Cash ISAs vs Stocks & Shares ISAs: Which is best?

Every UK adult can put up to £20,000 into an ISA during the current 2022/23 tax year. If you've yet to use your full allowance you may be wondering whether it's best to go for a Cash ISA or a Stocks and Shares ISA.

In this article we're going to explain the differences between these two ISA types. Plus, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of each.

What is an ISA?

An ISA is a tax-free account.

Anything you save or invest in an ISA stays tax-free — not just for the current tax year, but for subsequent tax years too.

Cash or investments stashed in an ISA will only lose its tax-free status if you make a withdrawal from your account (though some ISAs are 'flexible' meaning you can replace what you take out within the same tax year without any consequences). More on this below...

What is the annual ISA allowance?

If you've savings worth more than £20,000 you won't be able to stick it all into an ISA in one go. That's because you're limited as to how much you can save in an ISA during any given tax year by the annual allowance.

The annual ISA allowance for the current 2022/23 tax year is £20,000 and its been at this level since 2016/17. While nothing has been announced for the 2023/24 tax year, which begins on 6 April, it's expected the allowance will stay at the current level.

Importantly, the annual ISA allowance covers all types of ISA. So, if you put £12,000 into a Cash ISA, the maximum you could put into a Stocks & Shares ISA during the same tax year would be £8,000. This is why it's always worth thinking carefully about maxing your annual ISA allowance. That's because if you don't use your annual allowance, you lose it. You can't carry over any unused portion of an ISA allowance to a new tax year.

A word on flexible ISAs... Most ISA aren't flexible. If you take money out of a non-flexible ISA, you won't be able to replace anything you withdraw within the same tax year. However, specialist 'flexible' ISAS do allow you to replace anything you withdraw without it impacting your annual ISA allowance. That's as long as you replace the money within the same tax year.

The future of the ISA allowance

It's worth knowing that the Government reserves the right to modify the ISA allowance at will. It could even scrap ISAs together if it wishes, though this is probably unlikely to happen in the near future. We shouldn't forget that ISAs were set up by the Government as an incentive for the public to save or invest. Because of this, the extra cash the Government would raise from stripping the tax advantages of ISAs probably wouldn't be worth the backlash from the financially astute.

What are the differences between a Cash ISA and a Stocks & Shares ISA?

The difference between a Cash ISA and a Stocks & Shares ISA is night and day. To discover why, here's a closer look at these contrasting ISA types...

Cash ISAs

A Cash ISA is simply a tax-free savings account. Anything you save into a cash ISA earns interest.

Like with normal savings accounts, there are a number of different types of Cash ISAs. There are easy-access cash ISAs where you can add and withdraw funds as often as you like. Interest rates are variable, so they can change at any time.

To earn a higher interest rate you can instead opt for a fixed cash ISA. This is where your interest rate is 'fixed' for a set period. Usually the longer the term, the higher the interest rate. While all fixed cash ISAs allow you to access your cash early, a hefty interest penalty often applies to the sum of money you take out before your fixed term has ended.

Right now the top rate ISA offering true 'easy-access' is from Cynergy Bank which pays 2.85% AER variable. Meanwhile, the top one-year fixed cash ISA is from Barclays which pays 4% AER fixed for one year. Both accounts can be opened with just £1.

Don't forget about the Personal Savings Allowance... If you don't like the look at these accounts then it's often possible to earn higher rates through normal savings accounts. While these account aren't entirely tax-free, unless you're an additional rate taxpayer, you'll still be able to earn £500-£1,000 tax-free interest every year thanks to the Personal Savings Allowance.

Stocks & Shares ISAs

A Stocks & Shares ISA is a tax-free investing account.

It almost goes without saying but investing a totally different beast from saving.

When it comes to investing, NOTHING is guaranteed and your capital is at risk. If you invest and things don't go according to plan, it's probable you'll see the value of your investments fall. When saving, this obviously cannot happen as you earn interest on your cash and, apart the impact of inflation, your capital is never at risk.

That said, if you invest for the long-haul, there's a fair chance returns earned through dividends and capital appreciation will dwarf average cash ISA returns. This is the reason why many ISA holders choose to invest rather than save.

Ofcourse, it's possible to have both a Cash ISA and a Stocks & Shares ISA. However if you're planning on contributing to both in the same tax year, do be mindful of the annual ISA limit. Remember, the limit applies to all types of ISA.

Are you interested in opening a stocks & shares ISA? Both Hargreaves Lansdown and AJ Bell offer tax-free investing accounts. Click the links to read our reviews of these platforms.

Cash ISAs vs Stocks & Shares ISAs: Which wins?

Whether you should open a Cash ISA or a Stocks & Shares ISA ultimately depends on your mindset and attitude to risk.

If you prefer the idea of earning a guaranteed rate of interest, then a fixed cash ISA is probably for you. However, if you're keen to save but highly value the freedom of being able to access your money, then an easy-access cash ISA would likely fit the bill.

If, however, you're happy to take a risk with your money and you're looking to chase above-inflation returns, then opening a Stocks & Shares ISA will probably give you the best chance. That's because no cash ISA pays anything close to the current rate of inflation right now.

Remember, investing is not black and white. Knowing what to invest in (stocks, bonds, commodities?) and how long to invest for is something you'll need to do your own homework on.

Disclaimer: ISA Tax treatment depends on your individual circumstances and may be subject to change in the future. This article does not constitute any form of tax advice. Readers are responsible for carrying out their own due diligence and for obtaining professional advice before making any investment decisions.