When I separated from the USAF in 2006, I was faced with a decision regarding my Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Since I would no longer be a member of the armed forces, I could no longer contribute to the TSP. So what should I do? In the end I decided to leave the money in there, but I’ll walk you through your options so you can make an informed decision if ever the need arises.
Options for your TSP when you leave the service
The TSP plan is similar to a civilian 401(k) plan. Members contribute pre-tax money into their Thrift Savings Plan account and only pay taxes when they withdraw the money. When your employment ends with the military or civil service and you can no longer contribute to your TSP account, you are faced with several decisions regarding your TSP account. Your options are similar to those with a civilian 401(k) plan.
There are 5 options for your TSP account.
- Leave the assets in your TSP account.
- Roll your TSP account assets into an IRA
- Roll your TSP account into your new employer’s 401(k) plan.
- Withdraw your TSP account assets in a lump sum.
- Transfer your TSP account assets to a qualified annuity.
Let’s take a closer look at your options:
1. Leave TSP account assets in your account.
The easiest thing to do is leave your assets in your TSP account. However, you need to keep in mind that you will not be able to make additional deposits to your account once you are no longer part of the uniformed services or civil service.
Advantages: The TSP is a great place to invest for retirement. The TSP is easy to use, and while it doesn’t have many investment choices, the fees are among the lowest you can possibly find – even lower than most popular index funds. You always maintain the option of moving your funds from the TSP at a later date. There are also special tax considerations if you invested in your TSP while deployed to a war zone. Read more about advantages of investing in the TSP.
Disadvantages: The TSP has limited investment options. There are only 5 main funds to choose from and a few target funds. You will also not be able to make new contributions or take loans from your old TSP account. Having one more account to keep track of can also be a headache for some people. Not only does it involve more work when balancing your assets, but you also must maintain more paperwork. Read more about disadvantages of investing in the TSP.
Verdict: The fees charged to manage the Thrift Savings Plan are probably the lowest you will ever find. Consider leaving your funds in the TSP unless you don’t want to deal with extra paper work or you want more investment options. Otherwise, consider rolling your TSP account assets into your new 401(k) plan if you have one, or one of the other following options.
2. Roll your TSP assets into an IRA
Rolling your Thrift Savings Plan assets into a Traditional IRA will help you avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty. You will also control your IRA and have unlimited investment options. If you enjoy hands on investments, then rolling your TSP into an IRA may be for you.
Advantages: The biggest advantages of rolling over your TSP into an IRA are avoiding the 10% early withdrawal penalty, maintaining certain tax advantages, and controlling your investment options which will no longer limited to the investment options in the Thrift Savings Plan or your new employer’s 401(k) plan. Total control allows you to limit your expenses and maintain full control of your investment. Also note that rolling your TSP assets into an IRA does not mean it is final – you may be able to roll it into your new 401(k) plan later.
Disadvantages: You will not be able to take loans from your TSP, which you would have been able to do if you rolled it into your new employer’s 401(k) plan. It is also easier to make withdrawals from 401(k) plans under certain circumstances.
Verdict: Consider this option if you want total control over your investments, you want more investment options, your new employer’s 401(k) plan does not offer strong investment options, or you want to consolidate your investment holdings into fewer accounts.
3. Roll your TSP assets into new employer’s 401(k) plan
This is a good option if your new employer’s 401(k) plan has strong investment options and low expense ratios. Another thing to consider is reducing the number of investment accounts you have to keep track of, maintain, and balance.
Advantages: Your retirement assets maintain their tax advantages and there are no penalties or fees to transfer or your money. You can borrow against your 401(k) if you want, and you will minimize the number of retirement accounts you have.
Disadvantages: You are limited to your new plan’s investment options. This is important if your new 401(k) plan has limited investment options or higher than average expense ratios, which cause lower returns. Some employers have a minimum waiting period before you can sign up for their 401(k) plan, so you may have to wait before you can rollover your TSP assets.
Verdict: Consider this option if your new plan has strong investment options and/or you want to reduce the number of retirement accounts you need to maintain.
4. Withdraw your TSP assets in a lump sum
Withdrawing your Thrift Savings Plan assets in a lump sum is not usually recommended because you will be assessed with taxes (usually 20%) and early withdrawal penalties (10%). Together, these can eat up nearly a third of your total TSP assets.
Possible Advantages: Your assets (minus income taxes and early withdrawal penalties) will be available for immediate use. This can help during periods of unemployment after separating form the military or civil service.
Disadvantages: The huge tax payment and the 10% early withdrawal penalty (if you are under age 59½) reduces the amount you receive by almost a third. In addition you also all lose tax deferral benefits, potential future earnings, and lock in any market losses. Most importantly, you reduce the amount of money you have for your retirement.
You can change your mind within 60 days. The law requires your old fund manager to deduct 20% of your withdrawal for taxes at the time of withdrawal. If you change your mind, there is a 60-day rollover rule which allows you to roll the money into an IRA within 60 days. However, you will be required to come up with the 20% difference to reinvest the entire amount and avoid paying income taxes. You will get the 20% back when you file taxes the following year as long as you complete the rollover within 60 days.
Verdict: Consider this option only if you need the funds immediately and you cannot meet those expenses through other means. But I strongly advise you to speak with a financial planner to look at other options before doing this.
5. Transfer the assets to a qualified annuity
The final option is to transfer your TSP assets into a qualified deferred annuity. This is an an option few people are aware of, and one not many people use. In many cases it is not the best option. As with rolling over TSP assets into an IRA or 401(k), the assets will remain tax deferred and you will not pay early withdrawal penalties.
Possible Advantages: An annuity is similar to a “personal” pension and creates an income stream for life. Retirement plans such as the TSP, IRAs, and 401(k)s are limited to the amount of money you are able to invest and you can outlive them. Your heirs may be able to inherit a portion of your annuity if you pass away during the accumulation phase.
Possible Disadvantages: Rolling your TSP into an annuity is final. Once it has been done, it cannot be reversed. Many annuities come with much higher fees than 401(k) plans and IRAs, and many states charge high tax premiums on annuity plans. In addition, you may pass away before your annuity pays out the amount of money you would have had in your 401(k) or IRA, leaving nothing for your heirs.
Verdict: Annuities are not necessarily bad, but there are often complicated and have many associated variables. If you think an annuity may be for you, consider talking to a certified financial planner or other tax or retirement professional for more details. One more note concerning annuities: beware of salesmen. Many annuities are given the hard sell because they are often extremely profitable for the investment management company.
Best options for your Thrift Savings Plan account
In most cases, the best option will be to transfer your TSP assets to your new 401(k) plan, an IRA, or leave your assets in the TSP account. Your should base your decision on your situation.
What did I do with my TSP account?
I chose to leave my TSP alone because the portion of money you invest in your TSP account while in a tax free combat zone will remain tax free, even when you withdraw it during retirement. I deployed 5 times while I was in the service, so I was able to invest a decent amount of tax free money in my TSP.
Do you have a 401(k) plan you need to transfer? Then check out this article: Should you consolidate 401(k) accounts? This article looks at the same situation rolling over a TSP account.