The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a defined contribution plan for United States civil service employees and retirees as well as for members of the uniformed services. As of December 31, 2018, TSP has approximately 5.5 million participants (of which approximately 3.3 million are actively participating through payroll deductions), and more than $558 billion in assets under management; it purports to be the largest defined contribution plan in the world. The TSP is administered by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, an independent agency.
The TSP is one of three components of the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS; the others being the FERS annuity and Social Security) and is designed to closely resemble the dynamics of private sector 401(k) and Roth 401k plans (TSP implemented a Roth option in May 2012). It is also open to employees covered under the older Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) but with far less benefits (mainly the lack of matching contributions).
- 1 Eligibility
- 2 Contributing and vesting
- 3 Investment options
- 4 TSP withdrawals
- 5 Planned Changes to TSP Regulations
- 6 References
- 7 External links
CSRS employees and members of the uniformed services may join at any time but are not automatically enrolled.
FERS employees are automatically enrolled upon hire and 3% of base pay is automatically withheld unless the employee elects not to participate (employees hired prior to September 2015 must elect to enroll).
Contributing and vesting
An employee or uniformed service member may change, stop, or restart contributions, at any time, with very few exceptions noted below.
As of September 2015, new civilian employees are automatically enrolled in the TSP with a 3% deduction from their gross pay being deposited into the age-appropriate Lifecycle (L) Fund, unless they make another choice or choose not to participate. Servicemembers have their deductions deposited into the G Fund unless another choice is made or the servicemember chooses not to participate.
All FERS and CSRS employees and members of the uniformed services may contribute up to the Internal Revenue Code limitation, which is $19,000 for 2019. The contribution for FERS and CSRS for civilian employees may be either a specific dollar amount or a percentage of pay (whole dollars or whole percentages only), while uniformed service members can only elect a percentage of pay; any amounts will be adjusted once the annual IRC limitation is reached. Once the contribution is selected it automatically renews each year at the same amount or percentage until the participant elects otherwise.
In addition, participants age 50 or older may also make "catch-up" contributions up to the IRC limitation, which is $6,000 for 2019. The catch-up contributions are tax-deferred and allow age eligible participants to defer up to $25,000 (for 2019) in their TSP account. However, unlike the regular TSP contribution, this election does not automatically renew each year; the employee must specifically make a new election each year.
Uniformed service members are permitted to make contributions from both basic pay as well as from incentive, special, or bonus pay, but are subject to the regular contribution limits. Members of the uniformed services who deploy to designated combat zones are subject to the combat zone tax exclusion, which allows tax-exempt income earned. Contributions to the TSP by uniformed service members in a combat zone are contributed to the TSP as tax-exempt, and accrue tax-deferred earnings. Tax-exempt contributions are not subject to the IRC elective deferral limit.
Participants who are both civilian federal employees and members of the uniformed services will have two separate TSP accounts if they elect to contribute while in civilian and/or uniformed service status, however the total tax-deferred contributions in both may not exceed the IRC elective deferral or catch-up limits.
In addition, the total tax-deferred, tax-exempt, and agency contributions made to both TSP accounts are subject to the IRC Section 415(c) overall limitation, which is $56,000 for 2019. Catch-up contributions made are in addition to the elective deferral and 415(c) limits.
Participants may also rollover existing 401(k) or Individual Retirement Accounts (traditional IRAs only) into the TSP.
All FERS employees automatically have 1% of base pay contributed by their agency, even if the employee does not participate in TSP; the employee cannot waive this requirement. Additional matching contributions are made dollar-per-dollar up to 3% of base pay (e.g. an employee contributing 3% will have 1% automatically contributed plus 3% matched, for a total of 4%), then at $0.50/$1 for each additional dollar up to 5% of base pay; amounts above 5% are not matched nor are "catch-up" contributions regardless of an employee's base pay.
CSRS employees (including CSRS Offset employees) are ineligible for automatic or matching contributions.
Uniformed service members under the legacy system are eligible for matching contributions only if the secretary of the specific service designates as such (as of 2019, no specific specialty has been designated as such). However, in 2006, Congress enacted legislation to sponsor a pilot program to offer matching contributions to new active duty enlistees. This program was administered by the Department of the Army from April 1, 2006 through December 31, 2008. Enlistees who qualified for TSP matching during this period (provided completion and returned paperwork was processed as of initial enlistment) receive a dollar for dollar matching contribution on the first three percent of their contributions from basic pay; and fifty cents on the dollar for the next two percent contributed for the duration of their first term of enlistment. The program has since ended, and according to the TSP as of the end of 2018 only five soldiers who were part of the pilot program are still serving and receiving such matching contributions. Beginning in 2018, the Blended Retirement System (BRS) for members of the uniformed services applies automatically to new enlistees (who may receive matching contributions after two years) and to current members who opted in (those members begin receiving matching contributions automatically).
Employees are fully vested from day one for any employee and agency matching contributions, and earnings thereon.
FERS employees must generally complete three years of Federal civilian service to be fully vested in agency automatic contributions and earnings thereon (certain employees have only a two-year requirement), otherwise the separated employee loses the unvested amount (except in cases of death, in which case the amounts will deem to be vested). Military and civilian service cannot be combined to meet vesting requirements.
TSP's operating expenses are extremely low. This is due to the expenses being subsidized by three major sources: matching contributions and earnings forfeited due to employees not meeting vesting requirements, excess agency contributions and earnings forfeited due to retirement plan corrections (this involves employees placed in FERS who were eligible for, and chose to be placed in, the older CSRS plan), and loan participation fees. However, those sources do not completely cover total expenses, and therefore the balance is taken from investment earnings.
The TSP offers investors 10 funds in which to invest, in both traditional and Roth versions (however, all agency automatic and matching contributions are placed in the traditional version of the fund(s) selected). Five are individual funds (one dealing with government bonds and the other four tracking specific market indices) while the other five are target date funds (referred to as "Lifecycle" or "L" Funds) designed to professionally change the allocation mix of investments among the individual funds during various stages of the employee's federal service and are composed of various percentages of the individual funds. All TSP funds are trust funds that are regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and not the Securities and Exchange Commission; thus, there is no ticker symbol to track actual performance (though with the individual funds except the G Fund, the comparable index is easily tracked).
Employees may choose from any or all of the individual or Lifecycle funds in which to invest (any allocation must be expressed as a whole percentage) and may change their allocation for future pay periods at any time (if the request is received before noon Eastern time it is usually effective as of the close of business that day; otherwise, it is effective the following business day). If no selection is made the default is 100 percent allocation into an "age-appropriate" L Fund (except for uniformed services whose default is the G Fund). As all funds except the G Fund have a potential risk of loss of principal, an employee is required to acknowledge this risk before investing into those funds.
Participants may also choose to change the allocation percentage of their existing fund balances (referred to as "Interfund Transfers"). Participants may choose to allocate existing balances differently than new contributions, but are limited to two unrestricted transfers per calendar month, all subsequent transfers must be into the G Fund only. Websites such as TSPTALK discuss whether participants should move contributions and balances regularly between funds.
- G Fund – Government Securities fund. These are unique government securities specifically issued to the TSP (thus, not available to the general public) and earn interest set by law at the weighted average yield on outstanding US Treasury securities with four or more years to maturity. Since these securities are backed by the full faith and credit of the US Government; the G Fund is the only fund with no risk of loss of principal. The G Fund was the initial fund established by the TSP when it began operations on April 1, 1987.
- F Fund – Fixed Income Index fund. Invested in BlackRock's U.S. Debt Index Fund. Tracks the Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index. The F Fund was opened to Federal employees in January 1988 but was limited to only a portion of contributions; beginning January 1991 all restrictions on F Fund contributions were lifted.
- C Fund – Common Stock Index fund. Invested in BlackRock's Equity Index Fund. Replicates the total return version of the S&P 500 index. The C Fund also opened to employees in January 1988 and was subject to the same restrictions as the F Fund until January 1991.
- S Fund – Small Capitalization Stock Index fund. Invested in BlackRock's Extended Market Index Fund, which tracks the Dow Jones U.S. Completion TSM index. The S Fund opened to employees in May 2001.
- I Fund – International Stock Index fund. Invested in BlackRock's EAFE Index Fund. Replicates the net version of the MSCI EAFE index. The I Fund opened to employees in May 2001.
In 2005, the TSP introduced the Lifecycle Fund series. Lifecycle Funds are target date funds which, over a long period of time (typically the period between an employee's entry/re-entry into Federal service and a presumed age of 62 for first withdrawal), allow for automatic reallocation of assets from more-risky stock funds (the C, I, and S Funds) into less-risky income funds (the F and G Funds) as an employee reaches retirement age, as an employee may lack the time, interest, and/or expertise to determine suitable investments at various life stages.
The current Lifecycle Funds established, along with the corresponding estimated retirement date window, are as follows:
- L2050 – Retirement date of 2045 and thereafter
- L2040 – Retirement date between 2035 and 2044
- L2030 – Retirement date between 2025 and 2034
- L2020 – Retirement date between 2015 and 2024
- L Income – Individuals currently receiving monthly payments
The L 2010 Fund was retired on December 31, 2010 and merged into the L Income Fund. As new funds are established (currently every ten years), older funds will be retired and merged into the L Income Fund.
Simulating TSP portfolios
Because TSP funds are not offered in the public market (especially the G Fund as those securities are special to the TSP), it can be difficult to backtest TSP portfolios. However, most TSP funds track well-known indices and can be approximated using low-cost funds offered to the general public. Below is a list of Vanguard Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) that are equivalent to the TSP funds in terms of their content. (Please note: TSP funds have significantly lower expense ratios than the Vanguard funds.)
- C Fund – VOO
- S Fund – VXF
- I Fund – VEA
- F Fund – BND
- G Fund – VGSH
The TSP can also be approximated by tracking the performance of the ETF each fund seeks to match.
- C Fund – .INX (S&P 500)
- S Fund – DWCPF (Dow Jones U.S. Completion Total Stock Market Index)
- I Fund – MSCI EAFE (MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australasia, Far East) Index)
- F Fund – XIUSA000MC (Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index)
L funds can be approximated by mixing the above ETFs in percentages matching the allocation percentage of each individual component. For example, the L 2050 fund allocation may be simulated by a portfolio consisting of 41.9% VOO, 24.9% VEA, 17.95% VXF, 9.77% VGSH, and 5.48% BND.
There are two types of loans available (a general purpose loan and a loan for a primary residence); an employee can have only two loans active at any one time, one of each type.
The minimum loan amount is $1,000 and the maximum is $50,000, but the employee must have sufficient assets in the account to take out a loan. The minimum term is one year; the maximum term is five years for the general purpose loan and 15 years for the residence loan. There is a $50 processing fee per loan which is taken out of the loan proceeds. If the employee or servicemember is married the spouse (even if separated) must consent to the loan.
Loans must be repaid via payroll deduction (though an employee may also make additional repayments outside this process) and the interest rate charged is the G Fund return rate at the time the application is processed. After repayment an employee must wait 60 days before applying for another loan of the same type. If the employee separates from federal service before the loan is paid, the employee must repay the loan balance within 90 days or it will be reported as taxable income. In addition, any overdue amount not repaid by the end of the following calendar quarter is also reported as taxable income.
Employees may make either an "age-based" withdrawal or a "financial hardship" withdrawal. The minimum withdrawal amount is $1,000 (or the account balance, if smaller). For married FERS employees and uniformed service members the spouse must consent to the withdrawal; for married CSRS employees the spouse need only be notified. Any funds withdrawn cannot be repaid to the TSP, and subject the employee to both taxes (including penalties if the employee is under age 59½) and loss of potential future earnings.
An employee must be over age 59½ to request an "age-based" withdrawal, and need not specify any reason for doing so, but can only make one such withdrawal during a career or after retirement. The employee may not later request a post-employment partial withdrawal; s/he can only withdraw the entire balance.
A "financial hardship" withdrawal can only be made once every six months, and is limited to one of four specific needs:
- negative monthly cash flow,
- medical expenses (including household improvements needed for medical care),
- personal casualty losses, or
- legal expenses for separation or divorce.
Financial hardship withdrawals carry a steep price in addition to taxes and permanent loss of potential future earnings:
- the employee cannot contribute to TSP for the following six months (thus losing tax deferral savings) and loses any matching contributions during this time (however, the employee will still receive automatic contributions),
- after six months the contributions are not automatically renewed; the employee must submit paperwork to renew them.
Separated and retired participants are not eligible for TSP loans.
Participants who retire under age 59½ and who withdraw their balances (either in a lump sum, partial withdrawal, or by annuity) are not subject to the early withdrawal penalty.
Participants who leave Federal service may leave their accounts with the TSP, rollover the TSP accounts into an IRA or (if leaving for a non-Federal employer, and where eligible) a retirement account with the new employer, subject to the requirements below.
Upon separation, any balances less than $200 (but at least $5) will be automatically cashed out in a single payment; amounts less than $5 are not automatically cashed out and are forfeited to the TSP, but the participant may later request payment. The participant then has 60 days to complete the rollover of the funds to a qualifying account to preserve their tax-deferred status.
For participants having balances of $200 or more, upon separation the following options are available (spouses' rights apply when the balance exceeds $3,500):
- A participant may leave their funds in the TSP, but must withdraw the entire balance (or receive monthly payments) by April 1 of the year following the year the member turns age 70½ (or, if the member separated from Federal service after age 70½, the year following separation; unlike IRA rules which require withdrawal at that time regardless of employment status). If a withdrawal is not made by this time, the participant will be paid an annuity as required by law, but if the participant does not provide information for TSP to purchase the annuity for either themselves or their spouse, the account will be declared abandoned. The participant may later reclaim the account by choosing a withdrawal option, but during abandonment the participant will not receive earnings on the balance.
- A participant may request a partial withdrawal provided that 1) the balance is at least $1,000 and 2) the participant did not make an in-service age-based withdrawal.
- A participant may request a full withdrawal in a combination of any or all of the following options:
- A single payment (which may be rolled over into a qualifying retirement account),
- Monthly payments based on a dollar amount or request TSP compute lifetime payments (these may be changed but only once per year, may be rolled over into a qualifying retirement account, and at any time the participant may request a final single payment of the remaining balance), and/or
- A life annuity (provided there is at least $3,500 available in the account to purchase the annuity), based on one of several different features depending on what is chosen (single life or joint, survivor benefit, cash refund or "10-year certain").
- A participant who requests a single and/or certain monthly payments may rollover their payment(s) into a qualifying retirement account.
Except for abandoned accounts, any funds remaining in a TSP account will accrue earnings and participants may make interfund transfer or contribution allocation changes to the balance.
Payment at Death
If a participant dies, then any unpaid balance is paid to the beneficiary(ies) designated. If the participant did not designate any beneficiary(ies), then the "statutory order of precedence" is used, as follows:
- To the widow or widower,
- To any surviving children (in equal shares) or their descendants,
- To any surviving parent or parents,
- To the court-appointed executor or administrator of the estate,
- To the next of kin as determined by the laws of the state where the employee/retiree lived at death.
Planned Changes to TSP Regulations
From time to time TSP announces changes to regulations affecting it, often with the intent of increasing participation and investment. Changes which have been announced but not yet implemented are as follows:
Planned changes to withdrawal options
Under the TSP Modernization Act (Public Law 115-84), on September 15, 2019 the withdrawal options for TSP participants will change. The following changes will take place:
- The option for quarterly or annual payments (in addition to the current sole option of monthly), and the ability to change, stop, and start them at any time (but limited to one every 30 days) without having to withdraw the remaining balance immediately thereafter
- The option to choose withdrawals from either traditional or Roth accounts, or both proportionally (as opposed to the current sole option of proportional withdrawals, but once a particular account reaches a zero balance, withdrawals will then continue from the other account)
- Increases in the number of in-service, age-based non-hardship withdrawals (i.e. a withdrawal once a person turns 59 1/2 solely on the basis of doing so) from one per career to four per calendar year (but limited to one every 30 days)
- The option to leave account balances in TSP upon turning 70 1/2 (accounts will no longer be abandoned or subject to forced annuity payments, but required minimum distributions are still mandatory, by tax law)
In addition, the rules will clarify that for account holders having separate civilian and military pay accounts, each account is treated separately and separate requests are required for each (and the 30-day rule applies to each account separately).
Furthermore, the rule that requires cessation of TSP contributions to account holders having taken a hardship withdrawal, the six-month waiting period to restart contributions, and the requirement to request re-starting them, will cease as of the above date. Employees not yet having met the six-month period will have the period end on that date (but will still have to request restarting contributions), new requests after that date will not be subject to having contributions stop.
Planned changes to automatic withholding
Effective for new employees hired on or after October 1, 2020, the amount of pay automatically withheld from salary will increase from 3% to 5%, unless the employee elects to change the percentage or not to participate in TSP. Existing employees will not be affected. The change from 3% to 5% is not coincidental with the fact that 5% is the minimum percentage of pay an employee or servicemember must contribute to get the maximum matching funds; it was planned so that employees would by default obtain maximum matching funds unless the employee chose a lower option or not to participate.
Planned changes to catch-up contributions
Currently, employees over age 50 (or who turn 50 in a calendar year) who want to make catch-up contributions as permitted by IRS, must submit two forms to their payroll office: a form for regular contributions (which must total the regular IRS limit) and a separate form for catch-up contributions, and the catch-up form must be submitted annually. Since matching contributions are not made on catch-up contributions, this has resulted in some employees reaching their limit too early, thus missing out on additional matching funds, and thus additional TSP investment.
Under changes effective with the first payroll period in 2021, TSP will go to the "spillover" method. This will require only one form from an employee, electing an amount or percentage to be withheld each pay period, which does not have to change annually unless the employee wants to make a change. Any amounts which exceed the regular IRS limit will "spill over" into the catch-up limit, but as long as the amount withheld each pay period is >=5% of gross pay, the full amount available for matching will be provided.
Planned changes to Lifecycle Funds
Currently the Lifecycle Funds are only in 10-year increments (years ending in 0). TSP announced a change to offer additional Lifecycle Funds (to be introduced at the time the L2020 Fund is rolled into the L Income Fund) in 5-year increments (years ending in 0 and 5), which is what most of the major mutual fund companies offer. Thus in addition to the L2060 Fund, there will also be added L2025, L2035, L2045, L2055, and L2065 Funds. Accordingly, the time frame as to when a new L fund will be established and an existing fund rolled into the L Income Fund will decrease to every five years.
In addition, new civilian employees will be automatically placed into an L Fund corresponding to a first withdrawal date at age 63.
- The fund chosen is based on an assumed age of 62 as to when withdrawals will begin.
- "Automatic enrollment in TSP begins". federalnewsradio.com. 29 July 2010. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- "Automatic enrollment in TSP starts next week". federalnewsradio.com. 26 July 2010. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- "TSP launches automatic enrollment for new hires". govexec.com. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- So long as the employee turns 50 during a year, whether on January 1 or December 31, an employee may make catch-up contributions at any time during the year.
- "Agency Contributions". tsp.gov. Archived from the original on 6 September 2015. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- The average is around $0.40/$1,000 invested, plus additional fees of around $0.005/$1,000 paid to the managers of the Funds other than the G Fund which is administered in house.
- "Interfund Transfer (IFT) Program Change — Limits on IFT Requests; April 30, 2008" (PDF). tsp.gov. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- G Fund Information Sheet Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
- From time to time G Fund securities issuance is suspended when the overall Federal debt ceiling is reached; in those cases, amounts are credited to the account as if activity was continuing; once the debt ceiling is lifted all amounts due plus accrued interest are paid.
- F Fund Information Sheet Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
- C Fund Information Sheet Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
- "TSP Individual funds". Retrieved 2008-12-22.
- S Fund Information Sheet Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
- I Fund Information Sheet Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
- Currently the Fund managers reallocate assets quarterly.
- Lifecycle Funds — Key Features
- TSP L 2010 Fund
- Benz, Christine (3 May 2015). "The Do-It-Yourself Thrift Savings Plan". Morningstar.com. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- "TSP: Fund Management". tsp.gov. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
- "TSP Funds Simulated: Vanguard ETF Version". Hello Money. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
- The order of precedence is also used for payment of insurance benefits under the FEGLI, unused portions of a Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) annuity, and unpaid compensation.
- The text of this article has been adapted from https://web.archive.org/web/20050309160203/http://www.tsp.gov/uniserv/features/chapter01.html, a work of the United States government and thus in the public domain.
- The Official TSP Home Page, maintained by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board
- FRTIB.gov, official site of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board
- Detailed information about Thrift Savings Plan Fund Choices, Tax Implications and Options
- Performance and risk characteristics of the TSP Investment Funds, updated daily by TSP Folio
- TSP Individual Funds Monthly Returns
- TSP Summary of Returns Since Inception
- Historical daily prices of TSP funds.
- Official: Starting in June 2003.
- Historical TSP Charts and Returns, maintained by TSP Center
- Daily/Weekly/Monthly TSP Returns maintained by TSP Talk
- Extended (pre-TSP fund inception) returns for indexes tracked by TSP funds maintained by TSP Allocation Guide
- TSP Funds Mobile Tracking maintained by TSP Simulator
- TSP Performance Guide: The Best TSP Fund Allocation Method maintained by TSP Investing Strategy
- How to simulate TSP L 2050 fund using Vanguard ETFs, maintained by Hello Money