Odd Aspects of the TSP

The TSP is an excellent retirement savings plan for federal employees, but as the author explains, it can have some drawbacks.

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is widely known as one of the best retirement plans available. It excels at being simple and having low cost, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some frustrating aspects to it.

The decision to keep TSP in retirement is an important one. The odd aspects of the TSP should definitely be a factor in one’s decision to keep your TSP or transfer to an IRA.

Mandatory withholding

Isn’t this one fun? The IRS is going to tax you regardless of how and when you pull money out of TSP, but the TSP has their own set of rules for how much they will withhold on distributions. Be sure to become familiar with how withholding works.

Can’t specify funds for distribution

The TSP doesn’t allow you to determine where your distributions come from. Any TSP distribution will be proportionate to your TSP allocation. For example, if you have 60% in the C fund and 40% in the G fund, your distribution will come from 60% C fund and 40% G fund. 

Many people plan to use the bucket or barbell strategy in retirement. These strategies are based on discriminating from stock and bond withdrawals.

To summarize the strategy, a retiree would withdraw from bond investments in years when the market is down and continue to do so until the stocks recover. With the prorated distribution method of TSP, a retiree would have to rebalance after every distribution. In other words, it would make these strategies more difficult to implement in retirement. 

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) on Roth TSP

This is very unfortunate since many people with the Roth TSP plan on leaving the funds to their beneficiaries income tax free. What makes it even more frustrating is that Roth IRAs don’t have the same rules. The glimmer of light here is that participants have the option of rolling the Roth TSP to a Roth IRA to avoid RMDs.

Beneficiaries of a Beneficiary Participant Account (BPA) can’t do an inherited IRA

This is potentially a BIG deal. Surviving spouses can maintain the TSP as a Beneficiary Participant Account if the TSP holder passes first. At the surviving spouse’s death, all funds must be withdrawn from TSP. 

A beneficiary can typically move an IRA or retirement account to an inherited IRA which gives them a 10-year window to remove funds. This 10-year window can potentially save the beneficiary tens of thousands of dollars, versus withdrawing all of the funds in one year. 

The TSP does not allow a beneficiary to transfer funds from a BPA TSP to an inherited IRA. Per the TSP:

If a beneficiary participant dies, the new beneficiary(ies) cannot continue to maintain the account in the TSP. Also, the death benefit payment cannot be transferred or rolled over into any type of IRA or plan.

Death Benefits Information for Participants and Beneficiaries

This could make a beneficiary pay the top current tax rate of 37% on distributions versus a lower tax rate that could be as low as 12%.

Lifecycle funds are overly conservative

The is one of the reasons that I’m not a fan of Lifecycle funds. The TSP’s Lifecycle funds are much more conservative than comparable target date funds.

Here is a quick comparison to other target date funds (approximate allocations according to each company’s website).

The Lifecycle 2040 fund has at least 10% more bonds than each of the other three funds. What I have found is that this can lead to federal employees and retirees being more conservative than they intend to be, or than they should be. 

Won’t allow TSP conversions

The TSP does not allow in plan conversions, therefore there is no way to get your traditional TSP dollars into Roth TSP. Conversions are easy to do once your money is in an IRA. 

Won’t allow a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD)

A QCD is a method of charitable giving from an IRA. Those age 70.5 and older can give up to $100,000 a year to a charity directly from their IRA. This essentially enables people to take distributions from IRAs without paying taxes on them. The QCD can also count for as all or part of a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) for those that are age 72 or older. Utilizing QCDs from an IRA can be a very tax efficient way of giving.

Figure out what is best for you!

Some people may be fine with the nuances mentioned above, yet others may not be. If there are a couple of characteristics that you don’t like, you should look at transferring to an IRA. Whatever you choose, remember that it’s not an all or nothing choice. If you like the benefits of an IRA but love the security of the G fund, you could do a partial transfer to an IRA and leave some funds in TSP. 

About the Author

Brad Bobb is a financial planner with over a decade of experience working with federal employees. He is acutely focused on the financial livelihood of employees who are part of the CSRS or FERS systems. Any federal employee with a question can email him or visit bobbfinancial.com.