How much is your money earning inside your company pension plan?

If you change jobs, can you take your contributions with you?  Don’t know?  Don’t feel bad.  Most people are wildly ignorant about company pension plans.

But that’s your money working in the plan.  You owe it to yourself to find out what’s going on.  You can’t get a fix on your savings goals unless you know how your pension plan fits into the scheme.

Related: Time To Revisit Your Employer Sponsored Pension Plan

Here are five crucial questions to ask about your pension plan to determine how it stacks up:

Is my employer putting dollars into my pension plan in addition to my contributions?

Employers often match employees’ contributions dollar-for-dollar.  About 25% of pension plans are funded entirely by the employer.  If your employer doesn’t add any money, it’s a very bad plan indeed.

How soon will my employer’s contributions legally belong to me?

The correct term is “vesting”, meaning you have the right to the money your employer contributed.  The norm for vesting used to be up to 10 years, but legislation has changed it now to 2 years.

If you quit before the vesting period, you are entitled only to your own contributions (plus interest or other earnings), whereas if you wait until after the vesting period the employer’s contributions would be yours too.  Note that if you receive non-vested money, you will have to pay tax on the proceeds, or you have the option of depositing it to a regular RRSP to defer the tax.

Related: Should You Make RRSP Contributions If You Have A Pension?

Can I take the money in cash if I leave?

Usually contributions are “locked in” after 2 years of contributing to your company pension plan.  Then the money must stay in the plan to give you regular pension payments at retirement age or be transferred to a Locked in Retirement Account (LIRA).

Some are locked in sooner – good news for the compulsive spender who won’t be exposed to the temptation of taking the cash and blowing it.  For the saver it’s not that good.  Many pensions earn an interest rate that is no higher than a short term GIC!  Some plans allow you to choose from a variety of mutual funds.  Make sure you review it regularly.

How much can I expect to receive from my pension plan?

In the most common types of pension plan, the payment (including CPP) will probably equal from 1.4% to 2% of your average annual salary, multiplied by your years of service.

If that average salary is calculated on “final years”, count yourself fortunate.  The math will be based on your highest paid five years.  Many company pension plans use a “career average”, a sad case for the employee who put in a lot of years on the lower paid rungs that will drag down their average.

Related: Defined Contribution Plan

If my spouse reaches pensionable age, then dies, will his/her plan pay me anything?

The choice was probably made when the pension plan was originally set up.  In most plans, contracted payments are for the pensioners’ lifetime only.  For slightly lower payments (probably 50 – 70% of what the single benefit is) the payments can continue on to the spouse after death.

Pension documents are not the liveliest of reading material.  However, it is in your best interest to know what the contributions are, can you top them up, how they are invested, and how (and at what age) the money will be paid out.

Make changes now if necessary and if you are allowed to.  When you retire and start receiving less money than you expected, it will be too late.

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