Roth TSP vs Roth IRA vs Traditional TSP vs Traditional IRA

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If you want to be financially independent someday, you have to save and invest. Saving 50% of your pay is an excellent place to start and a great starter goal. But where to invest these piles of money you're saving?

Your first investment priority should be your tax advantaged retirement accounts. If you are in the US military and don’t want to read the rest of this article, just do this:

$1458.33/month into your Roth TSP account

$458.33/month into your Roth IRA account (I like to have mine at Vanguard)

Now to explain why…

Types of Retirement Accounts

us-tsp-thrift-savings-planThere are three common types of retirement accounts that you’ll encounter:

  • 401k – an employer sponsored retirement account, called a 401k because of the section of the tax code that talks about this account. 401ks are usually offered to employees in lieu of pensions and are common in the private sector.
  • IRA – Individual Retirement Account. Available to anyone who earns income in the US.
  • TSP – Thrift Savings Plan, an employer sponsored retirement account, in this case only available to federal government employees and US military servicemembers. Similar to the 401k.

So for a US servicemember without a civilian job, you really only have two retirement accounts you can contribute to: the IRA and the TSP. Note that you can contribute to BOTH of these accounts and should do so to enable your financial freedom! The IRS treats employer sponsored accounts (TSP) completely separately from individual accounts (IRA).

The 2014 contribution limit for the IRA account is $5500. For the TSP, you are limited to $17,500 (or up to $51,000 if you're contributing pay earned in a tax-free combat zone). See above for how much you should contribute each month.

That means that you can sock away $23,000/year if you’re single or up to $46,000/year, if your spouse works as well. My spouse’s employer currently does not offer a 401k, so we’re eligible to put away $28,500/year (1 TSP + 2 Roth IRAs).

Deciding When to be Taxed – Now or Later

Now to further confuse you, these three retirement account types can have the word Traditional or Roth in front of them (Traditional TSP, Roth TSP, Traditional IRA, Roth IRA). The difference between the two is when you are taxed on your contributions and withdrawals.

  • For the Traditional accounts, you pay no taxes today on your contributions, but do pay taxes when you withdraw the money (contributions and growth) after age 59 ½.
  • For the Roth option, you pay taxes today, but when you withdraw from the account in retirement, you pay no taxes on the contributions or growth of your investments.

If you are in the military, you want the Roth option. Your tax rate is insanely low for your compensation. Most entitlements you receive (BAS, BAH, etc.) are allowances and not subject to income tax. Anytime you deploy you earn tax free pay and allowances as well under the Combat Zone Tax Exclusion.

Let’s say you went on a four month deployment this year. During those four months, all of your contributions to your Roth IRA and Roth TSP are untaxed.

That means the money goes in untaxed, the money grows untaxed, and then you can withdraw the money in retirement untaxed because it’s a Roth account. Tax free retirement investments for life! This is an extremely powerful opportunity uniquely available to US servicemembers.

Again, even if you don’t deploy, so much of your military pay is untaxed allowances that your total tax rate is often under 10%. The Roth TSP and Roth IRA make the most sense for the vast majority of military families, unless you have a high-income earning spouse or other sources of income.

Also, if you are making this contributions early in your career, from say age 20-40, your investments will have 20-40 years to grow tax-free in your retirement accounts. Because of compounding interest, the growth of your investments should eventually be more than your contributions. Once again, the Roth option makes the most sense.

Prioritizing Tax Advantaged Investments

Because of the yearly contribution limits, you should maximize your tax advantaged retirement investment accounts before saving into any other investments. Your time in the military is limited, and there will come a time when you won’t have such low-taxed income. By maximizing your Roth contributions while you serve, you can lock in tax free investment growth and distributions for life.

By using the powerful combination of the Roth TSP and Roth IRA, you can set yourself up for an early retirement or financially independence early in life. Investing every month while you are young will yield amazing results for you in your later years.

5 thoughts on “Roth TSP vs Roth IRA vs Traditional TSP vs Traditional IRA”

  1. II found this post quite interesting because I’ve been a long time traditional TSP saver (my AFSC doesn’t deploy very often, my wife makes decent money and Roth wasn’t an option when I started). As I was gearing up for a deployment, I started thinking about changing my allotments to Roth TSP for the months I deployed, which is how I found your site.

    I’d like to offer a counter opinion that Roth TSP is not the best option for most military members. For most military members, if they don’t deploy in a given year I’d recommend traditional TSP (for base pay) instead.

    Assuming no deployments, an E-1’s basic pay amounts to $18378 of taxable income. For a single tax payer that means they’ve got about $9K (minus deductions) taxed at 15%. If they’re married and the spouse has no income, they barely pass into the 15% tax bracket (not counting deductions). There are numerous ways to reduce tax liability, I haven’t run the numbers but it is not likely enough to get a single E-1 back down to the 10% tax bracket. Almost everyone higher ranking than an E-1 will be in the 15-25% tax bracket (>10% effective tax rate) unless they have some serious deductions. So anyone higher ranking than an E-1 or maybe an E-2, that isn’t deploying, will likely be better served with a traditional TSP.

    The fact that Roth withdraws (contributions and growth) are tax free makes for a strong argument. However, you should be able to contribute more to a traditional TSP than a Roth TSP (especially as a young enlisted/officer) since every $1K you contribute saves you $150-$250 in taxes. That means you should be able to contribute 15-25% more to a traditional TSP than a Roth TSP. Those extra contributions will grow and eventually be taxed when you withdraw them but the years of compounding will outweigh the tax. Once you get to the point that you can max the traditional TSP, this becomes less of an issue but your income will likely have grown to the point that you need the deduction.

    According to if someone is receiving incentive pay, special pay, or bonus pay they can contribute that tax free pay to their Roth TSP while contributing base pay into a traditional TSP. You had mentioned BAH & BAS being tax free and I mistakenly thought you were implying these could be used for Roth. I was intrigued by the thought and checked to find out that isn’t an option.

    So anyone that doesn’t frequently deploy would likely be better off contributing to a traditional TSP and reducing the amount of income that is taxed at 15-25%. If you receive tax free pay (deployed, incentive, special, bonus), it should be directed into the Roth TSP and the rest of the IRS limit should go to traditional TSP. If you frequently deploy (couple months/year), then the Roth TSP is the better option.

    Sorry for the long winded response. Your post really made me think and I wanted to pass along some of my additional thoughts.

    • Nick – thanks for the contribution. I think you’re incorrect in calculating the marginal/effective tax rates. As a young first year LT, I was in the 15% bracket the first year and paid an effective tax rate of 4%. The next year I was in the 10% bracket and paid effectively 3%. This was without any tax frees. When 30-50% of your income comes in the form of a tax-free allowances (BAH/BAS), doesn’t it make sense to put that money into a tax free account? You can only reduce your tax liability so much. Plus, you’ll eventually have to pay taxes on that income when you withdraw from a Traditional account. Why not just pay the extremely low tax rates now and never worry about it again?

  2. As an enlisted member, 10% of my base pay going to the Roth TSP is about all I can do. My soldiers can’t even budget for that. 50% would be a dream! I also put about 7.5% in savings each month as an emergency fund.


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