TSP Millionaire: What you can do to be in the top 1%

By Sam •  Updated: 12/12/22 

Do you remember the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”?

The show was one of the most popular game shows of all time in the US. The show captivated audiences with the chance to win the (at the time unheard of) prize money of 1 million dollars.

Of course, being a millionaire in the 2020’s isn’t quite the same accomplishment as it used to be… Zippia estimates that about 9% of Americans are millionaires. But did you know there are some people who are have a million dollars in the 401k retirement plan or TSP alone?

In this article I look at the statistics of the TSP millionaires and talk about how current FERS employees can become millionaires.

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Please do not confuse my personal blog for financial advice, tax advice or an official position of the U.S. Government. This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on a link, I get a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Overview of the Thrift Savings Plan(TSP)

The TSP is a defined contribution retirement account available to federal employees and uniformed services members. The TSP is similar to a 401(k) in that both have the same maximum contribution limits.

However, federal employees can borrow from their TSP and withdraw money earlier than age 59.5 in some cases. Both CSRS and FERS employees can contribute to the TSP. FERS employees receive a 5% government match when they contribute 5% of their salary to the TSP and those matching contributions are vested after 3 years. CSRS employees can contribute their own money to the TSP but it is not matched. The TSP has 5 investment options that follow major indices:

Employees can also invest in one of many Lifecycle Funds that automatically adjust the portfolio each year to manage your risk as you approach retirement.

How much does the average employee have in their TSP?

In a previous post, I examined the average TSP balance by age and shared some interesting statistics about average TSP investors. Before specifically looking at the number of TSP millionaires, I thought that it might be good to understand more about the average TSP account. Here are some TSP statistics I was able to pull from the FERS Participation and Demographics Report published by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB).

Picture of 5 people, the average person in this group would have saved no money for retirement. While the average TSP balance by age is not readily available it is important to keep in mind that less than 50% of Americans have anything saved for retirement.

While I couldn’t find an average balance anywhere on the FRTIB website, I was able to determine that 2/3rds of TSP account holders have less than $50,000 in their account.

What are TSP millionaires?

TSP millionaires aren’t just people with a million dollar net worth. They are people that have more than a million dollars in their TSP alone!

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) distributes a “TSP Millionaire’s Report” each quarter to the media. Not only does the report contain the number of TSP millionaires, but it also contains information about the account balances of all Thrift Savings Plan participants.

The report includes FERS employees, CSRS employees (a legacy retirement system with no government match) and uniformed services members including BRS members. I’ve included a screenshot of the report as distributed to the media below.

TSP Millionaire's Report, September 30th, 2022.

Let’s jump through some quick facts!

How many TSP participants are millionaires?

As of the most recent report, there are 65,494 TSP millionaires. Although it’s hard to believe, the TSP didn’t exist until 1986. Therefore, these people grew their investments to over 1 million dollars in less than 40 years.

What’s surprising is the fact that back in 1986 the 401(k) limit was only $7,000. I believe that with increasing inflation and increases in the 401(k) contribution limits (now 3x greater than the first year the TSP existed), the number of millionaires in the TSP will continue to grow.

What percent of TSP participants are millionaires?

Just under 1% of TSP users have a balance above the 1 million mark. While being a TSP millionaire today may make you a “1%’er” if you’re a young employee you may need to have at least a million dollars in your retirement plan before retirement.

Number of TSP millionaires during 2022

2022 was a tough year in the stock market. The number of investors with over million in their TSP account dropped by 42% from 112,880to 65,494.

Number of TSP millionaires in 2022
There are 40% less TSP millionaires at the end of 2022 than there were at the start of it.

The largest TSP account also dropped precipitously in 2022. The largest balance dropped from $10,975,527 in the first quarter to “only” $6,686,625 in the fourth quarter. A drop of over $4,000,000.

However, we don’t know for sure if that is all a result of market losses. The person with the $10,000,000 account may have rolled his or her TSP into an IRA and the $6,000,000 account represents a completely different TSP account. Regardless, I hope these multimillionaires are happily retired and enjoying life somewhere!

What we can learn from the TSP millionaire’s report

The TSP millionaire report shows that the average TSP millionaire has had their TSP for nearly 30 years. This shows the power of compounding! If you start saving early, make regular contributions for a long time, and avoid trying to time the market, you too can join the ranks of the TSP millionaires.

While it is cool to see the distribution of account balances, there are so many details missing from the report if you want to use it to size up your own account balance.

For instance, the largest group in the report have less than $50,000 saved in their TSP. But we don’t know anything about these people. I’m guessing the group is comprised of:

However, since the report does not have information on current vs. former employees and FERS vs. uniformed services participants, it makes it really hard to draw conclusions from the data set.

How you can become a TSP Millionaire

With the current maximum TSP contributions set at $22,500 (for 2023), the easiest path to becoming a millionaire is to follow the easiest TSP strategy: max out your TSP and don’t try to time the market.

With an 8% return on investment, a recurring annual investment of $22,500 will compound into over a million dollars in less than 20 years! That ignores the fact that

  1. The average return of the S&P 500 since inception is actually 11.88%.
  2. The $22,500 contribution ignores any matching funds contributed by the government
How long it takes to become a TSP millionaire with an 8% return
With just an 8% return on investment, you can become a TSP millionaire in less than 20 years if you contribute the IRS maximum to your TSP.

So you should feel confident that you’ll be able to join the TSP Millionaires club before retirement if you are a young employee who maxes out their TSP each year.

Asset allocation matters too

It’s not just how much you save but also how you save. If your TSP balance is in a low risk investment like the G Fund or the conservative L Income Fund, you will have a hard time getting the compound growth you will need to retire. If you’re unsure what an appropriate asset allocation is for your TSP, you could choose a lifecycle fund similar to your target retirement date, or check out more information in my post on the best TSP allocations.

What if I can’t max out my TSP?

If you can’t max your TSP, don’t worry! Remember, less than 50% of retirement age Americans have any money saved for retirement. Start by making regular, biweekly contributions to your TSP. Then when you get a pay increase or promotion, try to put the entire increase into your TSP and live on the same amount of money.

There were many years that I was not able to max out my TSP!! (Do you have any idea how much 3 kids in daycare costs?) However, I never stopped contributing, and I tried to increase my contributions whenever I got a promotion. While I’m planning on retiring early and taking a deferred retirement, if I were to stay until my MRA, I would easily reach the 1 million mark in my TSP.

Sam

Sam i.e. "Gov Worker" started working for the government at age 18 and loved it so much that he never left. He started GovernmentWorkerFI in 2019 to help fellow federal employees understand their benefits, take control of their finances, and live their best lives.

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