75% of Moneywise readers to top up their Isa this year

Isa coins

Almost three-quarters of Moneywise readers plan to use this year's Isa allowance, according to our latest web poll.

Nearly half say they will invest this year's full allowance – £11,520 for a stocks and shares Isa, £5,760 in a cash one – while 25% said they'd be using up at least some of their allowance.

Of the 29% of readers who said they would not be saving money into an Isa this year, 23% said they simply didn't have any spare cash lying round to do so.

Meanwhile 6% said they didn't know how to use their Isa allowance. With just a month to go for using up this year's limit, for anyone not quite sure about how Isas work or not aware of the advantages of saving into one, here's a quick Q&A to teach you the basics.

1. What is an Isa and who is eligible?

An Isa is a tax-efficient 'wrapper' in which you can hold cash or stocks and shares, and they make a great starting point for your savings because any interest earned on cash and any capital gains made on investments within these accounts are tax-free.

Higher-rate taxpayers also get income tax benefits from investing in a stocks and shares ISA. This is because they don't have to pay tax on any dividends they earn from this type of Isa. If they haven't got an Isa wrapper they'd have to pay 32.5% dividend tax, bar the initial 10% tax deducted.

Basic-rate taxpayers, however, pay the same 10% rate in or out of an ISA. If you want to open a stocks and shares Isa you have to be aged 18 or over, whereas you can open a cash Isa when you turn 16. You also have to be resident in the UK for tax purposes, and you cannot hold an Isa jointly with, or on behalf of, anyone else.

Find the best cash Isa or savings account for you

2: What are the yearly limits for Isas?

Each of us has an Isa allowance every tax year, but if you don't use it before 5 April each tax year, you will lose it. For this tax year (2013/14), you can set aside up to £11,520, of which half (£5,760) can be held in a cash ISA.

The full limit for each tax year can be placed in stocks and shares, but not wholly in cash.

3: What types of different Isas are there?

There are two different types of Isa - cash, and stocks and shares.

A cash Isa is basically a bank or building society savings account, with the difference that it enables you to earn interest tax-free. There are several types of cash Isas available, including instant-access, fixed-rate and regular savings accounts, and which is right for you will depend on your circumstances.

An instant-access Isa enables you to put your money away, safe in the knowledge that you can withdraw it at any time should you need it.

Meanwhile, if you have a medium-term goal for your money, then a fixed-rate cash Isa is an option. Using this route, you'll tie up your savings for, say, between one and five years - but in return you'll benefit from a higher rate of interest.

The second type of Isa is a stocks and shares Isa, also known as an equity Isa. It can hold a range of funds, individual stocks and shares, as well as government and corporate bonds.

This type of Isa carries more risk because your return isn't guaranteed, and you may even lose money. However, the advantage is that you may receive higher returns over time by taking a greater risk.

Find the best investment Isa

4: What kind of Isa is suitable for me?

This will depend on your attitude to risk and timescale. For example, if you're using the money as a 'rainy-day fund' that you may need instant access to, an easy access Isa may be best.

However, if it's purely saving towards retirement, or a long-term goal, stocks and shares may prove more attractive for potentially greater returns.

5: My rate had dropped, can I transfer to another Isa?

Many Isa accounts will accept 'transfers in', which means you can move your money without losing the tax break.

But, beware, if you close your existing Isa without using a transfer and then look to move the money into another account you will lose this tax break and the money will count towards this year's allowance.

While you can't switch from stocks and shares to cash - unless you close the account and lose the tax break – you can move money from a cash Isa into a stocks and shares Isa.

6: Can Isas form part of my pension planning?

It's sensible to create a diversified portfolio to save towards retirement. This can include pensions and other tax-efficient investments such as Isas. With both cash and shares Isas, you can get at your money as and when you want, unlike pensions.