Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I am a federal government retiree with a very small retirement account in the Thrift Savings Plan. Where can I invest my small savings so it can safely grow? The balance has not changed for over six months now. If I keep it in the Thrift Savings Plan, what fund is the safest?

Answer: “Safe growth” is an oxymoron. If your balance isn’t changing, then you’re probably in the safest option — which means you won’t see much if any growth in the future, either.

You probably chose TSP’s G Fund, which invests in Treasury securities. You won’t lose money, but you probably won’t earn enough to offset inflation. If you want your money to grow, you need to have at least some of your retirement account in stocks.

Fortunately, the plan offers several “L” or lifestyle funds geared to when you expect to begin withdrawals. L funds offer professional management and a mix of investments that grow more conservative as that date approaches. Retirees who are tapping their accounts typically invest in the L Income fund, which has about 20% of its balance in stocks. If you are five years or more away from using the funds, the next most conservative lifestyle option is L 2020, which has half of its total invested in stocks.

Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I turned 50 last year but did not make the catch-up contributions I was eligible to make to my government Thrift Savings Plan. This mistake cost me approximately $5,000 in additional taxes in 2014.

To make matters worse, my wife also did not make catch-up contributions in 2014 or for the previous four years for which she was eligible to do so. Can we retroactively make catch-up contributions for the last three tax years and file amended tax returns so we can get additional tax refunds?

Answer: It’s highly unlikely you cost yourself $5,000 in additional taxes, since the catch-up contribution for people 50 and older in 2014 was only $5,500. Your federal tax rate would have been limited to your tax bracket, which is likely somewhere between 15% and 28%. You could have cost yourself $5,000 if you didn’t make any contribution to the plan, since last year’s limit was $17,500 or a total of $23,000 with the catch-up.

The short answer to your question about whether you can catch up with catch-ups is no.

Contributions to workplace retirement plans typically have to be made before the end of the plan year. IRAs, meanwhile, allow contributions until the due date for filing your returns, so that contributions for 2014 could be made until April 15, 2015, and contributions for 2015 could be made until April 15, 2016.

Presumably you’re now signed up to contribute the maximum to each plan.

If you have extra cash to invest, both you and your wife could open IRAs even though you’re covered by workplace plans. If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) as a married couple is $96,000 or less, you can deduct the full contributions of $6,500 ($5,500 plus a $1,000 catch-up) each. You can get a partial deduction if your MAGI is between $96,000 and $116,000.

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money in Roth IRAs if you can. Roths don’t allow upfront deductions — but the money is tax free when withdrawn in retirement. You and your wife could contribute $6,500 each to a Roth if your MAGI is under $181,000.

Even military careerists need a Plan B

Dear Liz: I’m about to marry an active-duty military man. We’re in the process of marrying our finances, and I have several questions.

First, what is a good emergency fund for us? We run our household on his salary because I’m recently unemployed. I’ve always had a six-month emergency fund for myself, but because he’ll theoretically always be employed, should we have less savings in emergency funds and more in retirement and investments?

Second, along with my unemployment, I’m bringing about $15,000 in savings and $9,000 in student loan debt (at 4.5%). He has about $5,000 in savings and no debt at all. Neither of us has a retirement account or any other investments. I’m leaning toward paying off my debt so that we start on even ground, but I have a feeling that you’re going to tell me not to do that. What should I be considering at this time?

Answer: The military offers good benefits and generous pensions to people who make the armed services their career. But the pension probably won’t cover all your expenses in retirement. (Remember, if he retires after 20 years of service, he’ll get only 50% of his base pay.) Besides, there’s really no such thing as “guaranteed” employment, even in the armed services, so it’s smart to have a Plan B.

Your husband-to-be should be taking advantage of the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which works like a 401(k) for civilians, although there’s no employer match for service members. He can contribute up to $17,000 a year ($17,500 in 2013), his contributions are excluded from his taxable income, and the money grows tax-deferred until it’s withdrawn in retirement, at which point it’s taxed as regular income.

The Thrift Savings Plan also has a Roth option. Withdrawals from a Roth in retirement are tax-free, although contributions usually are included in taxable income. The exception: If your fiance is deployed, most or all of his income would be tax-free, so he would be able to make contributions to the Roth with tax-exempt income, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. That’s a pretty great deal: no tax on the contributions going in, and no tax on the withdrawals coming out.

If your man isn’t deployed, he still might want to divide his contributions between the regular and Roth plans so that he would have different savings “buckets” to tap in retirement and thus more control over his tax bill.

He probably wouldn’t get a full military pension if he leaves or is forced out of the military before he has served 20 years. But he would be able to take his Thrift Savings Plan balance with him.

When you return to work, you also should start contributing to a retirement fund. If you don’t have access to a 401(k) or 403(b), you might contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA.

Although you would be smart to pay off any high-rate debt, such as credit card balances, you need not be in a rush to pay off low-rate, tax-deductible debt such as student loans, especially if the rate you’re paying is fixed. Instead, focus on building up that emergency fund. The exact amount you need is more art than science, but a six-month fund would be prudent.