What is superannuation?

What is superannuation?

Before you can prepare for retirement, you need to understand how to go about the process!

Australia's superannuation system helps people shift into their post-work years without coming under financial strain. While a savings account is good to have throughout your life, superannuation ensures dedicated retirement funds are locked away until you reach a certain age.

There are strict rules surrounding superannuation, not to mention many ways to grow your wealth. Here are some helpful tips to the system, which is colloquially referred to as super.

What is superannuation?

Preparing for retirement is not an overnight process. Instead, you'll need to grow your nest egg over a long period of time. 

If you're a salaried employee aged 18 years or older and earn $450 or more per month before tax, your employer is obliged to make super contributions on your behalf. At the time of writing, this amount is 9.5 percent of your salary and is paid by your employer into your selected super fund, however the proportion will increase over time.

You can also make payments yourself, to top up the employer contribution.

What is a super fund?

Your employer will need to make their contributions to a super fund on your behalf. 

In many cases, you get to elect which super fund you want to go for. In other instances, there may be an applicable employment award or a clause in your employment agreement that dictates a default fund, which you have to use. It's best to check with your employer if you're unsure.

You'll need to take your age into consideration when choosing a fund. If retirement is fast approaching, a conservative fund may be your best option — with less time on your side, you won't be able to weather short- to medium-term losses as well as someone who's younger.

By contrast, if you're fairly new to the workforce, a fund with a more aggressive investment strategy could be right for you. While there's potential for losses, you can generally ride these out over time and experience favourable growth overall.

How can I boost my superannuation?

While employer contributions will help build a healthy retirement fund, it's a smart idea to make extra contributions, where possible.

You can ask your employer to contribute additional money to your super from your salary, which is known as a salary sacrifice or concessional contribution. This is made before your salary is taxed. For many individuals, this is a favourable option, as the money is taxed at the concessional rate of 15 percent.

Alternatively, you can make non-concessional contributions. There is a limit to the level of such contributions, however. If you exceed it, there is a significant tax rate applied to subsequent amounts.

Finally, be sure to check how many super funds you have! If you've switched employers, you may have more than one super account, which could be sucking up precious money in extra fees.

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Learn more about superannuation

How do you open a superannuation account?

Opening a superannuation account is simple. When you start a job, your employer will give you what’s called a ‘superannuation standard choice form’. Here’s what you need to complete the form:

  • The name of your preferred superannuation fund
  • The fund’s address
  • The fund’s Australian business number (ABN)
  • The fund’s superannuation product identification number (SPIN)
  • The fund’s phone number
  • A letter from the fund trustee confirming that the fund is a complying fund; or written evidence from the fund stating it will accept contributions from your new employer; or details about how your employer can make contributions to the fund

You might want to provide your tax file number as well – while it’s not a legal obligation, it will ensure your contributions will be taxed at the (lower) superannuation rate.

What superannuation details do I give to my employer?

When you start a job, your employer will give you what’s called a ‘superannuation standard choice form’. Here’s what you need to complete the form:

  • The name of your preferred superannuation fund
  • The fund’s address
  • The fund’s Australian business number (ABN)
  • The fund’s superannuation product identification number (SPIN)
  • The fund’s phone number
  • A letter from the fund trustee confirming that the fund is a complying fund; or written evidence from the fund stating it will accept contributions from your new employer; or details about how your employer can make contributions to the fund

You should also provide your tax file number – while it’s not a legal obligation, it will ensure your contributions will be taxed at the (lower) superannuation rate.

Can I choose a superannuation fund or does my employer choose one for me?

Most people can choose their own superannuation fund. However, you might not have this option if you are a member of certain defined benefit funds or covered by certain industrial agreements. If you don’t choose a superannuation fund, your employer will choose one for you.

Can my employer use money from my superannuation account?

No, your employer can’t touch the money that is paid into your superannuation account.

What contributions can SMSFs accept?

SMSFs can accept mandated employer contributions from an employer at any time (Funds need an electronic service address to receive the contributions).

However, SMSFs can’t accept contributions from members who don’t have tax file numbers.

Also, they generally can’t accept assets as contributions from members and they generally can’t accept non-mandated contributions for members who are 75 or older.

Can I transfer money from overseas into my superannuation account?

Yes, you can transfer money from overseas into your superannuation account – under certain conditions. First, you must provide your tax file number to your fund. Second, if you are aged between 65 and 74, you must have worked at least 40 hours within 30 consecutive days in a financial year. (Australians under 65 aren’t subject to a work test; Australians aged 75 and over cannot receive contributions to their superannuation account.)

Money transferred from overseas will generally count to both your concessional contributions limit and your non-concessional contributions limit. You will have to pay income tax on the applicable fund earnings component of any money transferred from overseas. You might also be liable for excess contributions tax.

How much extra superannuation can I add to my fund?

There is an annual limit of $25,000 for concessional contributions – that is, money paid by your employer and extra money you pay into your account through salary sacrificing. There is also a limit on non-concessional contributions. Australians aged between 65 and 74 have a limit of $100,000 per year. Australians aged under 65 have a limit of $300,000 every three years.

Can I buy a house with my superannuation?

First home buyers are the only people who can use their superannuation to buy a property. The federal government has created the First Home Super Saver Scheme to help first home buyers save for a deposit. First home buyers can make voluntary contributions of up to $15,000 per year, and $30,000 in total, to their superannuation account. These contributions are taxed at 15 per cent, along with deemed earnings. Withdrawals are taxed at marginal tax rates minus a tax offset of 30 percentage points.

Voluntary contributions to the First Home Super Saver Scheme are not exempt from the $25,000 annual limit on concessional contributions. So if you pay $15,000 per year into the First Home Super Saver Scheme, you have to make sure that you don’t receive more than $10,000 in superannuation payments from your employer and any salary sacrificing.

How do I set up an SMSF?

Setting up an SMSF takes more work than registering with an ordinary superannuation fund. 

An SMSF is a type of trust, so if you want to create an SMSF, you first have to create a trust.

To create a trust, you will need trustees, who must sign a trustee declaration. You will also need identifiable beneficiaries and assets for the fund – although these can be as little as a few dollars.

You will also need to create a trust deed, which is a document that lays out the rules of your SMSF. The trust deed must be prepared by a qualified professional and signed by all trustees.

To qualify as an Australian superannuation fund, the SMSF must meet these three criteria:

  • The fund must be established in Australia – or at least one of its assets must be located in Australia
  • The central management and control of the fund must ordinarily be in Australia
  • The fund must have active members who are Australian residents and who hold at least 50 per cent of the fund’s assets – or it must have no active members

Once your SMSF is established and all trustees have signed a trustee declaration, you have 60 days to apply for an Australian Business Number (ABN).

When completing the ABN application, you should ask for a tax file number for your fund. You should also ask for the fund to be regulated by the Australian Taxation Office – otherwise it won’t receive tax concessions.

Your next step is to open a bank account in your fund’s name. This account must be kept separated from the accounts held by the trustees and any related employers.

Your SMSF will also need an electronic service address, so it can receive contributions.

Finally, you will need to create an investment strategy, which explains how your fund will invest its money, and an exit strategy, which explains how and why it would ever close.

Please note that you can pay an adviser to set up your SMSF. You might also want to take the Self-Managed Superannuation Fund Trustee Education Program, which is a free program that has been created by CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand.

What are concessional contributions?

Concessional contributions are pre-tax payments into your superannuation account. The payments made by your employer are concessional payments. You can also make concessional contributions with a salary sacrifice.

How do you set up superannuation?

Before you set up a superannuation account, you’ll need to check if you’re allowed to choose your own fund. Most Australians can, but this option doesn’t apply to some workers who are covered by industrial agreements or who are members of defined benefits funds.

Assuming you are able to choose your own fund, the next step should be research, because there are more than 200 different superannuation funds in Australia.

Once you’ve decided on your preferred superannuation fund, head to that provider’s website, where you should be able to fill in an online application or download the appropriate forms. You’ll need your tax file number (assuming you don’t want to be charged a higher tax rate), your contact details and your employer’s details (if you’re employed).

How do I change my superannuation fund?

Changing superannuation funds is a common and straightforward process. You can do it through your MyGov account or by filling out a rollover form and sending it to your new fund. You’ll also have to provide proof of identity.

How much superannuation should I have?

The amount of superannuation you need to have at retirement is based on how much money you would expect to spend each week during your retirement. That, in turn, depends on whether you expect to lead a modest retirement or a comfortable retirement.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) estimates you would need the following amount per week:

Lifestyle Singles Couples
Modest $465 $668
Comfortable $837 $1,150

Here is the superannuation balance you would need to fund that level of spending:

Lifestyle Singles Couples
Modest $50,000 $35,000
Comfortable $545,000 $640,000

These figures come from the March 2017 edition of the ASFA Retirement Standard.

The reason people on modest lifestyles need so much less money is because they qualify for a far bigger age pension.

Here is how ASFA defines retirement lifestyles:

Category Comfortable Modest Age pension
Holidays One annual holiday in Australia One or two short breaks in Australia near where you live Shorter breaks or day trips in your own city
Eating out Regularly eat out at restaurants. Good range and quality of food Infrequently eat out at restaurants. Cheaper and less food Only club special meals or inexpensive takeaway
Car Owning a reasonable car Owning an older, less reliable car No car – or, if you do, a struggle to afford the upkeep
Alcohol Bottled wine Casked wine Homebrew beer or no alcohol
Clothing Good clothes Reasonable clothes Basic clothes
Hair Regular haircuts at a good hairdresser Regular haircuts at a basic salon Less frequent haircuts or getting a friend to do it
Leisure A range of regular leisure activities One paid leisure activity, infrequently Free or low-cost leisure activities
Electronics A range of electronic equipment Not much scope to run an air conditioner Less heating in winter
Maintenance Replace kitchen and bathroom over 20 years No budget for home improvements. Can do repairs, but can’t replace kitchen or bathroom No budget to fix home problems like a leaky roof
Insurance Private health insurance Private health insurance No private health insurance

How do you claim superannuation?

There are three different ways you can claim your superannuation:

  • Lump sum
  • Account-based pension
  • Part lump sum and part account-based pension

Two rules apply if you choose to receive an account-based pension, or income stream:

  • You must receive payments at least once per year
  • You must withdraw a minimum amount per year
    • Age 55-64 = 4%
    • Age 65-74 = 5%
    • Age 75-79 = 6%
    • Age 80-84 = 7%
    • Age 85-89 = 9%
    • Age 90-94 = 11%
    • Age 95+ = 14%

If you want to work out how long your account-based pension might last, click here to access ASIC’s account-based pension calculator.