The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is the military’s retirement account. Learning how to maximize its utility should be high on your financial priority list. I’m going to create a guide that will show you how to crush the TSP. Here’s Step 1 in that guide…
Step 1 to Crush the TSP – Prepare
Before you can crush the TSP, you have to do a little preparation. You don’t need to be Warren Buffet, but you need to understand the basics of investing and the TSP. Luckily, there are many ways to learn the basics. Here are a few:
- Read a book – Go to your library, search for a used book with AddAll (one of my favorite tools), or buy one new on Amazon. The easiest and quickest read to increase your basic investing knowledge is The Elements of Investing: Easy Lessons for Every Investor. Read this book. THAT’S AN ORDER! (unless you outrank me)
- Read an online introduction to investing – The one that I’d recommend is the Bogleheads Wiki. Here’s a link to their getting started page and their investing start-up kit. What’s the best part? All of this is free.
- Watch videos – The Bogleheads have a video series, which is also free.
- Read blog posts – My favorite TSP-specific blog posts are found at The White Coat Investor. You can read What You Need To Know About The TSP, The G Fund – A Free Lunch, or The Military’s New Blended Retirement System. I wrote the last one.
- Read the TSP website – The TSP website has a wealth of information.
Now you’ve got some homework. Once you’ve done as much of this as you can, move on to the 2nd step.
According to the January/February 2020 Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) Message from the Executive Director, a few important changes are coming:
- 5-year Lifecycle (L) Funds—Later this year, we’ll offer more investment options when we introduce new L Funds in 5-year increments. You’ll be able to pick an L Fund with a target date that more closely matches your intended retirement date. Each L Fund will continue to vary your investments automatically to adjust your exposure to risk as you get closer to retirement and give you the potential for long-term growth. Learn more about our Lifecycle Funds and individual fund options.
- Automatic enrollment percentage increase—Beginning October 1, 2020, new participants will be automatically enrolled in the TSP at 5% of their pay. This change also includes Blended Retirement System (BRS) participants automatically re-enrolled in the TSP on or after January 1, 2021. The increase will allow new participants to get the full matching contributions from their agency or service. If you are currently an active participant and are not contributing at least 5%, then you’re missing out on free money. Increase your percentage today by logging into your agency’s or service’s electronic payroll system and upping your contribution amount.
Here are my favorites this week:
Here are the rest:
They say there’s no free lunch, but in the Thrift Savings Plan there is a free lunch, and it’s called the G Fund. Will the government get rid of this free lunch?
The G Fund Free Lunch
What is this free lunch? You can read about it on this page in the Rewards section:
The G Fund interest rate calculation is based on the weighted average yield of all outstanding Treasury notes and bonds with 4 or more years to maturity. As a result, participants who invest in the G Fund are rewarded with a long-term rate on what is essentially a short-term security. Generally, long-term interest rates are higher than short-term rates.
The government is paying you a higher interest rate than it should. That is the G Fund free lunch.
Why is the Free Lunch at Risk?
The government periodically considers getting rid of it. For example, you can read about it in this article, which is discussing the President’s FY19 budget plan/request. Here’s the relevant portion:
The plan also proposes reducing the statutorily mandated rate of return for the government securities (G) fund to be based on either the three-month or four-week Treasury bill, at a projected savings of $8.9 billion over 10 years.
“G Fund investors benefit from receiving a medium-term Treasury Bond rate of return on what is essentially a short-term security,” the White House wrote. “The budget would instead base the G-fund yield on a short-term T-bill rate.”
TSP spokeswoman Kim Weaver said changing the G Fund’s yield, which is currently 2.75 percent annually, would have a disastrous effect on participants’ ability to save for retirement. If Congress changed the G Fund to track the three-month Treasury bill, the yield would decrease to 1.46 percent, and for the four-week bill it would drop to 1.43 percent.
“Such a change would make the G Fund inadequate and ineffective from an investment standpoint for TSP participants who are saving for retirement,” Weaver said in an email. “More than 3.6 million TSP participants (69 percent) have all or some of their account balance invested in the G Fund. Of those with money in the G Fund, 2 million (39 percent) hold the G Fund as their sole investment choice.”
For a TSP participant who has just retired and is invested entirely in the L Income Fund, which is designed for people who have begun taking annuity payments, they would run out of money at age 84 instead of the current projected age of 92, Weaver said.
Jessica Klement, staff vice president for advocacy at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said the change would make G Fund investments “useless” and likely force TSP administrators to divest from it entirely.
“[The new rate] would not even keep up with inflation,” she said. “So if you wanted to keep your money in a mostly secure fund, you would not be getting any return, and you’d actually be losing money. And if you took your money out, there would be no other safe, secure investment for those nearing or in retirement.”
What Does This Mean For You?
Right now, it means nothing. This is all just discussion about something that might happen in the future.
What you do need to understand, though, is that the G Fund serves a specific purpose in your portfolio. As the TSP site says:
Consider investing in the G Fund if you would like to have all or a portion of your TSP account completely protected from loss. If you choose to invest in the G Fund, you are placing a higher priority on the stability and preservation of your money than on the opportunity to potentially achieve greater long-term growth in your account through investment in the other TSP funds.
It is alarming that Ms. Weaver from the TSP said, “Of those with money in the G Fund, 2 million (39 percent) hold the G Fund as their sole investment choice.” Those 2 millions people are sacrificing long-term growth for the safest and most conservative investment available in the TSP.
There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re doing it because you are very conservative, near retirement, or the G Fund serves as the bond portion of a larger, more diversified portfolio that has more risky assets like stocks or real estate.
The sad reality is that most who are solely invested in the G Fund are that way because it used to be the default option for those starting a TSP account, and they never switched it to a more aggressive investment option. Under the new Blended Retirement System, the default investment switched from the G Fund to an age-appropriate Lifecycle fund.
What’s the Bottom Line?
The G Fund gives you a free lunch, paying you a higher long-term interest rate while you are investing in short-term securities. The government periodically talks about getting rid of that free lunch.
If you are invested in the G Fund, make sure you are doing it purposely and are aware of its conservative nature. Its emphasis is on preserving wealth rather than growing wealth.
We’ve talked a lot about the Thrift Savings Plan and all of its investment options. The easy button is to just use a Lifecycle Fund or L Fund. Pick the approximate year you intend to retire, and use the L Fund with the year in its name that is closest to your retirement year.
For example, if you want to retire in 2038, you’d pick the L 2040 Fund because that is the one closest to 2038. Pretty simple.
Funds like the L Funds are called target date funds. Investopedia defines a target date fund as:
A target-date fund is a fund offered by an investment company that seeks to grow assets over a specified period of time for a targeted goal. Target-date funds are usually named by the year in which the investor plans to begin utilizing the assets. The funds are structured to address a capital need at some date in the future, such as retirement. The asset allocation of a target-date fund is therefore a function of the specified timeframe available to meet the targeted investment objective. A target-date fund’s risk tolerance become more conservative as it approaches its objective target date.
Target date funds have become super popular, but how do the TSP L Funds compare to other target date funds? In particular, how risky or conservative are they when it comes to their asset allocation? Let’s take a look and find out.
More Stocks = More Risk
The TSP L Funds only invest in two broad asset classes, stocks and bonds. The higher percentage of your portfolio you have allocated to stocks, the more risk you are taking.
How does the TSP L Fund stock allocation compare to similar funds at other investment companies? Here are the stock and bond allocation percentages for a few 2040 target date funds (rounded to the nearest whole percentage):
- TSP L 2040 = 72% stocks, 28% bonds
- Fidelity Freedom Fund 2040 (FFFFX) = 93% stocks, 7% bonds
- Schwab Target 2040 Index Fund (SWYGX) = 82% stocks, 18% bonds
- Vanguard Target Retirement 2040 (VFORX) – 83% stocks, 17% bonds
As you can see, the TSP L 2040 is by far the most conservative fund with only 72% stocks. The next closest is the Schwab fund at 82% stocks with Vanguard close behind at 83%. Fidelity wins the aggressiveness award for the 2040 target date.
Just Pick a Different Target Date?
If the conservative nature of the TSP L Funds bothers you, you can always dial up the risk by adjusting the target date you select. Just because you want to retire around the year 2040 doesn’t mean you can’t use the L 2050 fund. By picking it, you’d have a more aggressive asset allocation than the L 2040 but still get the benefits of a target date fund like automatic rebalancing and a gradually more conservative allocation as you age.
But if you look at the L 2050 fund, you’ll find its asset allocation to be 82% stocks and 18% bonds. In other words, the L 2050 is more conservative than two of the three 2040 funds listed above and the same as the one from Schwab. And since it is the most aggressive L Fund available in the TSP, it limits how aggressive you can get while using a Lifecycle Fund.
Why are L Funds so Conservative? Is it Appropriate?
The answer to the first question is because they are based on “based on professionally determined asset allocations.”
The answer to the second question, in my opinion, is probably not. While a conservative investor would have no issues with the L Fund asset allocations, a moderate or aggressive investor would, especially if they are staying in the military long enough to leave with a government guaranteed, inflation adjusted pension.
As we all know around here, that pension is extremely valuable. In addition, when viewed in the context of your entire portfolio, its safety could allow you to take more risk with the rest of your investments.
How Does This Affect You?
If you don’t use a L Fund, it doesn’t.
If you do use them, though, you should use them realizing that:
- Among target date funds, they are conservative.
- Even by picking the L Fund 2050, the most aggressive you can get your asset allocation will be 82% stocks and 18% bonds.
- Despite all of this, they are still the easiest way to invest for retirement in the TSP.
I’m a huge fam of Jim Lange. He’s a noted expert in financial management, saving for retirement, and estate planning. He’s written a number of books, some of which you can get for free on this page. If I ever move back to Pennsylvania, I’ll probably have him do my estate planning so that I don’t have to worry about anything in retirement.
He sends out a monthly newsletter that I get via snail mail, and it usually has a useful article in it. If you want it, you can get it here.
A previous edition had a section called “Jim’s Point-by-Point Summary of the Whole Retirement & Estate Planning Process.” It was simple but extremely useful. Below in bold are each of the points he lists for people who are still working, which is most of my readership. Let’s take each bolded point and militarize it for you so it is specific to those of us in the military.
Contribute at least the amount to your retirement plan that your employer is willing to match or partially match.
For those under the legacy retirement plan, this is not an option. For those under the new Blended Retirement System (BRS), you need to contribute 5% of your basic pay to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) to get the pull 5% DoD match:
You also need to make sure you contribute 5% every month and don’t fill the TSP too early. If you max it out in October, you won’t get a match in November or December.
If you can afford to, contribute the maximum allowed to your retirement plan even if your employer does not match.
This is $19,500 in 2020. You can do an extra $6,500 if you are 50 or over. You can even do more if you are in a combat zone.
Once you have maximized contributions to your plan at work, contribute the maximum you can to an IRA, even if you cannot take a tax deduction on it.
If you are able to fill your TSP account, next you’ll need to open an IRA at an investment firm. Vanguard is the obvious choice due to their across the board low investment fees and unique non-profit structure, but you can do this anywhere (Schwab, Fidelity, etc.).
If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, you just use the back door Roth IRA option.
Consider your personal tax bracket when trying to decide if you should contribute to a Roth or a traditional IRA/retirement plan.
With a traditional plan, you take a tax deduction now and pay taxes later when you take the money out. With a Roth plan you pay the taxes now and the withdrawals are completely tax free.
The general principle is that if you are in a lower tax bracket now than when you are retired, you do the Roth. If you are in a higher tax bracket now, you use the traditional.
No one really knows what the future holds, though, making this decision tough. Here are some resources for you to check out when making this decision:
Do not take loans against your retirement plan. Allow the tax-deferred or tax-free status of the account to maximize the growth of your money.
While the TSP allows loans, I refuse to link to any information about it. Once you put money away for retirement, you don’t borrow from it unless it is an ABSOLUTE EMERGENCY.
The Bottom Line
Here are the point-by-point summary of steps Jim Lange suggests you take if you are saving for retirement:
- Contribute at least the amount to your retirement plan that your employer is willing to match or partially match, which is 5% of basic pay in the BRS.
- If you can afford to, contribute the maximum allowed to your retirement plan even if your employer does not match, which is $19,500 in the TSP ($26,000 if you’re 50+).
- Once you have maximized contributions to your plan at work, contribute the maximum you can to an IRA, even if you cannot take a tax deduction on it. Use a back door Roth IRA if you need to.
- Consider your personal tax bracket when trying to decide if you should contribute to a Roth or a traditional IRA/retirement plan.
- Do not take loans against your retirement plan. Allow the tax-deferred or tax-free status of the account to maximize the growth of your money.
Blooom is an on-line financial advisory service that will manage your Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) and other retirement accounts for only $10/month. On another blog I wrote an article about them and some readers got into a Twitter dialogue with them. During this dialogue it was suggested that an investor doesn’t need to pay $10/month for an advisor because you can always just use target date funds if you don’t want to manage your investments yourself. Blooom’s response pointed to a blog post of theirs about target date funds and all the problems associated with them. Let’s take a look at their post and see if the points they raise are valid when compared to the TSP’s target date funds, the Lifecycle Funds.
What’s a Target Date Fund?
According to Investopedia, a target date fund is:
A fund offered by an investment company that seeks to grow assets over a specified period of time for a targeted goal. Target-date funds are usually named by the year in which the investor plans to begin utilizing the assets. The funds are structured to address a capital need at some date in the future, such as retirement. The asset allocation of a target-date fund is therefore a function of the specified timeframe available to meet the targeted investment objective. A target-date fund’s risk tolerance become more conservative as it approaches its objective target date.
The Lifecycle or L Funds are the TSP’s version of target date funds. You can read my deep dive on them if you like for more information.
Are the Lifecycle Funds Too Conservative?
Yes, in my opinion, the L Funds are too conservative when compared to other target date funds and the fact that many of us will have an inflation-adjusted pension. To compensate you can always just pick a L fund that targets a later year. When I used the L funds in my TSP, that is what I did.
For example, if you want to retire in or around 2030 you would normally pick the L 2030. Instead you could pick the L 2040 or L 2050 to get more aggressive. That said, the most aggressive you can get with the L Funds right now is the L 2050, which is 82% stocks and 18% bonds. If you want less than 18% bonds, you can’t do that with any of the current L funds.
Do the Lifecycle Funds have High Expense Ratios?
This is a definitive no. While other target date funds can have high expenses, the L funds are composed of funds with the lowest expenses you will find anywhere. You probably cannot find a target date fund with lower expenses than the TSP L Funds.
Do the Lifecycle Funds Lack Personalization?
Yes, they do. There’s no way around this one. You can personalize them a little bit by adjusting the target date you invest in, as described above, but they are by definition standard for all investors.
I would argue that these standard asset allocations are good enough for just about everyone to come up with a reasonable investment plan. If you want a personalized plan, though, you may have to get some help or use a financial advisor.
The Bottom Line – Do the L Funds Miss the Mark?
I think it depends. They are definitely low cost, so they hit the target there. I do think that they are too conservative, but as long as you are OK with a minimum bond allocation of 18% you can just adjust that by using a fund with a target date that is further off. They are definitely not personalized, but I don’t think they need to be. The asset allocations they use would do for 99% of the people investing, including myself.
A reader wrote in and asked the following question:
Hi there. I thoroughly enjoy your website! When determining what my current asset allocation is, should I consider the TSP’s G Fund as “cash” or as a bond fund? I have a Vanguard account, and their website shows you these great “pie charts” reflecting one’s asset allocation. But what’s the best way to think of the G Fund in this context? Thanks a lot!
The Answer – It’s a Bond Fund
I can see why people might consider the G Fund a cash equivalent in their asset allocation, but I think it is best considered a bond because it is not liquid and is paying intermediate-term interest rates. Plus, Personal Capital agrees with me.
What is a cash equivalent? Here’s what Investopedia says:
Cash equivalents are one of the three main asset classes, along with stocks and bonds. These securities have a low-risk, low-return profile and include U.S. government Treasury bills, bank certificates of deposit, bankers’ acceptances, corporate commercial paper and other money market instruments.
The G Fund invests in “a nonmarketable short-term U.S. Treasury security that is specially issued to the TSP.” That makes it sound like a Treasury bill, which is listed as a cash equivalent above, but remember that the G Fund offers you a free lunch. It is a short term security but the interest rate it pays is:
based on the weighted average yield of all outstanding Treasury notes and bonds with 4 or more years to maturity. As a result, participants who invest in the G Fund are rewarded with a long-term rate on what is essentially a short-term security. Generally, long-term interest rates are higher than short-term rates.
In other words, it is really a hybrid between a short and long-term Treasury.
The other aspect of the G Fund that makes it a bond and not a cash equivalent is that it is not liquid. In other words, because it is in a retirement account you can’t sell it and use the proceeds to buy a car, deal with an emergency, or whatever else you need it for. Cash equivalents like CDs, money market accounts/funds, checking/savings accounts, or cold hard cash are all accessible and could be used for these purposes. Unless you are retirement age and withdrawing from your TSP account, the only way to get to the G Fund would be to take out a TSP loan, which I would not recommend.
Just to double check myself, I went to my favorite tool to automatically track my asset allocation, Personal Capital, to see what they considered my G Fund holdings. Personal Capital is also considering the G Fund a U.S. Bond holding.
If you invest in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), you need to come up with a plan for how you are going to invest. Here is the easiest way to come up with that plan.
Step 1 – Figure Out Your Asset Allocation
In the TSP, you can only invest in two broad asset classes – stocks and bonds. Because of this, the first decision you need to make is how you are going to divide your TSP among these asset classes.
To figure this out, take this Vanguard survey.
At the top of the page it will give you a suggested allocation, such as 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Jot this down somewhere.
Step 2 – Find the TSP Lifecycle Fund That Most Closely Matches This Asset Allocation
Here are the current broad asset allocations of the TSP Lifecycle Funds as of 13 OCT 2019:
Pick the one that is closest to your suggested asset allocation from the Vanguard survey. For example, if the survey said you needed 80% stocks and 20% bonds, I’d pick the L 2050 fund because it is closest.
Step 3 – You’re Done
Seriously, it is that simple. I’m not saying this is the best strategy, but it is the easiest and in all honesty, if someone MADE me do this, I’d be fine with it. It is very reasonable way to approach saving for retirement, which is why I’m telling you about it.
Why do I make you take a Vanguard survey instead of just picking the Lifecycle fund that is closest to the year you want to retire? Because the Lifecycle funds are a little too conservative for my tastes and when you compare them with other target date funds. For example, the Lifecycle 2040 is 72% stocks and 28% bonds. The Vanguard Target Retirement Date 2040 is more aggressive at 83% stocks and 17% bonds, which I think is more appropriate.
Target date funds are popular. You just pick the approximate year you want to retire, and you invest in the fund that has a year close to that in its name. Nothing could be easier!
Let’s take a look at the Thrift Savings Plan’s (TSP) target date funds – the Lifecycle Funds or L Funds.
1 AUG 2005
The L Funds are invested in the five individual TSP funds based on professionally determined asset allocations.
To provide professionally diversified portfolios based on various time horizons, using the G, F, C, S, and I Funds. The objective is to strike an optimal balance between the expected risk and return associated with each fund.
The L Funds’ strategy is to invest in an appropriate mix of the G, F, C, S, and I Funds for a particular time horizon, or target retirement date. The investment mix of each L Fund becomes more conservative as its target date approaches.
The strategy assumes that:
- The greater the number of years you have until retirement, the more willing and able you are to tolerate risk (fluctuation) in your TSP account value to pursue higher rates of return.
- For a given risk level and time horizon, there is an optimal mix of the G, F, C, S, and I Funds that provides the highest expected return.
Each quarter, the L Funds’ target asset allocations change, moving towards a less risky mix of investments as the target date approaches. So if you are invested in one of the L Funds, you will notice that as you get closer to your target date, your allocation to the riskier TSP funds will get smaller while your allocation to the more conservative G Fund gets larger.
The rate of change in the target asset allocation is small when the L Fund target dates are in the distant future. The rate increases as the funds approach their target dates.
When an L Fund has reached its target date, it will be rolled into the L Income Fund. The L Income Fund:
- Is the most conservative of the L Funds.
- Focuses on capital preservation while providing a small exposure to the TSP’s riskier assets (C, S, and I Funds) in order to reduce inflation’s effect on your purchasing power.
- Is designed to produce current income for participants who plan to start withdrawing from their TSP accounts in the near future and for those who are already receiving monthly payments from their accounts.
- Has a set asset allocation that does not change over time.
- The progression from a target date L Fund to the L Income Fund is automatic.
New Lifecycle funds will be added for distant target dates as they are needed.
What is the Risk?
Investors in the L Funds are exposed to all of the types of risk to which the individual TSP funds are exposed. Your account is not guaranteed against loss. The L Funds can have periods of gain and loss, just as the individual TSP funds do.
What is the Benefit?
The L Funds simplify fund selection, and investment risk is reduced through diversification among the five individual TSP funds. You choose the fund that is closest to your target date (or, if your target date falls between the target dates that are offered, you can split your account between the two target date funds closest to your time horizon).
When you invest in the L Funds:
- You can be sure that your TSP account is broadly diversified.
- You don’t have to remember to adjust your investment mix as your target date approaches – it’s done for you.
If you want to see the historical performance of the five L Funds or a visual representation of how the asset allocations change over time, go to this page and click on the tabs:
Types of Earnings
The L Funds earn the weighted average of the earnings of the underlying G, F, C, S, and I Funds calculated in proportion to their L Fund allocation.
The net expenses paid by investors is 0.04% or 4 basis points, which like all the TSP funds is ridiculously low and is a major benefit of the TSP. It costs $0.40 for each $1,000 invested.
How Should I Use the L Funds in my TSP Account?
Use the L Funds if you are looking for a simple, low maintenance way of investing money in your TSP account. The L Funds make the investing process easy for you because you do not have to figure out how to diversify your account or how and when to rebalance.
The L Funds are designed so that 100% of your TSP account can be invested in the single L Fund that most closely matches your time horizon (or in the two L Funds closest to your time horizon). Any other use of the L Funds may result in a greater amount of risk in your portfolio than is necessary in order to achieve the same expected rate of return.
Determine the date when, after leaving Federal service, you will need the money that is in your TSP account. Then identify the L Fund that matches your target date:
|Choose||If your target date is:|
|L 2050||2045 or later|
|L 2040||2035 through 2044|
|L 2030||2025 through 2034|
|L 2020||2019 through 2024|
|L Income||If you are already withdrawing your account in monthly payments or expect to begin withdrawing before 2019|
Advice from One of My Favorite Short Investing Books
Here is what one of my favorite investing books, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns (Little Books. Big Profits), says about target retirement date funds like the L Funds:
Target-date funds can be an excellent choice, not only for investors who are just getting started with their investment programs, but also for investors who decide to adopt a simple strategy for funding their retirement.