In 2009, I was earning $100,000 per year as a top-step patrol officer and I was living paycheck to paycheck.
I was working an average of 30 to 40 hours of overtime a month just to pay the bills. That’s two-and-a-half months of additional work per year and an extra week per month.
That kind of output is unsustainable if the rest of your life is to be at all bearable.
The Hypervigilance Rollercoaster and the OT Cycle
In his seminal work, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin addresses that unsustainability in what he refers to as the Hypervigilance Rollercoaster.
This perceptual set of elevated alertness of the surroundings — which is required by law enforcement officers for survival — is referred to in the police culture as officer safety. However, a more accurate term would be hypervigilance (P. 35, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement).
As Dr. Gilmartin explains, at the height of the rollercoaster, we are at our most alive. We are outgoing. We are funny. We are vivacious. We are the best version of ourselves. However, when we go off duty, we plummet into lethargy, depression, apathy, and inaction. Thanks very much, Sir Isaac Newton, for your Third Law.
Two extremes exist every day in the life a police officer.
The problem is, if the officer and family are not aware of the cycle and its potential destruction, they can’t be expected to take the appropriate corrective action and avoid the devastating effects on both their personal and professional lives (P. 50, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement).
It was during a seminar I attended in which Dr. Gilmartin spoke — and in conjunction with my own financial journey — that I had an epiphany: Countless cops just like me suffer from what I call the Overtime Cycle.
The OT Cycle is insidious. In it, we find ourselves working more in order to spend more which, in turn, requires us to work more.
How do we counteract those feelings of apathy, depression, and inaction during our off days? How can we rekindle the adrenaline high we all love so much? One of the most frequent ways is retail therapy. We spend money like a lottery winner with no control and no adult supervision.
That’s all well and good whilst the high lasts, but then those payments for that truck you just bought start rolling in.
So what do you do? You work more OT. And that’s where the cycle starts.
This is About Your All-Around Wellbeing
In a recent column for InPublicSafety.com, Professor Mark Bond cited a 2012 study on police officer fatigue (Basińska & Wiciak, 2012). that found that fatigued officers:
• Use more sick time
• Have difficulty managing successful personal relationships
• Have time management issues (reporting for duty on time)
• Make mistakes on departmental and court paperwork
• Sleep on duty (rotating shiftwork)
• Generate higher rates of citizen complaints for reported misconduct
• Tend to have problems communicating with supervisors and have stressful relationships with superiors
• Have problems testifying in court regarding being prepared
• Experience more accidental injuries on duty
• Retire early (burnout)
• Are at a higher risk of being seriously injured or killed by not focusing and recognizing danger signs
It’s an easy fix, though! I’ll just go work for a different department so I’ll make more money! That’ll solve the problem! After all, the grass is always greener elsewhere, right?
Nope. The cycle only gets worse because we are making more which means we have more to spend.
So, what’s the solution? How can we break the OT Cycle and normalize the hypervigilance rollercoaster?
There is no easy answer. There is no magic pill. What I’m about to tell you requires hard work and discipline. It can be unpleasant in the beginning, but I unabashedly and unreservedly promise you that it will improve your work life and — more importantly — your home life.
I know because I lived it. Creating a budget changed my life.
Remember, five years ago, I was making six figures, but I was living paycheck to paycheck.
I came home one day and sat on my bed on the verge of tears because I had no idea how I was going to pay the electric bill.
My thoughts in that moment were: “You’re a shitty husband and a worse father.”
I am not one to believe in coincidence and I won’t wax philosophic. Suffice it to say, I cried out to God in that moment — a man broken and afraid. Mere minutes later, my wife told me her grandma was selling her house and moving and we would be receiving a gift of $1,000.
Message heard and received. Thanks, God.
Even then, I didn’t take many steps to avoid the same issue. Then my wife mentioned the name Dave Ramsey. I bought his book Total Money Makeover and read it cover to cover in about 48 hours.
By following his tenets, we paid off $77,232 in less than 28 months.
Five years later, I am now an Independent Dave Ramsey Finance Coach with my own financial coaching business, GPS Financial Coaching. I’ve led dozens of families through paying off debt, creating a plan, and becoming intentional with the money they make.
Create a budget. Make a written plan for your money every month. When we created our first written budget, we “found” $500 a month. By being intentional, it felt like we had received a raise.
Before you start bitching about your lousy pay, ask yourself this question:
Am I being a good steward with the money I do make?
If your answer isn’t an emphatic YES, I strongly encourage you to knuckle down with your spouse if you’re married — or a good accountability partner if you’re single — and create a written spending plan.
A budget is simply making a plan for your money. Every time you get paid, you write down that amount at the top of a sheet of paper. You then allocate that money to where it needs to go. The first items to be allocated are your necessities — things like mortgage/rent, food, utilities, transportation (note: this does not mean a Maserati) are counted first. Then, you move on to monthly bills.
There are plenty of packages in the market that can help you create a budget. We use YNAB, and Dave Ramsey’s site has this budgeting tool.
Choose a solution that you like and get started.
Give every last red cent you make a job, a label, a purpose.