What Is the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)?
A thrift savings plan (TSP) is a retirement investment program open only to federal employees and uniformed service members, including the Ready Reserve. It is a defined-contribution (DC) plan that offers federal employees many of the same benefits that are available to workers in the private sector.
A TSP closely resembles a 401(k) plan offered by private employers.
- A thrift savings plan is similar to a 401(k) plan for federal employees and uniformed services personnel.
- Participants in a TSP can get an immediate tax break for their savings.
- They can also choose to invest in a Roth for freedom from taxes after retirement.
- Plan participants can put their money into any of six investing options.
- You can roll over a 401(k) and IRAs into a TSP if you leave the private sector to work in a public one. If you leave a public service job with a TSP, you can also roll it over to a 401(k) or IRA.
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How the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) Works
There are several ways to invest in a Thrift Savings Plan. These can include:
- Automatic payroll contributions
- Agency matching contributions
- Tax-deferred contributions into a traditional TSP (withdrawals are taxed in retirement)
- After-tax investments in a Roth TSP (withdrawals are untaxed in retirement)
No matter the type of TSP or contribution structure you choose, the contribution limit is $22,500 for 2023 (up from $20,500 in 2022). Employees aged 50 and over can also make catch-up contributions of $7,500 in 2023 (up from $6,500 in 2022).
Employees new to federal employment can roll over 401(k) and individual retirement account (IRA) assets into a TSP. Rollovers can also go in the opposite direction if federal employees move to the private sector.
A thrift savings plan (TSP) is a defined-contribution retirement plan with advantages similar to private-sector plans.
The TSP Investment Options
The TSP offers a choice of six funds and a mutual fund option:
- The Government Securities Investment (G) Fund
- The Fixed-Income Index Investment (F) Fund
- The Common-Stock Index Investment (C) Fund
- The Small-Capitalization Stock Index Investment (S) Fund
- The International-Stock Index Investment (I) Fund
- Specific Lifecycle (L) funds
- Mutual Fund Window
The F, S, C, and I funds in the TSP are index funds currently managed by the State Street Global Advisors Trust Company under contract by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB). This independent government agency administers the TSP and acts as a fiduciary that is legally liable to manage the TSP prudently and in the best interests of participants and their beneficiaries.
Index funds in the TSP are designed to mimic the return characteristics of the corresponding benchmark index. For example, the C Fund is invested in a fund that replicates the S&P 500 Index, which is made up of the stocks of 500 large- to medium-sized U.S. companies. L funds are invested in the five individual TSP funds, and their asset allocations are based on the individual investor’s time horizon.
The maximum annual contribution to a Thrift Savings Plan in 2023. If you are 50 or older, you can add an extra $7,500.
The mutual fund window is for TSP participants who want more flexibility in their retirement investments. You can invest a portion of your TSP savings through the TSP mutual fund window into available mutual funds you choose. However, there are certain requirements for participating in the mutual fund window, such as having at least $40,000 in your TSP account and not investing more than 25% of your account balance in mutual funds using the window.
TSPs vs. IRAs
Comparing the TSP to an IRA is not an either/or proposition—you can have both a TSP and an IRA at the same time. One primary difference between them is their respective contribution limits. For 2023, the annual limit is $22,500 for a TSP (with a catch-up contribution of $7,500 for those over 50, the limit is $30,000); for an IRA, it is much less—$6,500 ($7,500 if you are over 50)—if you have multiple IRAs, this is the total amount you can contribute. Thus, a TSP allows you to build your retirement funds faster than an IRA if you have the extra money to do so.
Another big difference is in the employer match. The federal government provides a sliding percentage scale of matching contributions for your TSP. Even if you contribute nothing, it will contribute 1% of your annual salary to your TSP. The scale tops out at a 5% government match if you contribute 5% of your salary to your TSP, thus doubling the amount of money invested. Because an IRA is something you set up for yourself, with no employer involved, there are no matching contributions.
Fees and Expenses
The investment fees also differ. TSP fees are pretty low, usually around 0.05%, and transparent. In the private sector, IRA investment fees can range from 0.5% to 2.5%, depending on the kind of fund, and it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how much they are in aggregate. However, IRAs offer more investment opportunities than TSPs, as they are limited to the six funds discussed above. This allows an IRA holder to be more aggressive in their investment strategies than a TSP holder.
Some final differences have to do with withdrawals. Traditional IRAs and TSPs, as well as Roth TSPs, have required minimum distributions (RMDs) that start at age 73 (up from 72 in previous years). With an IRA, you are allowed to take whatever withdrawals you like, without a penalty, starting at age 59½ as long as it meets the minimum required.
TSPs only allow you to withdraw monthly, quarterly, or annually. You can request that the payment be a specific dollar amount or an amount based on your life expectancy and account balance that is recomputed annually.
IRAs also have an early withdrawal penalty of 10% for any money taken out when you are younger than 59½. However, if you retire at age 55 or older, TSPs will waive the 10% penalty. Even better, if you qualify under Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) special provisions, this age drops to 50.
How Do I Contact TSP Administrators?
You can call their toll-free Thriftline at 877-968-3778, Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET. There is also an international phone line at 404-233-4400 that is not a toll-free line. The 711 TTS Relay is available for people with hearing or speech disabilities by dialing 711. You can also use AVA, the TSP virtual assistant, from your TSP account page.
TSP General Mailing Address
Thrift Service Center, C/O Broadridge Processing, P.O. Box 1600, Newark, NJ 07101-1600.
The Message Center allows you to send and receive messages if you have an online account. Response time is two business days.
Is a TSP the Same Thing As a 401(k)?
Not exactly, though they are structured similarly and have the same contribution limits. A TSP is what the federal government offers instead of a 401(k), the type of plan offered by private employers. It is possible to have both if you have worked for both a government and a private employer. However, the total contribution to these retirement plans cannot exceed the annual contribution limits set by the Internal Revenue Code.
Is a TSP Better Than an IRA?
TSPs and IRAs both have benefits. With a TSP, you can contribute considerably more each year, expect matching contributions from the federal government, and pay lower investment fees. You have greater control over your investments with an IRA, and there are no limits on withdrawals from it upon retirement. You can borrow from your TSP (up to $50,000), but you cannot typically borrow from an IRA account.
What Happens to My Thrift Savings Plan If I Quit My Job?
If you quit your job, your Thrift Savings Plan will remain as is if the balance is $200 or more, and it will continue earning. However, if you're not fully vested as a FERS or BRS employee, the government may withdraw its contributions and the associated earnings from your account. From there, you can control the principal in the account and adjust your investments, but you cannot make any more contributions.
The Bottom Line
The Thrift Savings Plan is a retirement plan for federal employees and servicemembers. It is similar to private sector plans like the 401(k) but is more limited in choices and flexibility. The limitations exist to ensure employees can make good decisions about their retirement investing. However, they can use some of the funds in the account to invest as they see fit in approved mutual funds, giving them investment flexibility if desired.
The TSP is not necessarily better or worse than other retirement plans—it exists as a retirement planning option for government employees and servicemembers similar to those available to employees in the private sector.