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Investments in Roth accounts, including Roth IRAs or the Roth TSP, earn favorable tax treatment. You pay taxes on the money when you earn it, but your investments will grow without the drag of taxes until you reach retirement age when you can also make tax-free withdrawals from these funds. In short, you pay the taxes once upfront, and never pay taxes on those investments again.
However, Roth investments have different rules than traditional retirement plans, especially when it comes to the Thrift Savings Plan.
The TSP Does Not Accept Roth IRA Transfers
Here’s a great reader question on getting the most out of your Thrift Savings Plan:
I frequently read your website and find your advice very helpful, and I am looking to make some money moves that I’m not sure are possible. I have a Roth IRA with a lot of money in it, and a Roth TSP with a lot less money in it. I like the simplicity and low expenses of the TSP, and I would like to move the funds from my Roth IRA to my Roth TSP, if possible.
My search brought up the TSP-60-R form, but in bold at the top states “The TSP does not accept transfers from Roth IRAs.”
Are there any tricks or a way for me to accomplish this? Could I convert my Roth IRA to a Traditional IRA, and then use the TSP-60-R form?
Also, since using the Roth TSP, I can’t figure out how to send money directly into my account. In other words, I have my allocation set up to deduct a certain percentage from my pay, which is automatically invested in the funds I have picked. But let’s say I get a $1000 tax refund at the end of the year and want to put that in my TSP. I haven’t figured out a way to do that. Do you know if that’s possible?
First, congratulations on being way ahead of more than half of the military’s servicemembers who haven’t even signed up for the TSP. You’re also way ahead of your peers for asking advanced questions about moving your IRA into the TSP.
It’s also important to state upfront that your financial situation is unique to you, and you should work closely with your financial advisor (if you have one) to get the best possible and most current information regarding your financial affairs.
You’re right about not being able to move your Roth IRA into your Roth TSP. I’m not sure why that can’t be done (maybe that prohibition is in the legislation and the tax code) but perhaps it’s because the Roth TSP is known as a “designated Roth account” and a Roth IRA is not. The difference is important to the Internal Revenue Service (and to financial planners & advisers) because the Roth TSP is still subject to required minimum distributions while a Roth IRA is not.
Because of this, transferring a Roth IRA into your TSP account is not an option. But you may have other options for your Roth IRA. Let’s look at some of those options and some of the associated pros and cons.
Can Roth IRAs be Transferred?
The answer is yes, Roth IRAs can be transferred.
But I wouldn’t convert a Roth IRA to a traditional IRA to move it to the traditional TSP because there are better ways to achieve your goal. The other issue with that type of conversion is that when you eventually started to make withdrawals from your traditional account, the gains of your traditional IRA (and traditional TSP) would be taxable.
You could avoid some of those taxes after you left the military if your taxable income is low enough to do annual incremental Roth IRA conversions in the 0% tax bracket. It’s a challenge to calculate whether you’d pay more taxes on the gains than you’d pay in expenses, and the tracking and conversion effort would be substantial. Luckily, there’s a better choice which I’ll explain in a few paragraphs.
You’re also right about not being able to send your savings or investments directly to your TSP account. Again, federal law permits non-Roth after-tax contributions to designated Roth accounts but few employers offer this option. The TSP does not offer this because they’re not willing to pay the expenses (computer systems, tracking, audits, payroll) of this feature either. It’s part of the reason they’re able to keep their expense ratios so low.
The most practical way to contribute to the TSP is through your base pay. (You could also contribute special pay, incentive pay, and bonuses.) Increase your myPay deduction to the TSP for a few months (to maximize your contributions) and then live off your money in your non-TSP accounts.
For example, you could live off your $1000 tax refund while raising your Roth TSP contribution by an extra $1000.* Once you reach $1708/month in deductions to the TSP you’ll meet the annual $22,500 limit (for 2023). If you happen to exceed $22,500 for some reason, the TSP’s computer systems will kick back anything over $22,500. When you’re deployed to a combat zone, that limit is $66,000 (for 2023).
Another (not very effective) way to get some of your Roth IRA into the TSP would be to withdraw your Roth IRA contributions. The tax code allows withdrawing Roth IRA contributions at any time for any reason (you’ve already paid tax on them). You could raise your paycheck deductions to the TSP while living off the Roth IRA contributions. But I wouldn’t recommend this choice either, because there’s still a better way.
Let’s get back to your original goal: minimal expenses with simplicity.
Here’s a Better Way
The easiest way to replicate the TSP’s simplicity and low expenses is to put your Roth IRA in similar funds that are available from large financial institutions.
The TSP’s equity funds replicate indexes that include the stocks of large American companies (the S&P500 index), the stocks of medium and small American companies (the rest of the market, not in the S&P500), and the stocks of international companies. The TSP’s executive board pays a subcontractor financial firm named Blackrock to manage the funds.
You can find similar passively-managed equity index funds with low expense ratios at other large financial firms.
For example, the TSP’s C, S, and I funds have expense ratios of about 0.055%. (Read the footnotes at that link to learn the details of how the world’s largest index funds can have such low expenses.) Vanguard, Fidelity, and USAA offer similar funds that you can buy in your Roth IRA and your taxable accounts. (Check this fund comparison chart at the Bogleheads Wiki.) They don’t all have the rock-bottom expenses of the TSP but they’ll be lower than most other fund companies.
Right now Vanguard’s version of the TSP’s C fund actually offers an expense ratio of 0.020%, even lower than the TSP C fund. The catch is that you’d have to deposit $100M (the “Warren Buffett” level!) to achieve that expense ratio, but Vanguard’s 500 Index Fund has an expense ratio of 0.04% for balances over $3,000. Fidelity’s Spartan 500 Index Fund has a similar expense ratio for the same minimum balance.
Take a look at Morningstar’s latest report on mutual fund fees. Considering how the rest of the industry is “servicing” its customers, you’ll pay low fees with whichever of the above three makes you happiest.
Boost your TSP contributions to the maximum allowed (depending on your deployment situation), maximize your contributions to your Roth IRA in those other funds, and then invest even more in taxable accounts with those same index funds.
You can easily transfer your Roth IRA from your current company to Fidelity, Vanguard, or USAA. Set up an account on their website and they’ll do the entire transfer for you, including contacting your current Roth IRA custodian to handle the details. You would have no tax impact if you chose to replace your current funds in your Roth IRA with the Fidelity/Vanguard/USAA TSP equivalents. If you sold your current funds in your taxable accounts to buy those other funds then you might have to pay capital gains tax on the realized gains of your current funds. From then on, though, you’d be paying lower expenses in your new funds.
One more tweak: passively-managed index funds invested in international stocks tend to have higher expense ratios than index funds owning American stocks. If your asset allocation includes international equities (for diversification) then put your international allocation in the TSP’s I fund. You can make up your asset allocation to American stocks with equity index funds in your Roth IRAs and taxable accounts.
People are frequently reluctant to contribute “too much” to the TSP because they might want that money before they reach the age of 59.5 for penalty-free withdrawals. However, the federal tax law has several other penalty-free ways to tap the funds in the TSP before age 59.5, and they only require a little advance planning. (Before tapping the TSP, you’d also withdraw your contributions to your Roth IRAs.)
The reality is that if you maximize your Roth TSP funds contributions every year, maximize your Roth IRA funds contributions, and save even more in taxable accounts, then you’ll have plenty of funds to live on after the military while you’re getting ready to tap your TSP. Most of my older readers have reported that they won’t even need to touch it before age 70, let alone age 59.5 because they have income from bridge careers or military pensions, or they’re already financially independent. I’d suggest that younger readers should maximize their TSP contributions every year before that opportunity is lost forever.
If these manipulations seem a little daunting– or if you just want a second opinion– then I recommend contacting a fee-only financial planner (fee-only means no products or commissions or upsells).
For those readers with other types of tax-deferred investment accounts:
- The Roth TSP will happily accept your transfer of your Roth 401(k) and your Roth 403(b).
- The traditional TSP will accept your transfer of your 401(k), your traditional IRA, your SIMPLE IRA, your 403(b), or your 457(b).
- See this two-minute video on the TSP’s YouTube channel.
* (You could also adjust your W-4 withholding to receive smaller income-tax refunds, but right now you’re “close enough” with a $1000 refund on your current salary. Optimizing your tax withholding (and minimizing your refund) is always a good idea if you have the time to project your annual income and estimate the tax bill. However, you’d rather get a small refund than a large bill, especially if that bill has late-payment penalties and interest.)
How to Transfer an IRA Into a TSP
Although you can’t move money from a Roth IRA into your TSP account, you can move money from a traditional IRA into your TSP account. There are two ways to do this.
You can have your traditional IRA money transferred directly into your TSP. This is also often referred to as a transfer or direct rollover. You initiate the transaction but you don’t deposit the money yourself. It’s done between your IRA plan custodian and the TSP.
The other way is for you to roll over your money. In this case, the payment is made to you from your traditional IRA and you will must deposit it yourself into the TSP within 60 days after you receive your payment.
You cannot roll the following types of funds into either the Roth or Traditional balance of your TSP:
- Money that is not in a qualified plan;
- Money in a Roth IRA;
- The contributions component from a traditional non-deductible IRA; and
- Any money that is not yours, even if it is in a qualified plan (e.g., money in the qualified plan of a spouse, etc.).
To transfer or roll over a traditional IRA into your TSP account, you and the IRA custodian must complete Form TSP-60, Request for a Transfer Into the TSP.
Tax rules regarding transfers and IRA adn TSP rollovers can be complicated. You should consult a qualified tax advisor to ensure that you are fully informed about the tax consequences of this kind of transaction.
You can roll these types of funds into the traditional balance of your TSP:
- Money from a traditional employer-sponsored plan, such as a traditional 401(k) that you had either before or after your federal career;
- Money from a traditional IRA where you have the option of deducting your IRA contributions from your federal income tax (called a “traditional deductible IRA”); and
- The earnings component from a traditional IRA where you haven’t been able to deduct your IRA contributions from your federal income tax (called a “Traditional non-deductible IRA”).
The Pros and Cons of Rolling Over Your IRA Into a TSP
It’s important to consider the impact on your retirement savings plan when you change jobs. The options for your 401(k) plan or your TSP account are:
- leave it with your old employer
- roll it over to your new employer’s 401(k) or TSP
- roll it over into an individual retirement plan account
- cash it out
Here are some things to consider if you’re contemplating rolling over your IRA into a TSP.
With an IRA, you have greater control over investments. With the TSP, you are restricted to a combination of five funds. If you’re a novice investor, restricting your choices makes it less likely you’ll make a mistake that could cost you dearly.
The TSP has a limited amount of low-cost investment options. You cannot trade individual stocks other mutual funds as a TSP participant. There also are not any alternative investments such as commodities and gold.
IRAs provide for greater portability. You can roll over from one custodian to another and typically keep your existing investments. The funds are only offered in the plan with a TSP, and no other custodian has them.
In an IRA, a professional investment advisor will directly manage IRA investments. This can benefit those who value the advice of an investment manager. However, this investment advice comes at a price in the form of fees that are charged against the IRA. For example, if the fee is 1% of your assets, that could cost you $20,000 a year if you have a $2 million account. Conversely, the TSP has the lowest expense ratios in index funds at around 0.04%.
IRAs have less protection from creditors than TSP accounts.
Moving your funds from one investment vehicle to another is a difficult choice. In all cases, you should consult with a financial planner to ensure you make the right decision for your circumstances.
Military Guide to Financial Independence
This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent. Topics include:
- Military pension
- Tricare Health System
- & More