Personal finance is an area most people struggle with, but police officers face unique challenges. There are five distinct emotional cycles that most cops go through in their relationship with money. The first cycle is honeymoon.
More often than not, new police officers come from middle class families and it’s not uncommon for them to have grown up very poor. Although the trend is changing, the majority of entry level cops have no formal education beyond high school. Aside from low wage jobs, most cops did not have a career before becoming a cop and few enter law enforcement as a career change.
Because most police officers had entry level jobs before entering the business, they’re not used to the significant salary increase they earn when hired. Frequently cops double or triple their salary immediately upon taking their first police officer position.
This creates an immediate surplus of money that the young officer does not have the experience to handle. Young, single officers with no children and minimal financial responsibilities now see the opportunity to buy things they only wished for before. How many of you bought your first new car just after landing your police officer position? It’s very common.
Since the officer has gone without these luxuries his whole life, he does not have the patience to wait any longer and starts buying stuff. This alone is not a significant problem; however it leads to… the problem. Soon the officer is making all sorts of major purchases—all of which are bought with credit.
Although he doesn’t have the cash to make large purchases, the young officer feels he has a new source of wealth with a much larger paycheck. Since he’s waited so long and worked so hard, he doesn’t want to wait and save, but believes he can easily afford the monthly payments. Soon his entire new paycheck is going toward the minimum payments for cars, boats, motorcycles, credit cards and a maybe a mortgage.
What initially seemed like affordable monthly payments, now become a dreaded weight that gets heaver and heaver each and every month. Now with only a little money left over to spend, the officer starts looking for overtime shifts to bring in some extra cash. And once the officer gets used to the extra overtime money, more and more gets spent and overtime income that once was extra, is now necessary. This is when the honeymoon ends and the rat race begins.
There are many ways to prevent this situation and some seem obvious. Buying fewer things is the simple answer, but if it were that easy, it wouldn’t be such a common problem. Perhaps a new way of looking at your purchases may help.
Every time you consider making a large purchase, you’re faced with a few options. Pay cash (if you have it), pay with credit, or wait and save up for it. To help with that decision, if you follow this rule you’re unlikely to ever run into credit trouble. Use credit to buy things that will appreciate in value or will help you earn money, and cash for everything else.
Things that normally increase in value are real estate. Your primary home will typically go up in value over the long term and is therefore an acceptable credit purchase.
Examples of things that will help you earn money are a car so you can get to work, tools necessary for your job, and college education to improve job skills. This does not mean you need to buy a Mercedes or the latest and greatest gun. Usually a decent used car will do and the department issued gun works fine.
If you stick to those simple rules you’ll likely never have a debt problem. You will have more money to save and not end up with bills for things that are immediately worth far less than you owe. But most importantly, you won’t end up having to work your life away. You’ll be able to do more of the things you enjoy which often are free.
Chuck Rylant is a working police officer, Certified Financial Planner and regular contributor to CopsAlive.com on financial issues and financial management for law enforcement officers.
CopsAlive.com was founded to provide information and strategies to help police officers successfully survive their careers. We help law enforcement officers and their agencies prepare for the risks that threaten their existence.
We do this by Helping Law Enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful lives on the job and beyond. We think the best strategy is for each officer to create a tactical plan for their own life and career.
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Photo Credit: “Tons of Money” by Pfala as creative commons on Flickr.com