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Financial advice for cops: Balancing pay vs. quality of life

What could you accomplish professionally if you weren’t trapped with one agency or another? What if you could make the money you make now work harder for you?

There is a crossroads — a question, really — many of us encounter at some point in our careers. At what point does pay become less important than quality of life? Is it possible to increase my available money, and at the same time improve my quality of life?

Increasing pay is easily quantifiable. Agency A pays you $5,000/month and Agency B pays you $7,200/month. One is obviously greater than the other. However, when it comes to quality of life, the concept is an individual choice and is much more subjective. The catch when it comes to quality of life is, you really can’t know when you transition from one agency to the next. A new agency can promise you all the shiny new toys on the planet, but will they actually deliver? You are taking that on faith.

What it truly comes down to is doing your homework. These are not decisions to be made lightly. Here are some things to consider if you’re thinking about moving on:

1. Money: This goes beyond salary. It includes smaller details like commute (gas = money) and other incurred costs (uniform allowance, for example). How will the move you are considering impact your budget on every level?

2. Quality of life: Remember, this is a bit nebulous and you’ll need to work hard on defining what it means to you. If you’re married, you must include your spouse in this decision. You are a team.

3. Agency leadership: Leadership will directly impact your quality of life. If the culture in any agency is toxic, it may behoove you to leave (if it’s the one you’re currently with) or avoid (if it’s the one that “pays more”). Often, culture is set from the top, but it tends to germinate and fester at the line staff level. Spend some time with the cops at an agency you’re considering. Ask them about the culture. If they are tripping over themselves to warn you off, pay attention — your quality of life may be at stake.

4. Upward mobility and available assignments: If you’re considering moving to a 13-person department, it may be a while before you have the opportunity to promote. When it comes to specialty assignments, you have to consider your goals and the possibilities in achieving them with any given agency.

5. Priorities and goals: Depending on where you are in your career, your priorities may have changed. For example, perhaps you didn’t have a family when you started. Write down your priorities and your goals. Prioritize them and plug in any agency you are considering. Do they meet enough for you to make the call?

How Budgeting Affects Quality of Life
Now, let’s consider another important issue which can have an effect on your quality of life whether or not you decide to take a job at another agency. Too often, I hear cops say, if they made more money, their problems would be solved.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you aren’t handling the money you make now well, I assure you more money will only create more anxiety and drama. It’ll seem great at the beginning, but it won’t take long for it to overwhelm you. More money doesn’t reduce the ‘overtime cycle.’ Recall the overtime cycle is working more to make more so you can spend more…which results in you having to work more. It’s an insidious and disastrous downward spiral that quite literally can destroy everything.

My agency is facing a serious manpower shortfall — they are bleeding people. Specialty assignments are being curtailed, if not cut altogether to stem the tide of overtime that is increasingly being forced upon us all. We are increasingly being asked to “help the team” and sign up for overtime shifts to prevent others from being forced to work. There is talk of a “fair share.” — where the agency requires each member to work a certain amount of hours of overtime per month to help spread the pain around a bit.

Does that overtime put a little more money in the bank? Sure, but the impact limited staffing has on me goes further than that. One of the side benefits of busting my ass for 28 months to pay off almost $80,000 in debt was that I only work overtime when I want to. I remember those days and I am loathe to return to them.

If you know how to handle the lousy money you make, the odds of you allocating more money effectively topple in your favor.

If you’re thinking of making a switch – remember that there is more to consider than just the bottom line. Learn everything you can about the new agency and weigh your options with the help of your family.

Jason Hoschouer is a law enforcement officer with an agency in the San Francisco Bay area in California. In addition to patrolling the streets as a motor officer, Hoschouer helps fellow LEOs with financial coaching through his company, GPS Financial Coaching. Hoschouer’s column on Police1 covers everything from motors to monies, from britches to budgets. Jason has been blogging under the pseudonym “Motorcop” at since 2008 and was also a columnist for American COP Magazine for several years.

You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Contact Jason Hoschouer