Why we must teach young officers about what it takes to achieve financial success
This is the true measure of financial success in law enforcement: being able to enjoy retirement in great physical and mental shape
As a shiny, new 20-something police officer, I received more than a few offers of unsolicited advice. Here is just a sampling of what I was told:
- One peer, barely out of the field training program herself, tried to convince me not to polish my boots, since the worn and scuffed appearance I was giving them on patrol gave me more street credibility.
- An old motorcycle traffic cop warned me to get a baseline hearing test before wearing an earpiece attached to my radio. When years of blasting my ear drum had diminished my hearing, he said, I would have a solid workers’ compensation case requiring the agency to buy my hearing aids in retirement.
- I was cautioned to never eat in uniform where I couldn’t see the staff make my food, for fear of intentional food poisoning.
- I listened when a cop with firsthand experience recommended I hide a spare handcuff key in my belt in case of an emergency.
- Some officers insisted that wearing business suits to court was the way to appear more professional. Yet others proclaimed I had to wear my uniform to testify so the jury would see me as trustworthy and could imagine me doing exactly what I was testifying to.
Some of the recommendations were absurd, like never wear white socks since they don’t match a dark uniform. Except who was ever going to see the color of my socks under long pants and tall boots? I ended up wearing colorful novelty socks with swear words and funny sayings just to make myself giggle at my own little inside joke. I thought if I ever had a medical emergency on the job, wouldn’t it be funny when medics stripped me down to my red and purple "I hate everyone too" socks?
Some comments were scary. I have light blonde hair and more than one co-worker joked they wanted to do building searches with me since my hair would draw the gunfire away from them if we were ever ambushed. I wore a black baseball cap every night after that.
However, the best advice I ever got came from my very first field training officer (FTO). It wasn’t so much advice as an order. The secret to financial success in law enforcement, he said, was good planning. Then he drove me to city hall and marched me right to the finance department to sign up for deferred compensation. The only problem was, I didn’t even know what those words meant.
Steering the Financial Ship
Becoming a cop before a person’s frontal cortex has fully matured at age 25 means well-thought-out, adult decisions about your life and future are not going to come naturally. Planning for my retirement nearly 30 years in the future was not at the top of my career priorities checklist. But I was a naïve, captive audience who followed orders.
My FTO patiently explained the city’s generous matching funds contribution to my pre-tax earnings. A helpful finance employee explained the world of financial retirement plans and just how my money could grow with the help of free matching dollars from my employer. Firmly yet playfully, my training officer refused to let me leave without signing up to contribute at least $50 per paycheck in perpetuity and promising to increase the amount with each pay increase. I was a good student and did just that until I reached the maximum contribution allowed per year for over half of my career.
The same money wizard officer held my hand through the supplemental life insurance decisions being pushed on me via the union’s insurance connections. Whole life? Term life? Umbrella policies? Bundles? At that point, I was paying car insurance that my dad set up for me when I was 16 and I had never even considered changing it. I really didn’t even know what it truly covered at the time.
Motivated by a brand-new baby, I jumped at the opportunity to cover her financial needs in case I (a single mother) couldn’t be around to care for her. When I purchased my first home, the need for supplemental insurance coverage only increased.
After I was able to purchase half of a modest duplex for my family, I returned to the money-savvy officer who was now my financial beacon. He recommended I look into homesteading my residence.
Getting My House in Order
I’d always thought homesteading meant living off grid on a rough piece of land, suffering harsh winters around a woodstove and growing vegetables while hoping the deer didn’t eat them first. The man was amused by my ignorance, but politely explained that the legal process of homesteading a property I owned with equity could reduce the property taxes I paid. But more importantly, it would provide an extra layer of protection against liens or other lawsuits I might encounter as a result of my job. Homesteading would also help guard against creditors in the event of financial ruin and stop the forced sale of my home if needed. If I were to perish in the line of duty, the home would be protected from reclamation from my surviving spouse or children.
As it turned out, I was sued twice in my career. Thankfully, both suits went in my favor and a third was tossed out as frivolous. Because of this, I never needed to rely on my homesteading rights. But I had them at the ready, if necessary, bringing some peace of mind.
Developing Fiscal Discipline
A final step contributing to financial success in my law enforcement career came from outside the police community. It was a hard lesson to follow, but one I was very grateful for in the end.
Like many parents, mine always stressed the need for a savings account. I was lectured and cajoled to not spend on credit, to pay off all loans (including my home) as quickly as possible, and that not all pretty things are worth their impact on financial wellness. My folks told me to never carry a credit card balance except for an emergency – like when my car’s transmission fell out. If I needed a large-ticket item, like a new refrigerator, I needed to use my well-padded savings account to pay for it in full. And when the jealous, greedy demon of wanting all the toys came calling, I should pick one indulgence and work overtime to obtain it, never touching my regular monthly spending budget on extravagances.
For a newer officer, this was especially difficult. It seemed like every week someone on my team had a new motorcycle, boat or a tropical vacation planned. I still went on vacation and had some fun, but let me tell you, I was not living it up with a double-axle toy hauler carrying a dune buggy. I envied my peers and occasionally felt jealousy sneaking in when I heard their stories of epic trips and holidays.
In spite of this, I felt vindicated when tragedy struck in the form of an off-duty injury. I needed those extra hours I had saved to keep a paycheck coming. Although I liked the extra from overtime work, it didn’t hurt that I never relied on it for my monthly bills. If I had, those weeks of staying off my feet would have crippled me financially.
Careful Planning Pays Off
The FOMO tides officially turned when I neared retirement. After years of paying into my financial 457/401K plans, banking vacation and sick leave to keep them at their maximum limits, and taking steps to ensure I was not entering retirement deep in debt, I finally saw my efforts pay off. I turned over my duty weapon at 0700 hours at the end of my last shift on my 50th birthday, the first day of eligible retirement age in my state for police officers.
My husband was waiting outside the police department in our brand-new Airstream travel trailer (paid for in full, of course!) and we headed off for three weeks of retirement vacation visiting the western United States. I received a six-figure payout of my time banks and the maximum retirement monthly income I was eligible for. I was the youngest of my peers to ever accomplish this. Many of them are still working three years after I retired even though they were my age or older.
It’s not like I’m living an extravagant lifestyle, jetting off to Ibiza every weekend or anything. I still work and my husband and I are still careful with money. But we have the financial security to work when and where we want to, enjoy lots of time off and, most importantly, feel confident that we are well prepared for what life tosses at us. The sacrifices I made during my career set me up for financial freedom at an age and level of health that will allow me to live comfortably and enjoy my family and travel for possibly decades. This is the true measure of financial success in law enforcement: being able to enjoy retirement in great physical and mental shape.
Because of that first field training officer who drove me to city hall and practically forced me to sign up for retirement savings on the spot, I was able to capitalize on a retirement savings strategy most Americans will never experience. You better believe every officer I trained got the same treatment. We owe it to our younger generation of law enforcement personnel to help them understand the pitfalls they will face in their career.
Let’s face it: Financial planning and saving for a day 30-plus years in the future isn’t the most exciting talk you can have with your newer officers. It may not be well received, but it’s worth pushing for. Because if you care enough, you’ll help set them up for their future.