Thrift Savings Plan

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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; [1] it is 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 fewer benefits (mainly the lack of matching contributions).


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 5% of base pay is automatically withheld unless the employee elects not to participate.

Contributing and vesting

An employee or uniformed service member may change, stop, or restart contributions, at any time, with very few exceptions noted below.

Employee contributions

As of October 1, 2020, new civilian employees and servicemembers are automatically enrolled in the TSP with a 5% deduction from their gross pay being deposited into the age-appropriate [lower-alpha 1] Lifecycle (L) Fund, unless they make another choice or choose not to participate. [2] [3] [4]

All FERS and CSRS employees and members of the uniformed services may contribute up to the Internal Revenue Code limitation, which is $19,500 for 2020. 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 [lower-alpha 2] or older may also make "catch-up" contributions up to the IRC limitation, which is $6,500 for 2020. The catch-up contributions are tax-deferred and allow age eligible participants to defer up to $26,000 (for 2020) 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.

Civilian employees may only contribute from regular pay (the standard pay for their grade plus applicable locality pay); they cannot contribute from bonuses or any overtime.

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 $57,000 for 2020. 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.

Matching contributions

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. [5]

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. [1] 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).

Vesting requirements

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.

Administrative Expenses

TSP's operating expenses are extremely low. [lower-alpha 3] 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.

Investment options

Fund selection

The TSP offers investors 15 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 ten 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. [6] Websites such as TSPTALK discuss whether participants should move contributions and balances regularly between funds.

Individual funds

Lifecycle Funds

In July 2020, the TSP introduced the Lifecycle Fund series in five-year increments. 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 63 for first withdrawal), allow for automatic reallocation [13] 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: [14]

The L 2010 and L 2020 Funds were retired on December 31, 2010 and June 30, 2020, respectively, and merged into the L Income Fund. [15] As new funds are established, 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. [16] 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.)

The TSP can also be approximated by tracking the performance of the index each fund seeks to match. [17]

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. [18]

TSP withdrawals

During employment

Loan program

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.

In-service withdrawals

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. Employees may make up to four such withdrawals per calendar year, but no sooner than every 30 days between them.

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.


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):

If an employee has both a traditional and a Roth account, withdrawals may be made from one or the other, or proportionally from both (but if one account reaches zero future withdrawals will be made from the other). For employees having multiple TSP accounts, the rules apply to each account separately. However, an employee cannot choose to withdraw from only certain funds (e.g. only from the C Fund), any withdrawals are made proportionally across all funds.

Any funds remaining in a TSP account will accrue earnings and participants may make interfund transfer 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" [lower-alpha 5] is used, as follows:

Planned Changes to TSP Regulations

From time to time TSP announces changes to regulations affecting it; the intent is usually to increase participation and investment.

Changes which have been announced, but not yet implemented, are as follows:

Planned changes to catch-up contributions

Currently, employees 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 on an annual basis must total the regular IRS limit) and a separate form for catch-up contributions, and the catch-up form must be re-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 and related earnings.

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. [19]


  1. The fund chosen is based on an assumed age of 63 as to when withdrawals will begin.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Related Research Articles

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