If you’ve read my article about the advantages of investing in the TSP, then you know that I believe the TSP is a great way for many military members and government employees to invest for retirement. However, there are also several drawbacks to investing in the TSP.
Disadvantages to Investing in the TSP
I will throw a caveat out there before I list some perceived disadvantages with the Thrift Savings Plan – the TSP is still a great investment vehicle for the majority of federal employees and military members who are eligible to participate in the TSP, especially with the new Roth TSP option, which recently became available to TSP participants.
Limited investment choices. There are only 5 investment choices (not counting Life Cycle Funds), which is a benefit and a drawback. The simplicity that makes investing in the TSP can also be a detriment to those who have a better understanding of investing or would like to further diversify beyond a few index funds. With the TSP you can not invest in REITs, or individual sectors such as technology, precious metals, healthcare, emerging markets, etc.
Limited tracking in money software. The second drawback is the inability to link to home finance programs such as Quicken, or MS Money. You can manually input your data into these programs, but there is no automatic download feature. So you must manually change it every time you invest, rebalance your portfolio, etc. That can be a pain, but it’s necessary if you want to have a clear picture of your net worth, asset allocation, performance, etc. (The TSP states the reason they do not offer this feature is to maintain low costs.)
No matching funds for military. Unless you are civil service, you do not get matching funds. In that case, it is usually better to max out your Roth IRA before contributing to the TSP. (This has changed to a limited degree since the initial publication of this article; military branches have the option of offering matching funds to service members, but only do so on a limited basis – usually only as a retention bonus. All matching funds come out of personnel budgets, which limits the service branches ability to do this on a full scale basis).
Difficult to track gains. The TSP site does not track cost basis. This is important to know for tracking purposes and monitoring your investments. You can do this manually, but if you did not do this from the time you began investing in the TSP, you will never get a truly accurate picture. A work around for this would be to use your current value as a cost basis, then track from now on. This will not give you a true cost basis from inception, but it will allow you to track annual growth. (But the TSP has well known index funds so they should be easy to track manually).
Inability to contribute after government service ends. Finally, once your service with the government is through, you can no longer contribute to the plan. However, this is just like any other 401k plan. You do have the option to leave your funds within the TSP, you can roll them into a different 401k plan, or roll them into a traditional IRA. Here are some more options.
The TSP is still a great investment option!
This article is not meant to dissuade you from contributing to the TSP, or look for other alternatives. This is simply meant to point out a few areas that more advanced investors may feel are limitations.
All in all, I still think the TSP is a good way to go for government employees looking for an easy to use and inexpensive retirement system. The pros far outweigh any cons, and regularly contributing to your TSP can be a great way to prepare for your retirement.