to maximize your benefits.

How Pension Plans Work

At its core, a pension plan is a type of retirement plan where an employer promises a specified monthly benefit upon retirement. This monthly benefit is typically a function of factors such as the employee’s salary, years of service, and age.

The employer contributes to the pension fund on behalf of the employee and assumes the investment risk. This is a key difference between pension plans and defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, where the employee assumes the investment risk.

Upon retirement, the employee begins receiving the promised monthly benefit, which continues for the rest of their life. Some pension plans offer different payout options, such as a lump sum or a benefit that continues for a spouse after the retiree’s death.

Types of Pension Plans

Pension plans can broadly be divided into two categories: final salary (or defined benefit) plans and money purchase (or defined contribution) plans.

Final Salary Plans: In a final salary plan, the retirement income is determined by your salary at the time of retirement and the number of years you’ve been in the scheme. For example, a plan might offer to pay 1/60th of your final salary for each year you’ve been in the plan. So, if your final salary was $60,000 and you’d been in the plan for 30 years, you’d receive half of your final salary ($30,000) per year in retirement.

Money Purchase Plans: In a money purchase plan, the retirement income depends on the total amount of contributions made by you and/or your employer, as well as the investment growth those contributions have earned over time. The accumulated fund is then used to purchase an annuity or drawdown product to provide a regular income during retirement.

Let’s visualize the difference between these two types of plans using a table:

Final Salary PlanMoney Purchase Plan
Benefit DeterminationBased on final salary and years of serviceBased on total contributions and investment growth
Investment RiskEmployer assumes riskEmployee assumes risk
Retirement IncomeFixed, based on formulaDepends on size of fund and annuity rates

Now that we’ve covered the different types of pension plans, let’s move onto vesting schedules, an important aspect that determines when you’re entitled to your pension benefits.

Understanding Vesting Schedules

The term “vesting” refers to the amount of time you must work for your employer before you are entitled to your pension benefits. If you leave the company before you’re fully vested, you might lose some or all of the benefits that your employer contributed on your behalf.

Vesting schedules vary by plan. Some plans use “cliff vesting,” where you’re not vested at all for a certain number of years, then become 100% vested all at once. Others use “graded vesting,” where you gradually vest over time.

To illustrate, let’s consider a typical graded vesting schedule:

Years of ServiceVested Percentage
Less than 20%
6 or more100%

Under this schedule, if you left the company after 4 years, you’d be entitled to 60% of the pension benefits your employer contributed on your behalf.

It’s important to understand your plan’s vesting schedule, as it can significantly impact your retirement benefits. Be sure to read your plan’s summary plan description or consult your HR department for details.

Payout Options for Pension Plans

Upon reaching retirement, there are typically a few options for how you receive the benefits from your pension plan. Here are the most common payout options:

  1. Lump-Sum Payment: This option allows you to take all of your pension benefits at once. While it provides immediate access to your funds, it also places the responsibility of managing that money on your shoulders. Taking a lump-sum payment could also push you into a higher tax bracket for the year.
  2. Single Life Annuity: Under this option, you’ll receive a fixed monthly payment for the rest of your life. However, the payments stop upon your death, even if your spouse or dependents survive you.
  3. Joint and Survivor Annuity: This option provides a fixed monthly payment for the rest of your life and continues (often at a reduced rate) for the lifetime of a designated survivor, typically your spouse, after you pass away.
  4. Period Certain Annuity: You receive a fixed monthly payment for a specified period (e.g., 10, 15, or 20 years). If you pass away before the period ends, the payments continue to your beneficiary until the end of the period.

The right choice depends on various factors, such as your health, life expectancy, financial needs, and whether you have dependents. Therefore, it’s crucial to take the time to understand each option and potentially seek advice from a financial advisor.

We’ve now covered the fundamentals of pension plans, from understanding different types to comprehending vesting schedules and payout options. These insights equip you with the knowledge to make informed decisions about your pension benefits and how they fit into your overall retirement strategy. In the next chapter, we will explore other types of employer-sponsored retirement plans, expanding your understanding of the choices available to you and how to make the most of them. Stay tuned!


  • Lily Kensington

    Lily Kensington is a financial psychologist, a proud member of the ANZA Psychological Society, and a passionate advocate for financial wellness. A former high school English teacher and psychology graduate, Lily brings a unique perspective to her writing that blends the intricacies of psychology with the world of finance.Over the past decade, Lily has dedicated her life to helping individuals and couples navigate their emotional relationship with money. Her empathetic and intuitive approach, honed through her counselling practice, breaks down complex financial concepts into relatable and practical advice. Lily's writing often reflects her personal journey as a single mother, providing valuable insights and support for fellow single parents navigating the world of personal finance.In addition to her numerous contributions to wellness and personal development blogs, Lily is the author of the book "The Heart of Money: A Psychological Guide to Financial Wellness."In front of the camera or behind the pen, Lily's mission remains the same: to help others achieve financial peace by understanding the psychology of money.

    View all posts