It’s one of the most common questions Defense Department officials get about the Blended Retirement System: “When will I receive matching contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan?”

The service members asking that question understand the value of the TSP to the new BRS. By contributing as much of their basic pay as possible as early as possible (while getting a government match of up to 5 percent), their retirement stash grows faster.

The short answer: Matching contributions start in the pay period that begins on or after the date the service member opts into BRS. If that date is in the middle of a month, the contributions should show up in the Leave and Earnings Statement at the end of the next month, DoD spokesman Navy Cmdr. Michael Cody said.

The bigger question: What, exactly, is the TSP?

Think of it as a retirement account similar to a 401(k) plan for civilian employees. You decide what to contribute and how to invest your money.

BRS members who don’t choose an investment fund will have their money put into an age-appropriate Lifecycle Fund, or L Fund. To change your allocation, visit TSP.gov or talk to a financial adviser; find one on your installation or via MilitaryOneSource.mil.

The government automatically contributes 1 percent of your base pay to your TSP under BRS and will match up to an additional 4 percent. So if you contribute 5 percent, the government throws in another 5 percent.

For those entering the service in 2018 or later (and are enrolled in BRS automatically), the 1 percent government automatic contributions start the first pay period after 60 days from the pay entry base date; the matching contributions begin in the 25th month of service.

Your contributions to your TSP are always yours to keep, as are the government matching contributions of up to 4 percent, and earnings: There’s no vesting period. The government’s basic automatic 1 percent contribution and earnings is yours to keep after two years of service (or right away, if you served at least two years before opting into BRS).

That doesn’t mean you can clean out your account. If you withdraw money before age 59 1/2, you may have to pay a 10 percent withdrawal penalty tax on any taxable part of the money that you didn’t transfer over to a qualified retirement account, in addition to any taxes owed on the withdrawal.

A traditional TSP account allows you to defer paying taxes on contributions and earnings until you withdraw them at retirement. Your contribution is made before federal income taxes are calculated, so less money is withheld from your pay.

You can also choose a Roth TSP, where you pay taxes on contributions as you make them and can withdraw funds tax-free (if certain IRS requirements are met).

TSP 201: How to allocate contributions to your Thrift Savings Plan

In Lesson 12 of the Federal Retirement Academy, learn how to allocate contributions to your Thrift Savings Plan.

The contribution limit is set annually by the IRS; for 2018, it’s $18,500.

The limit may be an issue if the service member contributes all or part of special pays or bonuses; it also might be an issue for Guard and Reserve members with civilian employment.

The limit doesn’t apply to traditional contributions made from tax-exempt pay earned in a combat zone.

Troops who exceed the limit must stop TSP contributions for the rest of year, Cody said, and would lose out on matching contributions over that time.

The participation rate of service members in the TSP program has been trending upward:

% of troops participating in TSP
December 2015 42.4%
December 2016 44.9%
December 2017 47.9%
May 2018 (including BRS and non-BRS service members 52.2%
Source: Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board