Financial fitness for law enforcement officers
July 26, 2022
By Paul Britton
In the last few years, there has been an increased focus on police officer’s mental health. The policing community, varying levels of government and the communities acknowledge that experiencing trauma can have a lasting effect on members of law enforcement. This is a welcomed development that has no doubt saved careers and lives. However, one commonly overlooked aspect of a police officer’s overall well-being is their financial health.
The topic of money and personal finance, while important, is often thought as a taboo topic. I still remember being told that “it is considered impolite to ask someone how much money they make”. As police officers, we don’t have that problem due to our paygrades being public knowledge. Conversations surrounding debt, credit scores and/or investment habits are not generally heard during locker room and pre-briefing talks. Those topics are typically reserved for upcoming vacations, calls taken, transfers and personal situations.
During my recruit training, we had a sergeant from human resources come talk to us about our pension and finances. The presentation was ten minutes long and it mostly consisted of statements such as: “You have the best pension” and “Think twice before leaving for another police force”. For the uninitiated, police officers generally have what is termed as a “defined benefit pension plan”. In a nutshell, this means that your pension payout is based on how many years you serve, averaged out against your five highest earning years. The amount you take home is guaranteed by your employer and is usually indexed for inflation and cost-of-living adjustments. This type of pension plan is rarely found outside government agencies.
I only recently started taking an active interest in my personal finances and pension after the birth of my daughter and taking a large financial loss on the sale of my house in northern Alberta. Previously, I was of the mindset that if I worked hard, my organization would take care of me in retirement. I have been a police officer for over fifteen years and money has never been a problem for me—until it suddenly was. Having enough money to cover all my obligations, providing for my family and having a comfortable life was always a moot consideration for me, up until recently when I realized I could optimize my golden years further.
The police perspective
It’s no secret that as police officers, we are often called upon to intervene in people’s lives when they are at their worst. In fact, this is much of our work. Along with long hours, separation from family and shift work, the constant barrage of negative reinforcement takes a toll. While a policing career puts us at a higher risk for substance abuse and divorce, we are also at risk for recklessly spending money as a means of therapy. This is colloquially referred to as: “Retail Therapy”.
I have co-workers who practice all various types of retail therapy. Some common examples are daily Amazon packages showing up to the door, expensive vehicles, nice clothes and lavish trips on a regular basis. During my last posting, it was an ongoing joke that as soon as a new police officer was finished their recruit training, he would immediately finance a new truck. This would usually be done at a terrible interest rate and getting roped into buying extras from the dealership.
I was also guilty of this after securing my very first job in law enforcement. As a brand new 22-year-old sheriff’s officer, I leased a new quad cab pick-up truck. After gas, parking, rent and insurance this didn’t leave me much money left over for investing or fun. After a short time, I was looking for someone to take over my lease. This was a life lesson for me.
As my career progressed and I became a police officer, I would often find myself at a mall not needing anything but wanting to spend money for no specific reason. These trips would generally coincide with a series of hard shifts, bad calls for service or some other sort of setback. And why not? We aren’t hurting anyone. Making a purchase gives an immediate sense of gratification for what can be considered “not much money”. In small doses and within reason, retail therapy can be a fun thing. However, like anything, it becomes a problem when you can’t pay for your purchases all at once. Your debt load inevitably creeps up and you find yourself living paycheque to paycheque.
If you find yourself in a sticky financial situation, remember that most police agencies have a member wellness program.
This issue isn’t exclusive to police but combined with our job-related pressure, this adds another stressor that we simply don’t need. I have seen police officers get to a point where creditors are calling for them at work. I have worked with some people who have even got to a point where they had to declare bankruptcy. As police officers, we need to be able to maintain and hold a security clearance. Having increased debts and a bankruptcy on your credit report can have a negative effect on your ability to keep your clearance. Police officers make a good wage, have recession-proof employment and access to overtime. This makes us good candidates for credit. Banks, credit card companies and lenders of all types usually love us. With interest rates remaining relatively low, lenders are lining up to finance all kinds of purchases for us.
If you find yourself in a sticky financial situation, remember that most police agencies have a member wellness program. There are counselling sessions available for mental health, stress, marriage and substance abuse issues. For example, the agency I work for has financial counselling available if a member is experiencing financial hardships or struggling with debt.
By policy, once you are having issues, you should consider getting help. Getting help for anything is a good thing, but at this point you are in damage control mode. I believe as with any area in life, being educated on the topic will help you during your police career. Having some knowledge going in will give you the tools to succeed in the long term. I also believe that financial education should be part of a police officer’s basic training.
As police officers we spend countless hours training in use of force, fitness, report writing, interviewing and more. Why not dedicate two hours to understanding credit, finances and how they tie into a police officer’s overall health picture? If you’ve found yourself in a financial dilemma, you need to take accountability for your money immediately. I found that for myself, knowing where I was spending my money helped drastically. Use your bank’s mobile app, track where you spend your money, add all that up and see the total. Make a household monthly budget. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money you make—it’s how much money you spend.
Once you have an overall financial picture, you’ll know where you can cut out expenses. Consider what types of discretionary spending you can eliminate or scale back on. For me, I took a deep dive into my monthly credit card bill and saw that I had five steaming services subscribed to at once. I was able to cut out two of them and save almost forty dollars a month. While this doesn’t sound like a lot of money, it adds up to almost five hundred dollars a year. I was even more shocked when I tallied how much I spent on coffee with my credit card every month.
Knowing and understanding the numbers will put you into a position for success. The point I’m hoping to make is that once you take care of the small things, it will become easier to manage the larger expenses. Understand also that the situation you’re in now isn’t forever if you take the time to get educated. Keep paying your bills, eliminate high-interest consumer debts such as credit cards, and manage lines of credit and mortgages carefully. Once those things are taken care of, your credit score and savings will bounce back. Despite some challenges, the action you take now will ensure a well-deserved and debt free retirement. Your future self will thank-you.
Paul Britton is originally from Manitoba and has been in law enforcement for 16 years. Prior to joining the RCMP, he worked with the CBSA. Britton has worked in Alberta and is currently posted in Nunavut. He can be reached on Linked In and at email@example.com.