A beginner's guide to self-managed super

  • Most people use super funds operated by someone else, but you can do it yourself by setting up a self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF).
  • Running your own SMSF is much more complex than being a member of a regular super fund.
  • SMSFs have a range of special rules and requirements. You can handle these yourself, or you can work with a financial adviser, accountant or specialist SMSF administrator.
  • Your SMSF is just a structure for how you want to organise your super. You still have to get the investments working properly to achieve good investment returns.

In examining all the types of super funds available, we have talked about workplace and personal super funds, and we have also talked about public offer super funds (funds that are open to the public). In all these types of funds, we have been referring to funds that are run by someone else.

But what if you want to manage your superannuation yourself? If you do this it means you become responsible for the fund as you become the fund trustee, and you have to arrange its administration, compliance, and organise its investments. You can also nominate your SMSF to become your preferred 'choice' fund to receive your employer-paid contributions.

You can arrange for other people to look after these tasks for you, but when you run the fund the buck stops with you. After all, that's why these are called self-managed superannuation funds.


If you want simple, easy superannuation do not set up your own SMSF. This is because when you have an SMSF you are in the business of running a super fund and the rules you have to follow are much more complex than if you are a member of a typical super fund.

  SMSFs - Things to consider
SMSFs can't invest in just anything

Running your own SMSF doesn't mean you can do anything you want with the investments. When you run an SMSF, you are a trustee and you are responsible for everything the fund does. To make sure SMSFs are run properly, the government has created a range of special rules for SMSFs to make sure the money in them is used and invested properly and that the funds themselves are operated appropriately.

If you think that running your own SMSF means you can bend the investment rules, e.g., to use your super to buy your house or your business, don't start an SMSF.

An SMSF is just a structure

You don't invest in an SMSF but, rather, use it as a way to structure or organise your superannuation. In this way they are an alternative to funds administered by arm's length trustees. The main advantages of SMSFs are that members, who are also required to be trustees, have greater control and flexibility over investment decisions and so can tailor the overall operation of the fund to suit their needs. There are also some taxation advantages compared to other types of funds due to the timing of investments and possible cost advantages. But all the normal superannuation tax rules still apply.

You'll need around $250,000

If you have enough money in super, running your own SMSF can be surprisingly cost-effective. But even though their cost ratios can be among the lowest of all fund types, in dollar terms they can still cost several thousand dollars each year to run when you take into account their initial set-up costs, ongoing administration and compliance costs, and the investment transaction and management fees.

As a result, many SMSF experts use the rule of thumb that for an SMSF to be cost-effective it needs at least$250,000. This threshold is based on the finding that the average SMSF costs about $2500 annually and this converts to a Total Expense Ratio (TER) of1% which is about the same TER as many MySuperproducts.

Adding more subtlety, many SMSFs below $1 million don't achieve the same investment performance as the average MySuper product. So while the flexibility available in an SMSF is very attractive, trustees should manage them with the clear objective to achieve strong investment returns.

Creating a trust deed for your SMSF

Your SMSF must have its own trust deed, which is a list of rules for how the fund operates, deals with its members, pays benefits, and handles its investments.

This trust deed is required for the simple reason that superannuation in Australia is based upon Trust Law, and under this law you must always have a set of predetermined and agreed rules in place so everyone associated with the fund knows what to expect. In case of any disputes, it will be this trust deed that will be used as the basis for determining if the fund was properly managed.

Prepackaged trust deeds can be obtained from special SMSF advisers, so finding one isn't difficult. But equally you should make sure your trust deed is properly set up as it will be very expensive to fix things up later if something isn't right.


It costs an average of $2500 each year to run an SMSF. For an SMSF with about $250,000 in assets this converts to a TER of about 1%. The fee ratio, however, can be much higher for small SMSFs but much lower for large SMSFs. There are three main types of costs for SMSFs:

  1. Set-up costs average about $600 but can range up to more than $1,000.
  2. Ongoing administration and compliance costs average about $1200 but can range up to more than $5,000.
  3. Investment costs. These vary depending on how complex the SMSF's investment portfolio is and how often it transacts, i.e., buys a new investment, sells shares, deposits money into a term deposit, acquires a property. The guide is that the investment costs should average around 0.5% pa, which for a $250,000 portfolio is around $1,250.

These combined costs mean that in your SMSF's first year, the fund may cost $3000, or about 1.2% of your portfolio (assuming assets of $250,000). However, as most of the fees apart from the investment fee are usually fixed costs, as the SMSF gets larger these costs as a ratio of the overall portfolio should reduce. SMSFs above $1 million can have cost ratios well below 1% which makes them very attractive for fund members with large superannuation balances.

Individual or corporate trustees?

After you have established or obtained your SMSF's trust deed, you then need to appoint its trustees and decide if they should be individuals or a corporate trustee. Having individual trustees can be simpler and comes with less compliance, but if something goes wrong the individual trustees could be liable. Using corporate trustees, however, means the liability is held by the trustee company. It's also much simpler for succession planning,i.e., when members exit or new ones join the fund.

The rules SMSFs should follow when appointing their trustees include:

  • If appointing a corporate trustee, establish rules governing how that company will operate and who will be its directors.
  • If appointing individual trustees, each trustee must also be a member of the fund.
  • No member of the fund can be employed by any other member, unless they are family members.
  • There must be no more than four members in the fund.
  • Trustees cannot be paid to carry out their trustee roles.

If these rules are met, you need to apply to the ATO to formally set up your SMSF (part of which means electing to be regulated by the ATO). You must then arrange a tax file number and establish a bank account for the SMSF (the bank account is so you can keep the money and transactions of the super fund separate to those of the trustees as individuals). It may also help for the SMSF to have an Australian Business Number(ABN), though this isn't compulsory.


  • The proper name of the fund.
  • Names of the fund trustees, how they are appointed, and how and on what basis they can be removed
  • from being a trustee of the fund.
  • Details of the corporate trustee the fund will appoint to manage its affairs (if you choose to have one).
  • A statement that the fund is established for the sole purpose of providing old-age and retirement
  • benefits to the fund members. (Refer also to the section on SMSF investment rules for more details about the sole purpose test rule.)
  • A statement that the fund trustees will not accept any payments to carry out their roles with the fund.
  • Details of how members' benefits will be calculated and paid.
  • Details of what contribution types the fund will accept.
  • Details of who can become a member of the fund.
  • Rules for how the fund will be wound up if the need arises.

What super contributions will your SMSF accept?

Your SMSF trust deed must state what types of super payments it will accept. For example, will it accept contributions from each member's employer? Will it accept roll-overs from other super funds? Will it accept contributions from each member's non-working spouse (so-called 'spouse accounts')? Will it accept contributions from and for children, and if so under what conditions?

While it would be easiest for your SMSF to simply say it will accept all types of super contributions, the nature of super is that the rules for an SMSF have to be more specific because there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what the term 'super contribution' actually means.

Reinforcing these rules around super contributions, SMSFs cannot accept non-cash contributions from related parties and cannot allow assets belonging to members to be transferred into the fund unless they satisfy special provisions in the general superannuation rules; e.g., they must not make up more than 5% of the fund's assets, they must be listed securities assets (such as shares, bonds, or units in a managed fund), or they are real business property. See the later section in this chapter on SMSF investment rules.


While some people like the idea of running their own fund, not everyone wants to be the trustee. Some people are also not allowed to be SMSF trustees because they may be undischarged bankrupts or have other difficulties.

This, however, shouldn't cause any problems if you are willing to appoint an Approved Trustee to your SMSF to act as the trustee. SMSFs that operate this way are known as Small APRA Funds (SAFs). Because you are paying someone else to be trustee, they are more expensive to operate than normal SMSFs.

Despite these differences in how the trustees operate, these SAFs have all the same investment, compliance and administration rules that apply to regular SMSFs.

Setting up your investment objectives and strategy

As part of setting up an SMSF, trustees must develop and officially record a clear investment objective and strategies to support their objective. For example, if the SMSF has members close to retirement age the investment objective and strategies of the fund might be more conservative.

Examples of questions your investment strategy may cover include:

  • What types of assets will your SMSF invest in? For example, domestic or overseas shares, bonds, listed or direct property, residential or commercial property, derivatives, managed funds, cash deposits, collectibles.
  • What proportion, or range of proportions, of its investments will it place into each asset class? For example: between nil and 55% in shares, between nil and 25% in cash, and nil and 40% in property.
  • How will the investment decisions of the SMSF be made? For example: by a vote of the trustees; with the advice of a financial adviser or a stockbroker.
  • How often will the fund's investments be reviewed, and how will this review be conducted? For example: will the SMSF's investments be reviewed each year, each quarter, each month? And who will conduct the review?
  • How should the investments be assessed and measured? For example: by comparison against a benchmark, and if so what benchmark?
  • Have the insurance needs of members been considered? For example: do they already have insurance outside super? Are they underinsured?
  • Did the member decline to take out any insurance?

Your investment strategy is not restricted to these issues, but if it covers them then it will be a very tough and robust strategy that should easily pass muster. You are also required to document the strategy and to keep minutes of meetings held by the trustees to discuss the investments of the fund. These minutes must be kept for at least 10 years.

Investment restrictions

An SMSF must be maintained solely for the purpose of providing retirement benefits to members or to their dependants if the member dies. Breaching the sole purpose test can lead to the trustee facing both criminal and civil penalties. Penalties can include up to five years' imprisonment and a fine up to 2000 penalty points, with each point currently worth $222. A breach of the sole purpose test is also likely to result in the fund being deemed non-complying, in which case both current and past tax concessions can be reversed, leading to a significant tax bill.

It can be very tempting for the trustees of an SMSF to invest in assets that provide current benefits to members, but in doing so you are putting your compliance with the sole purpose test in jeopardy. It is important to note, however, that the regulator, in this case the ATO, is concerned with the purpose of the investment, not the type of investment, e.g., an SMSF might invest in some quite exotic investments and still comply with the sole purpose test.

Trustees are permitted only to acquire assets from a 'related party' of the fund where the acquisition of the asset will NOT result in the 'in-house' assets of the fund exceeding 5% of all assets. Related parties include members, trustees and employers who contribute to the fund. Related parties also include relatives of members. SMSFs are, however, allowed to acquire business real property from related parties which exceeds 5% of all assets.

Superannuation funds are not allowed to borrow longer-term monies in order to gear up returns. SMSFs can, however, use a separate trust to undertake leveraged investments. Trustees are meanwhile not allowed to lend money or provide financial assistance to members or related parties.

All transactions are to be made on an arm's length basis, that is, on strictly commercial terms. The purchase and sale price of an asset should always reflect the true market value. Income from assets should always reflect the true market rate of return.

The relationship between trustees and members in SMSFs means that members are in a position where they may try to push the investment restriction boundaries - sometimes beyond what the auditors and regulators deem is acceptable.

While members of large superannuation funds might be also tempted to breach the investment rules, in reality the separation between trustee and member in large funds is such that members are not really in a position to breach the rules.


In 2020 there were 596,180 SMSFs run by 1.119 million Australians. The number of SMSFs in previous years used to grow by about 20,000 each year but has recently slowed. These funds hold just 8% of all superannuation accounts but almost one-third of all superannuation savings. SMSFs have the lowest fees of any superannuation market segment, averaging about 0.35% for administration and compliance before adding investment costs.

 The Good Super Guide SMSF Checklist. Click here.
After setting up your SMSF's trust deed, appointing the trustees, preparing the investment strategy document and deciding upon the investments, the next step is to make sure your SMSF satisfies all the annual administration and compliance rules. These include:
  • lodging annual taxation and superannuation returns with the various regulators
  • lodging member contribution statements
  • reporting all member benefit payments
  • appointing auditors to complete the annual audit review
  • establishing a system to maintain the fund's records (which must be kept for at least 10 years)
  • ensuring that the SMSF has not violated any of the investment rules.

These administration tasks can be handled by yourself or you can outsource them to an accountant, financial adviser or SMSF specialist administrator noting that some records have to be kept for at least five years, e.g., accounting records that explain the transactions and financial position of the fund, annual operating statements, annual statements of the fund's financial position, and copies of all annual returns that were lodged.

Records that have to be kept for at least 10 years include minutes of trustee meetings where fund business was discussed, details about changes of trustees and members' written consent to be appointed as trustees, and copies of all reports that were given to members.


Collectibles and artworks

SMSFs may invest in collectibles, e.g., artworks, but the investments must be independently valued and appropriately authenticated. The SMSF must also insure the artworks in the name of the fund and be stored according to the conditions of the insurer - a condition of ownership can nullify the reasons some SMSFs want to own these types of assets. Trustees must also be able to reasonably demonstrate the commercial value of any lease or exhibition terms and conditions.

 How to choose the right Retirement Income Scheme product for youWhat is the Superannuation Guarantee? 

Further Reading