Serving in the military can unlock a number of financial benefits, including the option to participate in the Savings Deposit Program (SDP), tuition benefits to pay for college and access to affordable housing. Military members are also eligible to take advantage of federal retirement savings plans. Developing a strategy for retirement saving and investing can help service members make the most of their career earnings.
- Military members have numerous options for saving and investing money for retirement.
- The federal government offers two retirement plans to service members, depending on when they enlisted.
- Military members can also save through the Savings Deposit Program while serving in eligible combat zones.
- In addition to federal savings options, service members can also utilize other savings and investment accounts to grow wealth.
Retirement Planning Options for Military Members
Military members don't have access to 401(k) plans the way private sector employees might. But they do have several options to save and invest money for retirement. Those options include:
- Federal military retirement benefits
- Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)
- Individual retirement accounts
Understanding how these different investing options work together is key for creating a retirement savings strategy.
Federal Military Retirement Benefits
The federal government offers two retirement plan options for military service members. These are the Legacy Retirement System (LRS) and the Blended Retirement System (BRS). The plan you're enrolled in and the benefits you enjoy depend on when you enlisted in the armed services.
The Legacy Retirement System, also referred to as the Uniformed Services Retirement System, applies to service members who enlisted on or before December 31, 2017. This is a defined benefit plan which pays a lifetime monthly annuity to service members at retirement. To qualify for this benefit, you need to have served 20 years or longer. Annuity payment amounts are based on the number of years of service and the average of the service member's highest 36 months of base pay.
The Blended Retirement System applies to service members who enlist on or after January 1, 2018. If you started service on or after that date, you're automatically enrolled in the BRS. This military retirement plan combines a defined benefit pension plan with a defined contribution plan. Specifically, the defined contribution plan that's used is the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).
All military retirement plans are protected by Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA), which are applied annually based on changes to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Thrift Savings Plan
The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a federal retirement plan that's offered to eligible government employees, including military personnel enrolled in the Blended Retirement System. Thrift Savings Plan accounts are similar to 401(k) plans, in that military members can elect to make contributions from their base pay. The minimum election to contribute is 1% of base pay.
Those contributions can be made on a pre-tax or after-tax basis, depending on whether you choose a traditional TSP or Roth TSP election. Thrift Savings Plans are subject to IRS limits on annual contributions. For 2021, military members can defer up to $19,500 into a TSP. The catch-up contribution limit for those age 50 and older is $6,500.
Individual Retirement Accounts
Military members can also use Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) to supplement their federal retirement benefits and TSP contributions. For 2021, service members can contribute up to $6,000 to a traditional or Roth IRA. An additional $1,000 catch-up contribution is allowed for military members who are 50 or older.
Traditional IRA contributions may be tax-deductible, while Roth IRAs offer the benefit of tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Whether it makes sense to choose a traditional or Roth IRA can depend on how much you're making now versus your expected income in retirement. If you're in a higher tax bracket now, taking traditional IRA deductions could make sense. If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket at retirement, a Roth IRA may yield more tax benefits. Also, a Roth means you won't pay taxes on the money your savings have earned while they were in the IRA.
A spousal IRA can be used to allow military spouses who don't have earned income of their own to save for retirement on a tax-advantaged basis.
Savings Options for Military Members
In addition to retirement accounts, military members have other ways to save. Those options include:
- Savings Deposit Program accounts
- Military savings accounts at banks/credit unions
- Taxable investment accounts
Savings Deposit Program (SDP)
The Savings Deposit Program is offered by the Department of Defense to certain active-duty military members. To qualify for this program, service members must be:
- Serving in an eligible combat zone
- Be deployed for 30 consecutive days or one day in each of three consecutive months
Service members can save up to $10,000 in a Savings Deposit Program account. These accounts earn a generous 10% annual interest rate, outpacing even the best-paying high yield savings accounts. Once deployment ends, the money in a Savings Deposit Program account is returned to the service member.
Service members can make early withdrawals from their Savings Deposit Program account of amounts over $10,000 or in the case of an emergency when approved by a commanding officer.
Military Savings Accounts
Banks and credit unions can offer savings accounts, money market accounts, CD accounts and other deposit accounts designed for military members and their families. These accounts may have special benefits or provisions, such as reduced fees or higher interest rates for deposits.
The advantage of opening a military savings account at a bank or credit union is that there are generally fewer restrictions on how much you can save and when you can withdraw money. With the Savings Deposit Program, you're limited to saving $10,000 and you can only make early withdrawals under limited circumstances.
When opening a military savings account at a bank or credit union, check for any limits on withdrawals and whether excess withdrawal fees may apply.
Taxable Investment Accounts
Brokerage accounts allow military members to save and invest money without restrictions on contributions. While you won't get any tax benefits by opening a taxable investment account at online brokerage, you may have more options and flexibility when it comes to how you invest.
A Thrift Savings Plan, for example, may limit you to a certain range of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund options. With a brokerage account, you may be able to invest in stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, bonds, options, futures, precious metals or even cryptocurrency. That can help with increasing diversification.
It's important to remember that any gains realized in a taxable brokerage account are subject to capital gains tax. Whether you pay the short- or long-term capital gains rate depends on how long you hold an investment before selling it at a profit. It's also important to check the commissions and other fees you might pay when choosing a brokerage option.
Tax loss harvesting can help to balance out gains with losses and potentially minimize your investment tax bill.
How to Create a Saving and Investing Plan
Knowing the different ways to save and invest money as a member of the military is just one part of the equation. It's also important to consider your bigger financial picture.
Specifically, as you shape your financial plan consider things like:
- How much debt you're carrying, if any
- Your current strategy for paying off that debt
- How much your income is likely to increase or decrease over time
- Your monthly budget and typical spending
- When you'd like to retire
- How much money you'd like to have at retirement
- Your current age and risk tolerance
- What you'd like to save toward other financial goals, such as paying for college or purchasing a home
Also, consider how you're protecting your savings and investments. Life insurance, for example, can offer a financial benefit to your loved ones if something happens to you. You may be eligible for group life insurance through the Veterans Administration, but you may also want to purchase additional coverage to ensure that your family is financially protected. Meeting with a financial advisor can help you create a strategic plan for retirement saving and investing.
If you don't have an advisor yet, you may want to look for one who specializes in helping military members and their families.
The Bottom Line
Retirement saving and investing for military members begins with knowing what your options are for saving. From there, you can determine where different retirement and savings accounts fit into your overall strategy. Considering how to pay down debt and how to prioritize different savings goals is also important for creating a well-rounded financial plan.