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Ask Money

Military thrift plan

Chris Farrell Oct 28, 2009

Question: Hi, I recently left active duty military service and am trying to decide what to do with my Thrift Savings Plan. I’ve got about $40k saved in it right now.

When I look at the options for withdrawing, it seems like I’ll be paying either 10 or 20 percent penalty fee.

I was thinking about starting a ROTH IRA. Should I take the penalty and roll it over into a ROTH IRA? Or am I better off just letting the money sit in the TSP until I retire? Thanks, Spencer, Humble, TX

Answer: You have a number of good options to think through. And you shouldn’t pay a penalty or taxes with them. The one exception on taxes is the Roth option. I’ll explain in a moment.

First of all, the Thrift Savings Plan is a really good, low-fee plan. It’s hard to beat. You might want to simply leave your retirement savings in the plan.

If you still want to move your savings out of the Thrift Savings Plan you can roll it over into another tax sheltered plan. For instance, if your current employer’s savings plan allows it you could transfer the money into your new 401(k). Alternatively, you could roll it over into an IRA. In both cases you don’t take the money out. You’ll make an institution to institution transfer of the money, preserving its tax-sheltered status. No penalties will be imposed, either.

You could put the money into a Roth-IRA. Since the Thrift Savings Plan was funded with pre-tax dollars and a Roth is funded with after-tax dollars you’ll owe taxes on the money your transfer into the Roth. However, when you pull the money out during retirement the gain is free of Uncle Sam’s levy. By the way, in most cases it does not make sense to Roth if you have to use your retirement savings money to pay the tax levy. It reduces the amount that can grow, free of tax, in the Roth.

I’m not sure which branch of the military you served in. But the Navy offers a clear brief explanation of your choices.

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