You're Hired! Now, Start Planning for Retirement
Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith
Congratulations! You just got that law enforcement job you’ve been going after for months, maybe even years. Whether you’re just starting the academy or it’s your first day of field training, you’ve got so much to learn, so much to think about, so much to do! But I’m going to give you one more thing that you must start planning for immediately. Your retirement. No, I’m not kidding. I’m going to tell you what every veteran cop, including me, wishes someone had told them the day they came on the job.
I know, it’s the same thing your parents have been telling you for years. When I first got hired, I had to pay rent, buy food, make a car payment, and pay off my student loans. I was just hoping to make ends meet. But if I would have put $100 a paycheck into a passbook savings account from the time I cashed my first paycheck, even if I only earned 3% interest (compounded daily, I did the math!) I could be retiring next year with 30 years of service and an extra $117,000 in the bank! And despite the current economy, there are much more lucrative investments that would double or triple that money in no time! You can also invest in various retirement funds (such as a 457 plan) that will provide you with extra income after you collect that pension. You should also plan on saving money to someday buy a house, and maybe even send a kid or two to college.
Nurture Your Credit Rating
When you get hired as a cop, everyone wants to give you a credit card or loan you money. Why? Because you’re a pretty safe risk. Lenders know that police work is generally a steady job that people stay in for the long haul, and besides, the banks know where to find you. This may be your first “real” job and you may be making more money than you ever have, so it’s easy to fall into the “credit” trap of buying a hot new car, a house you can’t really afford, or taking advantage of all those tempting credit card offers that come in the mail. Use credit wisely. The bill will come eventually, and you’ll have to pay up. Besides, most police departments have a policy about their officers maintaining a good credit rating; the theory being a cop in extreme debt is a more likely risk for corruption. Don’t blow your career and your credit rating on a 50” flat screen, a tricked out motorcycle and a brand new Wii that you can’t really afford.
Think About Insurance…Lots of It
You probably get health and life insurance through the department. When you’re a young cop, you only (and barely) think about an on duty death, but what if something happens to you off duty? Do you know and understand the difference between an “in the line of duty” death and an “on duty death?” The standard life insurance policy is one and one half times your salary if you die not in the line of duty. Is that enough to take care of your debts and leave your family with enough money to pay for your funeral? See if your department or your private insurance agency offers supplemental life insurance. When a friend of mine died off duty late last year at the age of 46, it was heartening to learn that he had purchased supplemental life insurance through our department, leaving his wife with double the amount she thought she’d receive. You also need to look into additional liability insurance, disability insurance (what if you get hurt and can’t return to police work; the department isn‘t necessarily going to take care of you, as many a disabled officer has found out the hard way) and make sure you sign up for your association’s legal plan. Most cops don’t get through their career these days without at least one lawsuit. Protect yourself, and your loved ones, now and for the future.
Take Care of Your Health
Living on fast food, energy drinks and beer might work when you’re 25, but it takes its toll on you by the time you are 45. Keep up those fitness habits you learned in the academy. Study nutrition and take the time to eat decently. Go easy on the caffeine and the alcohol, stay completely away from nicotine, whether its cigarettes or chew. Try to get enough sleep. Make fitness and nutrition part of your lifestyle, take up a fitness hobby, like biking, martial arts, or swimming and get your buddies involved. It may save you from the many health problems that tend to plague cops later in their careers, and it will help keep your stress level (and your blood pressure) lower.
Keep Some of Your Old Friends
Many of us drift away from our old friends when we become cops. After all, it’s hard to get your college buddies to go out with you at 7:00AM on a Tuesday, which is actually your “Friday night.” Our cop friends have the same hours we do, they understand us for the most part, and they don’t ask us endless stupid questions about our job; but make the effort to stay in contact with a few non-police friends. Take an interest in their lives, their families, their activities. Get together with them, even if it’s for coffee (or a bike ride or an Aikido class) on Tuesday mornings at 7:00AM. And just for fun, ask them stupid questions about their jobs.
Continue Your Education
Unless you’re a rookie with a doctoral degree, you probably need to continue your training and education. Get a degree, or another degree. Do you think some day you might want to be a teacher? Get a degree in education. After handling your 200th domestic dispute are you starting to think you’d make a pretty good counselor? Get your master’s degree in social work. Is that chief’s job looking pretty interesting? Find a doctorate program in leadership studies. And don’t neglect your law enforcement education. Go to every training class you can, and then some. You can never learn it all, or learn enough. Keep seeking more knowledge, always.
Get a Hobby
As a friend of mine says, “If your hobby is working overtime, you need a new hobby.” It’s easy early in your career to be “all about the job,” but sometimes we sacrifice doing things we really love to spend more time at work. Go buy Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement and find out how having a hobby and some perspective can save your life. After all, you are going to retire some day, and it would be nice to have something to do after police work. I’ve been a cop for 29 years and it’s gone ridiculously fast. Enjoy the ride while you’re on it, but always be planning for the day that the ride stops and you have to get off. Yes, there really is life after police work. Ask me in six months, I’ll tell you all about it.