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Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) Quick Start Guide

Updated: Jan 7


The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is the retirement investment plan for federal employees and the DoD Uniformed Services. TSP closely resembles typical 401(k) plans that most civilian employers offer. TSP has nearly 6.2 million enrollees and around $732 Billion in assets under management making it one of the largest retirement funds in the United States.


Unfortunately, new TSP enrollees receive little to no education when they start an account. The TSP board of Directors has made many quality of life improvements since I first enrolled 16 years ago. Back then I was given a piece of paper and told to sign up. That was it. For example, new enrollees are now automatically place in life cycle funds (which we'll cover) vice the G fund. Recently, they've revamped the website and even added mutual funds. In this article we'll cover the basic, the different funds, and a few investing strategies.


Table of Contents

What is the Thrift Savings Plan?


Thrift Savings Plan Funds

Lifecycle Funds

TSP G Fund

TSP F Fund

TSP C Fund

TSP S Fund

TSP I Fund

TSP Mutual Funds


TSP Investing Strategies

Beginner

Intermediate

Advanced


TSP Loans

TSP Withdrawal



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Thrift Savings Plan Login

One of the first things you want to do is ensure you can access your TSP login information, without it you won't be able to take any action on your account. Log in at TSP.gov.


Account issues can be resolved by calling the thrift savings plan phone number at 1-877-968-3778. The secondary TSP contact number for international calls is (404) 233-4400 (not toll-free).


Business Hours: Monday - Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. eastern time


These are the phone number for what TSP calls the Thrift Line. For general inquiries, you can email thriftline@tsp.gov. Do not email personally identifiable information or documents. Please note that you cannot request account transactions by email.


The address for the thrift savings plan is:


ThriftLine Service Center

C/O Broadridge Processing

PO Box 1600

Newark, NJ 07101-1600


Thrift Savings Plan App

Recently, the federal thrift savings plan created an app that you can use to manage your account. This is a vast improvement over the legacy computer only based service. I highly recommend you download the TSP App off the the Official TSP Website here.


What is the Thrift Savings Plan?

TSP allows automatic payroll deductions up $22,500 annually (TSP Max contribution for 2023). Investors over the age of 50 can add an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions annually in 2023. They also allow Tax Deferred (Traditional), Roth, or a combination of those two for your contributions. The basics of Traditional versus Roth are:


Traditional - Contributions are made pre-tax. You pay no tax now but will pay tax on withdrawal on both your contributions and the compound interest they generate when you retire. For example, if you withdrew $1,000 and pay 10% tax, only $900 goes to you. Lastly, one benefit to traditional contributions is that they lower your taxable income.


Roth - Contributions are made post-tax. You pay the taxes now so your withdrawals are tax free at retirement. You don't pay tax on the compound interest. For example, if you withdrew $1,000 you would get the full $1,000.


The right choice is based on your personal finance goals and there isn't a one size fits all option. I recommend you run the numbers using TSP retirement calculator or one of the other Thrift savings plan calculators.


Thrift Savings Plan Funds

TSP can be broken down into two types of funds, life cycle or L Funds and Individual Funds. TSP recently added mutual funds as well which will be covered after the individual funds. Simply put, funds are investment tools you can allocate your money towards. It's important to note that you can set up percentages for your contributions to go across multiple fund types. As mentioned above, if you're a new enrollee your contributions will automatically be set up to contribute into an L Fund appropriate for your retirement year. Let's break down the funds to get an understanding of each and review TSP fund performance before we cover investment strategies.


You can find TSP share price history here.


TSP L Funds or Lifecycle Funds

As of 2022, there are ten L Funds available. L funds typically invest in a diversified breakdown of the individual funds offered by TSP. TSP automatically adjusts the percentages as you get closer to retirement. The goals is to be riskier (providing potentially better returns) when first starting out and moving to safer funds as you get closer to retirement. L Funds have associated target retirement dates like L 2050 which targets the retirement date of 2050. Once an L Fund reaches its target date it will automatically move to L Income. Per the TSP website, L Income is for those at retirement age who are currently withdrawing from TSP. It also receives their lowest risk rating and has produced a 4%~ return since inception.

L Income versus L2040 versus L2050 Comparison
L Fund Comparisons (Source: TSP Website)

Listed above is the comparison tool off of the TSP Website that highlights L Income, L 2040, and L 2050. This was generated on 13DEC2022, where the market had fallen 15.66% by that time year to date (YTD). You can see that the L 2050 fund had lost the most while L Income performed better since it tries to be "safer" to preserve your balance while at retirement age. Conversely, L 2050 has posted better returns (8.58% lifetime) over the conservative L Income fund in the last 3, 5, and 10 years. These are just examples and the funds past performance may not play out the same into the future.


TSP Individual Funds

Individual funds fall into lettered funds, G Fund, F Fund, C Fund, S Fund, and I Fund. Each attaches itself to a different segment of the market, tries to match an index, or purchases certain asset classes. As such, each individual fund has it's own goals that can help you as an investor when choosing fund allocation. Let's take a look at each fund.


TSP G Fund

G Fund also known as Government Securities Investment Fund, invests in Government securities issued by the United States treasury. It consists of 100% Short-term U.S. Treasury securities. This fund is all about capital preservation. This comes with the downside that your returns could be outpaced by inflation which would erode your purchasing power over time.


From the TSP website:

The G Fund’s investment objective is to ensure preservation of capital and generate returns above those of short-term U.S. Treasury securities.


Below are few charts that show the rate of return and growth of $100 invested since the funds inception. Updated charts can be found here.

G Fund VS L Income Return Rates
G Fund VS L Income Return Rates
G Fund growth of $100 since inception.
G Fund Growth

TSP F Fund

The F Fund or Fixed Income Index Investment Fund tracks the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, a broadly diversified index of the U.S. bond market. Bonds and Interest rates typically have an inverse relationship so in periods of falling interest rates, the F Fund will experience gains from the resulting rise in bond prices. This is seen when reviewing the short term returns for the fund since interest rates have been rising to combat inflation. Bonds are used by typical investors to offset volatility in their portfolios. A typical investment allocation that commonly gets referenced is 60/40 or 60% Stocks and 40% bonds.


From the TSP website:

The F Fund's investment objective is to match the performance of the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, a broad index representing the U.S. bond market.


Below are few charts that show the rate of return and growth of $100 invested since the funds inception. Updated Charts can be found here.

Chart showing F Fund vs the US AGG Index
F Fund VS US AGG Index
Chart showing Growth of $100 inside the F Fund since inception
F Fund Growth
Chart of the F fund Allocation breakdown
F fund Allocation

TSP C Fund

The C Fund or Common Stock Index Investment Fund offers the opportunity to experience gains from equity ownership of large and mid-sized U.S. companies. The C Fund tracks the SP500 Index. The SP500 index contains 500 leading U.S. companies so you won't get international exposure with this fund. The SP500 is one of the major benchmarks used to measure overall stock market performance. It's also been used by investors as a "fire and forget" investing strategy, where they solely invest in SP500 indexes. This fund is 100% stocks so it comes with higher risk than the G or F Fund but has historically posted better returns in the long term. It's important to note that the SP500 companies change over time as the market evolves which helps ensure that you stay continually invested in the leading companies, when a company falls off or is added to the SP500 you don't have to do anything different. The fund will adjust accordingly. Below is an example of the C Fund's Top 10 Holdings.

Chart showing the C Fund's top 10 holdings
C Fund Top 10 Holdings

From the TSP Website

The C Fund's investment objective is to match the performance of the Standard and Poor's 500 (S&P 500) Index, a broad market index made up of stocks of 500 large to medium-sized U.S. companies.


Below are few charts that show the rate of return and growth of $100 invested since the funds inception. Updated Charts can be found here.

Charted C Fund VS SP500 performance since inception
C Fund VS SP500
Chart showing the growth of $100 invested in the C Fund since inception
C Fund Growth
Chart showing the C Fund's sector allocation
C Fund Sector Allocation

TSP S Fund

The S Fund or Small cap stock Index investment fund tracks the top85% of U.S. companies, not including stocks tracked by the SP500. That's 3,741 companies as of December 2022. This diversification helps you potentially capture returns posted by small and mid-cap companies inside the stock market. Just like the C Fund, this fund offers no international exposure. You can use this fund to further diversify your portfolio across more companies not covered by the C Fund. As with the C Fund, this fund is 100% stocks so it comes with larger risk than the G and F Funds. Below is an example of the S Fund's Top 10 Holdings:

Chart showing the S Funds top 10 holdings
S Fund Top 10 Holdings

From the TSP Website:

The S Fund's investment objective is to match the performance of the Dow Jones U.S. Completion Total Stock Market Index, a broad market index made up of stocks of small-to-medium U.S. companies not included in the S&P 500 Index.


Below are few charts that show the rate of return and growth of $100 invested since the funds inception. Updated Charts can be found here.

Chart showing the S Fund returns versus the Dow Jones
S Fund VS Dow Jones
Chart showing S fund growth since inception
S Fund Growth
Chart showing the S Fund's Sector allocation
S Fund Sector Allocation

TSP I Fund

The I Fund or International Stock Index Investment Fund is TSP's international exposure offering. The fund tracks the overall performance of the major companies and industries in the European, Australian, and Asian stock markets using the MSCI EAFE Index. It consists of 100% Non-U.S. companies. This is an important sector to consider because the US stock market has not always outpaced the international sector. There are times where international stocks perform better than the U.S. market. Adding this as a percentage of your overall portfolio allows you to capture those opportunities.


From the TSP Website:

The I Fund's investment objective is to match the performance of the MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australasia, Far East) Index.


Below are few charts that show the rate of return and growth of $100 invested since the funds inception. Updated Charts can be found here.

Charts showing I Fund versus the EAFE returns
I Fund VS EAFE
Chart showing the growth of $100 invested in the I Fund
I Fund Growth
Chart Showing which countries the I fund invests in
I Fund Top 10 Country Allocations

TSP Mutual Fund Window (Updated December 2022)

Mutual funds are new to TSP and offer greater investment flexibility. This is the first time that TSP has allowed it's investors to invest in assets outside the TSP Funds. The move comes with strict restrictions and higher fees. Hopefully, TSP removes some of these restrictions and lowers the fees to allow for younger investors to take advantage of this opportunity should they choose. Using the mutual fund window transfers money out of your account to open a separate investment account provided by TSP's mutual fund window vendor. Here is a link to TSP's Mutual Fund Window Fact Sheet.


From the TSP Website:

A mutual fund pools money from many investors and invests the money in securities such as stocks, bonds, and short-term debt. The combined holdings of the mutual fund are known as its portfolio. Mutual funds are companies, and investors buy shares in them just like people buy stock in other companies that produce goods or provide services. Each share of a mutual fund represents an investor’s part ownership in the fund and the income it generates.


Below are some of the restrictions and fees:

  • Your initial transfer to the mutual fund window must be $10,000 or more but may not be more than 25% of your total TSP savings.

  • You must have at least $40,000 in your TSP account to ensure that your initial transfer isn’t more than 25% of your total TSP savings.

You may not invest more than 25% of your total account balance in the mutual fund window at any time. This means younger TSP investors will have to wait until their accounts hit a $40,000 minimum prior to investing. Additionally, for those who prefer mutual funds over the TSP funds, the 25% cap will hold them back from allocating a larger position.


Fees you’ll pay

  • $55 annual administrative fee to ensure that use of the mutual fund window does not indirectly increase TSP administrative expenses for TSP participants who choose not to use the mutual fund window

  • $95 annual maintenance fee

  • $28.75 per-trade fee

  • Other fees and expenses specific to the mutual funds you choose, which you can review in each fund’s prospectus

These fees can start to add up if you aren't allocating a large enough percentage of your pay towards your TSP. My short term recommendation is to open your own retirement account with a broker of your choice to invest in Mutual funds, stocks, or ETFs. The fees will be less but you will have to manage two accounts, TSP and the other retirement account.


TSP Investing Strategies

There are multiple different investing strategies when it comes to TSP. Millions of possible allocation set-ups for each of the funds. This section is going to cover a basic overview of ways to invest within TSP. I won't be providing "example portfolios" but only high level recommendations so you can choose what works best for you based on time, interest, and the level of management you want to perform. I break these down into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.


Beginner

The beginner strategy is the easiest and requires little to no work on your end as the investor. The beginner strategy is simple: Use the target date Lifecycle funds for your retirement. This is great if you want no part in managing your TSP account other than funding your account. You can still choose Roth, Traditional, or a combination and the percentage of your pay you allocate to TSP. I highly recommend you allocate the minimum percentage to earn 100% of your employers TSP match. Essentially this makes your "initial return" on those funds double or 100% which is HUGE. Using this strategy allows TSP to move your funds around where they see fit based on when you want to retire. You fund the account and TSP does the rest.


Intermediate

The intermediate strategy requires you to do some research. The amount of research depends on how often and in-depth you want to make your investment allocation. In this strategy you set up your own custom allocation for each of the individual funds including the L Fund if you want. You could have the 60/40 stock to bond split mentioned above. You could have 50% Lifecycle Fund / 25% C / 15% S / and 10% I. The combinations are unlimited. I will say, when choosing an allocation, remember that each investment should serve a purpose in your portfolio. This strategy will have the best chance of success with research and that understanding. You could choose a simple allocation, set it up, and leave it like than for as long as you want.


Advanced

WARNING

This is an advanced investment strategy that has been shown to produce highly volatile returns. Some individuals have shown high sucess while other have lost $1000's. Past stock market performance does not translate to future performance. Use at your own risk!


The last strategy is known as Seasonal Trading with TSP. This is the ultimate 100% hands on approach. The strategy is not endorsed by TSP but has a huge cult following amongst TSP investors. Use this strategy at your own risk. I've seen investors post amazing returns and seen some perform worse than desirable. There is an entire website and facebook group dedicated to it. If you choose to do this, expect to do a lot of research. I used this strategy for a while but found that it took to much time and I didn't have internet 24/7, which is required to keep up with the trading requirements. In a nutshell, TSP Calc researches and analyzes historical trends in the performance of TSP Individual Funds to try and pin point the ideal time your money should be in a certain fund each month to maximize returns.


A How-to Video can be found here.


TSP allows you to transfer money to different funds through Interfund Transfers (IFTs) twice a month (three if you transfer back to G Fund). These investors use the TSP Calculator to build transfer schedules based around this premise. The goal is to be in the right fund at the right time. Again, this strategy has a steep learning curve and requires a lot of hands on work on your part. Below is an example transfer schedule. Ensure you have a firm grasp on finances and Seasonal Trading before you jump in feet first.


TSP Loans

The TSP website outlines loans as follow: "As an active TSP participant (a current federal civilian worker or member of the uniformed services), you’re allowed to borrow money from your TSP account. You repay the loan with interest in regular payments—through payroll deduction if you’re still in federal service, or by direct debit, check, or money order if you’ve left federal service. The interest rate, which stays the same for the life of the loan, is the same as the G Fund interest rate for the month before you request the loan."


There’s also a one-time fee that comes out of the loan amount and is never returned to the account:

  • $50 for a general purpose loan

  • $100 for a primary residence loan


Click here to learn more about TSP loans or to apply for a TSP loan.


TSP Withdrawal

Thrift Savings Plan has several terms for withdrawal. There a serval types of withdrawl through TSP:

  • Hardship or financial hardship withdrawals

  • Age based withdrawals (59 1/2 years old)


Financial Hardship Withdrawals

To be eligible for a financial hardship withdrawal to you meet one of the following criteria:

  • Recurring negative monthly cash flow

  • Medical expenses (including household improvements needed for medical care) that you have not yet paid and that are not covered by insurance

  • Personal casualty loss(es) that you have not yet paid and that are not covered by insurance

  • Legal expenses (such as attorneys’ fees and court costs) that you have not yet paid for separation or divorce from your spouse

  • Losses due to a major disaster declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Traditional TSP withdrawals are subject to federal income tax and state tax (depending on your state tax rates). All withdrawals incur an additional 10% early withdrawal fee if you are under 59 1/2 years old.


Additional minor requirements can be found on the TSP Financial hardship withdrawal homepage.



This concludes this article on TSP Investing. I hope this helps you get a start in TSP with a basic understanding of what will work for you. Thanks for visiting.


Happy Investing!




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