Couple navigates FERS-CSRS retirement divide

Thursday - 12/13/2012, 6:12pm EST

The Federal Drive

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Ever since the Federal Employees' Retirement System launched 25 years ago — replacing the longstanding and generous Civil Service Retirement System — federal employees have been plagued by a persistent question: Which system is better?

As part of the special series, FERS: 25 Years Later, Federal News Radio welcomed to its studios a retired federal couple, Neil Schiff and Linda Habenstreit, who represent the federal retirement divide. They joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Thursday to talk about their retirement experience.

When Schiff retired from the FBI's Office of Public Affairs, he was a FERS enrollee. His wife, a long-time public affairs specialist in the Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service, was covered by CSRS.

Neal Schiff and Linda Habenstreit in the Federal News Radio studios.

Though they both began their federal careers before the modern FERS era, Schiff left government service for a job in the private sector in the early 1980s, returning after the new system went into effect. And because he had fewer than five years of creditable service, he was automatically funneled into the new system.

"It would have been nice (to return to CSRS), but as it turned out, I was put in FERS," Schiff said. "It's fine. It's worked out very well."

He said he thinks CSRS offers a better overall plan, but he understands why the promise of cost-savings led the government to create and adopt FERS for new employees.

Despite whatever confusion may arise because each half of the couple draws different retirement benefits, Habenstreit stressed that both consider themselves fortunate.

"We're very lucky to have worked in the federal government and have good annuities. They're both good programs," she said, citing the options they offer employees. For example, even though she is in CSRS, Habenstreit has made contributions to the TSP, she explained.

CSRS employees are able to make contributions to the retirement-savings accounts but are not eligible for a matching contribution from their agencies.

More from FERS: 25 Years Later

FERS pioneers examine past and present of retirement fund

25 years later, FERS still 'excellent' plan for feds

The genesis of FERS

Fight for federal retirement overhaul offers lessons for today's fiscal challenges

TSP Tracker: Annual returns from 1987 - today

FERS: Timeline of key events