The Thrift Savings Plan is a retirement savings plan for civilians who are employed by the United States Government and members of the uniformed services. The TSP encompasses many millions of investors and has substantial assets. The Thrift Savings Plan is widely recognized as one of the finest, most elegantly simple, and popular retirement plans of its kind. With over 4.6 million civilian and uniformed services participants and assets of nearly $360 billion, it is certainly the largest defined contribution retirement plan in the world.
The Thrift Savings Plan is a defined contribution plan administered by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. In most ways, the TSP closely resembles the dynamics of 401(k) plans. The retirement assets derived from a TSP account will depend on how much has been contributed to the account (both by the employee, and if applicable, his or her agency) during the account holder's working years and the earnings on those contributions. The government will make automatic and matching contributions, for certain (FERS) civilian employees, based on the employee's contributions. Employees under the CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System) may participate in the TSP, but are not eligible for matching contributions. The typical FERS matching formula is: 1% regardless of employee contribution (even if zero), then 1% for each 1% contributed by the employee (to a maximum of 3%), then 0.5% for each 1% contributed by the employee (to an additional 1% match maximum). In other words, the employee may receive up to 1%+3%+1% = 5% matching contributions. Military members are generally not eligible for matching contributions.
Prior to 2006, the amount that could be contributed was limited to a certain percentage of basic pay. In 2006, this percentage limit was removed; the only remaining restriction on contributions is that imposed by the Internal Revenue Service. However, matching contributions, as outlined above, are limited to 5%.
The TSP offers the same type of savings and tax benefits that many private corporations offer their employees under 401(k) and similar plans. TSP regulations are published in title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 1600 — 1690, and are periodically supplemented and amended in the Federal Register.
The TSP is also popular because of the solid performance of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board over the years and because Congress has continued to give it strong backing. In practical terms, that means the Thrift Board has provided TSP participants good service while keeping expense ratios very low and Congress has protected the TSP by insulating it from political and budgetary pressures. We are confident that these positive aspects of the Plan will be maintained.
Used as a model, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) - a low-risk, low-cost retirement savings plan for federal employees - demonstrates ways to allay these concerns. The TSP is a voluntary program that functions like a 401(k) for federal employees, including members of Congress.
TSP participants are not able to pick individual stocks. Rather, they choose their investment allocation from among five pre-constructed plans: U.S. Treasury bonds, fixed income assets, common stocks, international stocks, and small capitalization stocks. These funds carry varying degrees of risk and reward.
The board selects the assets manager of the F, C, I, and S Funds through competitive bidding, so individual workers are not bombarded by advertisements and promotional materials. Potential asset managers are evaluated on objective criteria, including their ability to track the relevant index, low costs, fiduciary record, experience and fees, according to TSP Executive Director Mehle. Currently, the board contracts with BGI, the largest American index funds investment manager. BGI invests TSP participants' savings in trust funds in which the holdings of public and private employee benefit plans are invested together.