What feds have in common with Tom Brady

Withdrawals, loan repayments, navigating the web site — TSP accounts management is still a challenge

Now that I’m over the shock and awe of Tom Brady saying he’s retired, I did a little calculation. His net worth, which I found after an intellectually rigorous Google search, is at least 25 times the combined value of the 25 biggest Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Plus he’s got a 10-year, $37,500,000/year television contract. That’s why he can afford a $70,000/month Miami condo, and you and I can’t.

Not to begrudge the man his fortune. As my great aunt Elsey used to say when watching acrobats on a grainy, black-and-white TV show, “I could never do that!”

On the other hand, Tom Brady couldn’t do what you do every day, and you don’t have anyone to squirt a Gatorade bottle in your mouth if you look thirsty.

Here on the ground, more practical concerns abound. For instance, some feds might worry about the lurid possibilities swirling around the fact that the government is operating in “extraordinary measures” mode?

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association fact sheet details the worst that could happen. If the Treasury was to run through employee retirement accounts and the deposits in the Thrift Savings Plan G Fund, you might find that Social Security and federal salary and annuity obligations are subordinated to interest payments on federal debt and the securities themselves that come due. Treasury would pay for maturing securities by auctioning new ones, according to the fact sheet. Or the Treasury could decide to honor all obligations at some fractional rate.

It’s all funny-money and accounting gimmickry only sovereigns have the power to do. The government doesn’t “print money” precisely in the way people imagine. Rather, it issues debt we all hope never gets called all at once. But not getting paid would be real enough to the average federal employee.

The default scenario is all only remotely possible at this point. Even our politicians will come to their senses before the presumed default date in June, right?

Judging from my inbox, feds are more concerned with the management of their own money, in particular their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Although the situation has improved since the rollout of a new account holder interface last year, some vexing functional problems persist. The TSP overseers still have a bit of work to do.

Of primary concern: setting monthly withdrawal amounts to the levels you want. The algorithms set people’s withdrawals all over the place — $2,000, $5,000, $9,000, according to financial advisor Abe Grungold. Several readers wrote to me on this matter. One 64-year-old retiree, who is not yet at the required-minimum-distribution status, kept getting advised by TSP on the phone that they “had to withdraw $2,000 more than I was trying to.” One reader kept going up the chain of command at the TSP to try and resolve his withdrawal challenges. The mutual conclusion? “The programmers of the web site set the rules, and no one can override the web site.”

Readers complain of long response times to withdrawal requests. One told me it took a month to resolve a partial distribution request, in part because TSP told him his wife hadn’t responded to an email verification request. But it turned out that email was never actually sent. Redoing the request online “would have met the standard of insanity,” this reader wrote, so he restarted the redistribution request via phone.

I’ve received several complaints concerning loans against TSP accounts. One reader, M.,  tried to repay a COVID-related loan in full, but his payment hadn’t registered a month later. He says it took the aid of Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) office to resolve the issue. He said it took several more months to get back the lost investment returns had the loan repayment been credited on time.

J. said repayments to a Cares Act TSP loan took two weeks to process.

People continue to have trouble with the TSP web site introduced last May. Many tell me the phone help staff sometimes are stymied by complex problems.

“I try to limit my use of the new TSP web site, because it is not as easy as previously,” one still-working fed wrote me. “There are a bunch more features so it is harder to navigate. Some features hide in unexpected places.” He does credit the site for making it easier to move specific amounts directly among the different funds.

One recent retiree from Kentucky, M.T., called the site an abject failure. L., a Vancouver, Washington retiree, finds the site, even after several updates, “unintelligible.” Those aren’t universal sentiments

D., who retired back in 2019 after 32 years of federal service, “was part of the seven-digit club … The TSP was very good to me.” He called the process of making withdrawals “the Mother May I” effect. “Bottom line, when I turned 59-1/2 I moved all my traditional [IRA] and Roth money to Fidelity.”


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