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Stop saying ‘default fund’ for pensions and investment

‘Default’ is a terrible word to use when talking about funds. Here are some better alternatives.

Most ordinary people associate the word ‘default’ with negative ideas like ‘failure’. So perhaps pension schemes should stop describing the place most members’ money is invested in as ‘the default fund’.

Default makes people think bad thoughts

Words do not live in isolation in your mind. They are connected with other words. They remind you of other things – they resonate. Look at what says are top words and phrases that have a ‘meaningful relationship’ with the word default:

If that’s not enough to make you doubt the word’s efficacy as a fund name, here are the first 5 definitions of it from a dictionary:


  1. loss due to not showing up; “he lost the game by default”
  2. act of failing to meet a financial obligation
  3. loss resulting from failure of a debt to be paid
  4. an option that is selected automatically unless an alternative is specified


  1. fail to pay up

What do we mean by default?

4 of the 5 definitions above are about loss and failure.

3 are specifically about financial failure.

These are not the sort of ideas you want to bandy around in financial services, without good reason. And particularly not when what you are actually talking about is something that is supposed to reassure people. The default fund is the one the experts have designed to be fine for most people. It’s an appropriate place for your money unless for some reason you decide to put it somewhere else. For many or most savers it’s a good choice that should be encouraged.

Words we could use instead of ‘default’

So what are the alternatives to this most inappropriate of words? We’ve had a think, and gathered the views of others too.

If you want to suggest that the default is what most people have, you might go for standard, ordinary or even classic. Automatic feels neutral but has the advantage of hinting at how the fund works – you automatically join it if you don’t choose something else.

Robin Armer at Nest suggests ‘primary’ or ‘principal’ as sounding more positive. Perhaps ‘central’ implies the right level of security and popularity.

Pensions analyst Alan Chaplin at Just Group suggests ‘main’, ‘usual’, ‘normal’ or ‘the fund we believe is best for most people’.

Independent director and adviser Daniel Godfrey suggests ‘primary selection’ or ‘general option’.

Professional trustee Andrew Cheseldine of Capital Cranfield suggests ‘automatic fund choice’ or ‘optimum’ (although he suspects the lawyers wouldn’t like that).

At a conference I was at, Ros Altmann railed against the phrase ‘default’. She suggested ‘expert choice’, which I do like, and, half-jokingly, ‘specially designed for you’.

How to pair our word with self-select funds

If the alternative to the default fund is a phrase like ‘self-select’, perhaps our new word should work as a pair with that. ‘Expert-select’?

If we are going for a matched pair, we could make that pair a metaphor that helps people get it, for example ‘set menu’ and ‘à la carte’, or ‘automatic’ and ‘manual’. Or would it be more useful to rename both halves of this pair?

The ITV DC Plan says ‘hands on’ and ‘hands off’, though is changing these to ‘guided’ and ‘customised’. Or should we drop the metaphor and go for the ‘what it says on the tin’ approach? For example, ‘we invest it for you’ and ‘you invest it yourself’.

Personally, I might be edging towards ‘automatic’ and ‘manual’ as a good metaphor on the journey to retirement.

Some people have pointed out that the default fund is often not really a fund but a strategy, that moves between funds over time. Either way, if the word we have is an adjective it should be good for most situations: ‘primary fund’ or ‘primary strategy’ or ‘primary approach’, for example.

A friendly lawyer tells me there seems to be no reason that we have to call these funds ‘default’ – it’s just happened because that’s what they’re called in the legislation. One complication is that default funds can be the thing people get if they don’t choose OR the thing that at least 80% of people choose. So ideas like ‘automatic’ might not work so well in this second case.

What do you think?