The three keys to a happy police retirement
Stop hoping for a happy retirement and start planning for one
By Patrick M. Foley
Police and other first responders face particular challenges in retirement. If you are a cop nearing the end of your service you may see it as an escape that you long for, particularly in this time of political and societal pressure toward law enforcement. But when you retire you will leave some good things behind. Those good things should be considered so you can replace them in retirement. Your happiness may depend on it.
The role of a police officer provides a sense of camaraderie. You know that your brothers and sisters on the force have your back. The department is a community, even a family. And there are a lot of laughs. You will give that up in retirement. Sure, you will stay in touch with folks, but it won’t be the same.
The job can be exciting. Depending on your role either occasionally, or every day. Maybe that is the aspect of the job you really want to get away from. But even so, won’t you miss the action at least a bit? Or maybe you love that part of it, the level of challenge and even the risk. Some people come hardwired to handle and enjoy high-pressure situations. Those people especially need to consider that they will leave that behind in retirement.
Perhaps most important, consider that the job of a police officer brings with it a rock-solid sense of identity and purpose. Even in this time of (outrageous) scapegoating of the profession, most Americans know we need the police. Maybe you have become disillusioned – you feel unappreciated, besieged even – and you have slipped into doubt of that purpose. But make no mistake: What you do is critical, and on one level or another you know that.
So, in retirement, you will be leaving behind certain measures of camaraderie, excitement and purpose. I don’t mean to make that sound so pessimistic. Retirement can and should be the best years of your life. But your odds of that happening improve if you actively plan to make it so, and part of that involves thinking about what your identity will be in retirement – what will motivate you and keep you springing out of bed in the morning.
In researching our book “Winning at Retirement,” fellow financial planner Kristin Hillsley and I discovered some data trends that are important to consider in a quest for retirement happiness. Some elements of what we learned were so different for those in your role that we recently released a first responder edition of the book that better tailors the information for police officers, firefighters, EMS providers and others who serve.
For anyone retiring from any job, there is good news. About half of retired Americans describe their post (primary) career years as the best time of their lives. Those are pretty good odds. But you can improve your own odds if you take steps to address three factors that seem to most influence the outcome. First, you need to look after your mental and physical health and wellness. Second, you need to have enough money to support your lifestyle, whatever that lifestyle is, such that you aren’t feeling constant stress about finances. And finally, you need to have a sense of purpose in retirement, something to drive you, engage you and shape your identity in a positive way. Let's examine those factors in more detail.
We can divide the subject of health and wellness into two parts: physical and mental. Advice on the physical side is straightforward. Structure your diet around whole, minimally processed foods. Exercise in some form pretty much every day, mixing a strength routine with a cardio routine. Pain and lack of energy owing to physical neglect become a recipe for physical and mental distress. And the physical/mental aspects are cyclical: taking better care of yourself makes you feel better, which makes you more likely to take care of yourself, which makes you feel better. It’s not about living to 100 years old, it’s about living well for as long as you live.
Police, specifically, score poorly as a group on every metric of mental wellness. Rates of suicide, substance abuse, depression and divorce are off the charts. Taking care of yourself physically will help with mental wellness, but the rest of the strategy is not as clear. The best advice we can offer is to actively pursue an attitude of optimism (not easy in your job), seek and reinforce in yourself a sense of purpose and contribution to society, maintain a feeling of connectedness to other human beings, and get help when you need it.
There is a powerful factor retiring police should be aware of called the happiness curve. In studies of cultures across the world, a strong tendency has been revealed. On average human happiness is at a high level in our early 20s, then declines to a low point around age 50, then – here’s the kicker – it rises to all-time highs at age 70 and beyond. That’s right, in opposition to common assumptions in our youth-obsessed culture, peak happiness typically comes late in life. It is important to note that police tend to retire somewhere around age 50, a natural nadir for happiness. So be aware that the blues you may feel around then are somewhat hard-wired, but also be aware that things should get better with time.
Money can buy happiness, but only to a point. When a person is living below the poverty line, money correlates closely with happiness. That’s understandable, if more money means adequate food and shelter, more money is going to make you happier. But the correlation falls off once your basic needs are met.
Beyond that, the bigger issue is whether money is a cause for stress (which it can be for people of limited means, and also for the very wealthy). If your nest egg is big enough, or your spending low enough, money worries shouldn’t keep you up at night. Achieving that requires a combination of keeping debt low, having a strong sense of your budget and investing wisely.
One thing you hopefully have going for you is a good pension, something that has become a unicorn outside of the public sector. The certainty provided by a pension can form the bedrock of financial stability. The rest of it, and obviously there is much more to it, is beyond the scope of this article. Know this much in short: avoid putting your head in the sand when it comes to your finances. As with the rest of this, make a plan. Seek help as needed, starting with your human resources department.
If this article manages to make its way to a few rookies, listen up: one thing literally every retiring police officer will tell you to do is to start early when it comes to saving. You will thank yourself later. Whatever your age, if you have not started saving, start today.
Take inventory of your life right now, including your career. What do you hate about it? More importantly, what do you love about it? Anything positive that will be left behind in retirement should be replaced.
Start with camaraderie. Is there a hobby, club, or second career that would provide that sense of friendship, of tribal closeness?
How much will you miss the action? Are you an adrenaline junky? That is not an insult; some people are built to crave excitement, and that motivation can be channeled in positive directions. If you will miss that aspect of the job, come up with a way to replace it.
And what about your purpose? What drives you, what are your values and what makes you proud of the work that you do? Again, give thought to this and plan accordingly as you shape the next phase of your life. As we say in the book, “retirement is a blank sheet of paper.” Give serious thought to what you will do with that empty canvas so that it maximizes your sense of positive contribution to the world, and by extension, your happiness.
Go find happiness
We as a society owe you a debt of gratitude for the risks and difficulties you took on for us. You owe yourself a happy retirement. Our advice is to move beyond just hoping for that outcome and start planning for it. Retirement happiness is a goal worth working toward. Look after yourself physically and mentally, be smart about your money, match your lifestyle to your resources, and seek out a sense of engagement and purpose for the remainder of your happy days.
About the author
Patrick Foley, CFP, has 27 years of experience as a registered representative and holds state securities and insurance licenses. He is also a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER professional. With his partner Kristin Hillsley, Patrick co-authored the book “Winning at Retirement: A Guide to Health, Wealth & Purpose in the Best Years of Your Life.” In 2021 Pat & Kristin published a “First Responder Edition” of the book to address the specific needs of those stepping down from a career of service. For more information, visit Patrick’s website.