The Thrift Savings Plan is a great investment opportunity for military service members and eligible civil service members working for the US government. The TSP offers the opportunity to save in a traditional or Roth retirement account. And while the TSP doesn’t offer too many investment options, it offers among the lowest cost investment funds you will find anywhere.
The Thrift Savings Plan is virtually identical for military members and civil service members, but there are some small differences you should be aware of.
The first is that they are actually housed under different plans. You can have a military TSP account and a civil service TSP account, but they will be separate accounts. You can be eligible for both accounts if you worked for one agency and then another, or even if you work for both at the same time (this is common for many Guard or Reserve members who are dual status technicians).
You also cannot combine these accounts if you are still eligible to contribute to both of them. You can only combine them after you are no longer eligible to contribute to one or both of them. (Even then, you may not wish to combine your military TSP account if you have contributions that were made in a tax-free zone).
Another big difference is that civil service members have an automatic agency matching contribution added to their account. In fact, matching contributions are automatic for new employees.
This was not the case for military members until January 1, 2018, and only if the member had either opted into the Blended Retirement System or joined the military after January 1, 2018, and were automatically enrolled in the BRS.
Matching TSP Contributions for Military? Only in the Blended Retirement System
As a general rule of thumb, military members who are in the High 3, or High Pay, or REDUX retirement plans are not eligible for matching TSP contributions. This has changed for those who participate in the Blended Retirement System.
Let’s take a look at agency matching contributions, then dive into why military members don’t get them.
Thrift Savings Plan Matching Contributions
This chart shows how Thrift Savings Plan matching contributions are made for civil service employees who fall under the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). Federal employees under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) system are not eligible for agency contributions to their Thrift Savings Plan account.
As you can see from the chart above, civil service members get a 1% agency contribution regardless of whether or not they elect to defer any of their own pay. FERS Civil Service members will then receive a 1% match for the next 2% of their pay that they defer, for a total of 5% contribution (2% member deferral, 1% automatic agency contribution, and 2% match = 5%).
FERS Civil Service members receive 0.5% match for each of the next two percentage points of pay they defer, up to a total agency contribution of 5% (1% automatic contribution, plus up to 4% matching contribution).
Most Military Members Don’t Get Matching TSP Contributions
If have been in the military for more than a few years, you are probably wondering why you don’t get matching TSP contributions. It’s not that military members can’t get them, it’s that you probably don’t.
The secretary of each branch of the armed forces is authorized to allow matching contributions for servicemembers in critical specialties. These matching contributions are generally given as incentives to servicemembers who agree to serve 6 years on active duty in those specialties. According to Wikipedia, the last time this was available was the end of 2008.
Of course, this has changed with the new Blended Retirement System, which combines the traditional pension with the Thrift Savings Plan.
How Matching TSP Contributions Work for Military Members
Matching contributions are only made to contributions from base pay. So any incentive pay, special duty pay, bonuses or other pay used to fund your Thrift Savings Plan won’t count toward your matching contributions.
After that, the formula is similar to to the civil service formula.
Members will receive a 1% automatic contribution to their TSP account.
After that, they will receive a 1% matching contribution for the first 2% of their pay they contribute. Members will then receive a 0.5% match on for each of the next two percentage points of pay they defer.
The maximum matching contribution is up to 5% of the member’s pay. Members can contribute more than 5% of their pay if they wish (and their future self will be happy they did!). But they will only receive a match on the first 5% they contribute.
Why Don’t All Military Members Get Matching Contributions?
All members who join the military on or after January 1, 2018, will receive matching contributions to their TSP because they will automatically be enrolled in the Blended Retirement System.
But others who joined before that date and chose not to switch to the BRS will not receive matching TSP contributions.
In theory, the secretary of each branch had the power to allow this. However, these funds would need to come out of personnel funds, which are limited each year by budgets mandated by Congress. In other words, they could do it, but they would have to cut funds elsewhere.
Those funds are generally allocated to other needs, such as paying military salaries, selective enlistment and reenlistment bonuses, retention pay, and more. Giving everyone a matching contribution would mean cutting force strength numbers, which would leave the services shorthanded.
How to Use This When Making Investment Decisions
You should look at all your options when trying to decide between investing in the TSP or another investment opportunity. In general, most military members should be eligible to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan and an IRA.
Which is better? It depends on your situation. We covered this in more depth in the following article: comparing TSP and an IRA.
Bottom line: Don’t get caught up on whether or not you receive a matching contribution. It’s neither fair nor unfair. It just is. The important thing is to look at the opportunities available to you and take advantage of them. In my opinion, the Thrift Savings Plan rocks. It’s a great opportunity, with or without a matching contribution. Take advantage of it. You will happy with yourself 20 or 30 years from now when you see a 5 or 6 figure balance in your TSP account.