3 keys to planning for retirement after a police career

I wish I could go back and tell my 21-year-old rookie self, “Hey kid, make sure you start planning for retirement”

Like most cops, retirement was the furthest thing from my mind when I was hired. All I could think about was graduating from the academy, successfully completing field training, and  getting started with my law enforcement adventure. 

I wish someone would have said, “Hey kid, you need to start planning for retirement,” so that’s what I’m going to say to all of you. Rookies, veterans, and everyone in-between must plan for the day that they hang up the gun belt. 

No matter how much time you have on the job, there are three things you must think about NOW to plan for retirement. 

#1. It’s Never Too Soon to Plan Ahead
Every police academy should bring in a financial planner to talk to recruits. Many new cops go from college, the military, or lesser paying jobs to a decent salary and then too many businesses want to sell them a car, a house and lots and lots of credit cards. 

I wish I’d spent more of my early career learning how to save and invest and less time seeing how many boutiques and gun shops would give me a big line of credit. Fortunately, I dumped the credit cards within a year and had enough sense to listen to some of my more senior co-workers when they urged me to invest in a deferred compensation plan. 

As the saying goes, “Pay yourself first.” If you’re young, start by having a set amount of money taken out of your check every single pay period and invest it. Put that money into something that will penalize you if you take it out too early. Generally speaking, the younger you are, the more risks you can take, but get professional advice. 

If you’re at a midpoint in your career and haven’t done much about retirement beyond your pension, don’t wait any longer! Assess your debt and your savings. Start “feeding the pig” as those TV commercials say, any amount of savings and investment counts. If you’re toward the end of your career and haven’t saved enough, then begin looking at secondary employment. Is there something you enjoy doing that could earn you enough money to supplement your pension? 

Regardless of where you are at in your career, make sure you are familiar with your agency’s pension plan. Pensions used to be a given and they used to be untouchable, but this is no longer the case. Ask retired Detroit cops.   

Just like on the street, make sure you have a back up plan.

#2. Figure Out What  Retirement Means to You
When you’re on your 13th hour of a 12-hour shift, it’s easy to dream about retirement as simply “not having to go to work.” However, you’ve got to think past those first few weeks of sleeping in. 

If you’ve spent most of your adult life in a profession that requires the passion, commitment and sense of mission that law enforcement does, there’s a good chance that having nothing to fill your time will become tedious, boring or even depressing. This doesn’t mean you have to work, but as Dave Smith writes, you’ve got to make the transition to retirement “a path to a new adventure in your life.” 

Some police officers want to retire and travel the country or spend more time with family. Others are hoping to launch a second career or make their “off duty” job or business their primary source of employment. Long before you retire you need to start figuring out what you want your retirement to look like. 

#3. Make Health Your Priority
In the 1970s, the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research conducted a study that concluded that on average, retired police officers die within five years of retirement. If that’s still true, then I don’t have long to live, but I’m guessing this is no longer true. 

People — not just cops — are living longer every year. But longevity doesn’t always equal quality. Make physical and mental wellness a big part of your retirement plans. 

Keep your weight down. Obesity is unhealthy at any age, but as you age, the negative impact increases dramatically. Alcohol and tobacco — as all things — should be consumed only in moderation. 

Exercise regularly, but make sure the fitness program you’re on isn’t unnecessarily beating up your bones and joints. My husband and I both wish we’d stopped distance running at age 40. There’s nothing wrong with running, but with our mutual history of injuries, there were much better ways to stay fit than continuing to pound the pavement, and we’re paying for it now. 

You must be intimately familiar with your retiree health care plan before you “pull the pin” on retirement, especially with the Affordable Care Act taking over our health care system. Cops all over this country are getting unhappy surprises in the mail when it comes to reduced coverage and higher premiums. 

Pay attention to your mental health as well as your physical well-being. It could be that you have unresolved issues from a critical incident, you’re having a hard time making the transition to retirement, you feel depression settling in, or something else entirely. 

Don’t suffer in silence — reach out for help. 

Organization like Safe Call Now can help both current and retired law enforcement officers seek help confidentially. 

I thought I’d work until mandatory retirement. However, because of my busy “side job” and my family priorities I ended up retiring after “only” 29 years on the job. It was a decision I absolutely don’t regret, but I do wish I could go back and tell my 21-year-old rookie self, “Hey kid, make sure you start planning for retirement.” 

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