Retirement planning for public service workers 

4 mins readLast updated October 4, 2023by Kate Morgan

An employee in the public sector doesn’t have access to the same pension choices as most everyday citizens employed by private companies. Still, they have many retirement planning options to consider. Read on, and learn more about creating a public employee retirement fund and properly preparing for a life of leisure after a life of public service.

How many people work in the public sector?

In 2021, just over 20 million people were registered as public service workers.

About 18.83 million of these people worked for state or local government organizations, while 2.85 million worked as federal employees, including civil servants, firefighters and law officers.

The average public sector worker earns $47,272 annually, with the highest-paid positions earning over $71,000.  

While some of the usual advice about planning for retirement may not apply, public sector employees still have many options.

They can save just as successfully as private sector employees, and some of the investment options they can access offer potentially huge returns.  

The options for public sector retirement

The public employees’ retirement system consists of two different public sector retirement plans for state or federal employees.

The first is the Civil Service Retirement System (CRS). The CRS applies to workers who were hired before 1983. If you were hired after 1983, you’re eligible for the second plan – the Federal Employees Retirement Service (FERS).  

Employees under the CRS plan receive a monthly annuity after retirement. The amount received is calculated based on age, type of retirement, years of service, ‘high-3’ years, and more.

The FERS plan uses these factors too, but payments are also calculated based on automatic and matching government contributions and your own payments into the plan.  

 Both plans offer many benefits, including the ability to make contributions to a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). 

It’s important to note, however, that only recipients of the FERS plan will receive contributions from their employer.  

The advantages and disadvantages of the public sector plans

The CRS plan is accessible, provides retirement, disability and survivor benefits, and guarantees all recipients a steady monthly payment, no matter their circumstances after they stop working.

However, with the CRS plan, you won’t have Social Security payments taken from your salary, so you won’t be eligible for Social Security benefits in retirement (unless your spouse can access them or you qualified for them through a different job).

This might make it a slightly less attractive public retirement system. 

To receive a pension under the FERS plan, you must have worked as a federal employee for at least five years at the state, county or municipal government level.

The FERS plan gives recipients access to Social Security benefits and enables the reception of deferred annuities. (In other words, if you were to pass away, a beneficiary could continue to receive your pension payments.) 

Understanding the Thrift Savings Plan

As mentioned, public and government employees can contribute to a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). A TSP is the public sector employee’s alternative to a 401(k) plan.

It allows employees to save for retirement and receive matching contributions from their agencies or employers.

Usually, an agency/employer will contribute an additional 1 per cent of their employee’s salary. If you have any existing retirement funds from previous employers, these can be added to your TSP. 

Your TSP's value is based on how much money you contribute and where you invest it.

Speaking with a financial advisor to discuss those decisions is a great way to be sure you’re effectively planning your savings and mapping things out well.  

There are five main options for TSP investments, and they each come with differing levels of risk and reward, so you’ll need to explore your risk-reward preferences and figure out your attitude to risk as you decide which type of fund will suit you best.

These are the options: 

  1. The Government Securities Investment Fund (commonly termed the ‘G Fund’) – This is the only TSP option that guarantees the return of at least the value of your original investment. This means it’s the fund with the lowest level of risk attached, but it also means it has the lowest historic return on investment (ROI). 

  2. The Fixed Income Investment Fund (commonly termed the ‘F Fund’) – This fund is higher risk than the G Fund as it invests in a broader range of options and diversifies more extensively. It doesn’t guarantee the return of your original investment, either, but it does pay a higher interest rate on returns.  

  3. The Common Stock Investment Fund (commonly termed the ‘C Fund’) – Through investing in 500 large and mid-cap companies, the C Fund promises high potential returns but is more financially volatile than the G Fund or the F Fund. The risk increases with the potential for reward. This will be perfect for some public service employees but won’t suit others. 

  4. The Small-Capitalization Stock Index Fund (commonly termed the ‘S Fund’) – This is one of the riskiest investment options for a TSP. The companies invested in are small, which means they have more potential to grow and return highly than a C Fund, but they also have more potential to fail, leaving you in a position to lose out. 

  5. The International Stock Investment Fund (commonly termed the ‘I Fund’) – I Funds invest in companies across 22 developed countries, so returns are potentially the largest, but risks are potentially the greatest. This is always the way with large-scale investment activity (which anything involving international stocks could be considered).  

Public sector employees might also choose a Life Cycle Investment Fund.

This is great for retirees as the investment portfolio is offered based on their planned year of retirement, meaning they stand to get better returns while taking less risk (the investments are held in fixed-income mutual funds).  

Unbiased provides expert advice on all things financial, including pension and retirement plans.

If you’re preparing for your golden years, you’ll find many other useful retirement and pension blogs on our site. 

Content writer

Kate Morgan

Kate has written for leading publications and blue chip companies over the last 20 years.