By Mike Lawson
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When are you retiring? If you have been working in law enforcement for over 18 years, you have probably heard that question many times. If you are like most law enforcement officers, you have thought about it frequently. How do you decide when the right time will be? And when the right time comes, what will retirement look like for you?
Most police departments do very little to prepare their officers for a healthy retirement. Personnel tend to figure it out by themselves without a clear picture of what retirement will be like. While most have a nice retirement, others retire without much forethought, which can create undue stress post-retirement.
Retirement should be one of the best times of your life. After putting in the long hours and hard work for your department and the people you serve you deserve a stress-free retirement for both you and your family. If you are thinking about retirement, but are not sure where to start, here are five things to consider before you take that step.
1. What is your financial situation?
The most important consideration for many officers is finances.
When considering retirement, start financial planning early. A few years before your anticipated date of retirement, work with your department on financial forecasts. Contact your department’s retirement liaison and ask for retirement estimates based on up to three potential dates of retirement. A comparison may help you determine the best retirement date for you and your family. Many times, a six-month difference will not yield a much higher pension. When you get the estimates, be sure to take into consideration any additional costs you may have in retirement such as health care for yourself and your family.
Consider meeting with a qualified financial advisor. A financial advisor should be able to provide additional information for you to consider based on your pension and any additional investments you might have. For me, this meeting was crucial and solidified my date for retirement. Our financial advisor helped me see that while the pension is great, having additional retirement accounts, like a deferred compensation account was a wise decision. Having started a deferred account myself early in my career, I have seen how even a small monthly investment has grown over time. This can be a great source of additional income, an emergency fund, or maybe even a “beach house” fund. If you have a secondary retirement account, that is great! If not, start today with a small contribution and increase it year after year. The long-term investment is worth the short-term sacrifice.
The bottom line when considering your finances is to run the numbers and then run them again until you feel confident. Knowing that you and your family will be secure financially will provide the comfort you need to decide your ideal retirement date and to have a happy retirement.
2. How will you stay active?
Staying active can mean different things to different people. It has always been interesting how police departments send you to an academy to get you in shape to handle the physical aspect of the job, but once hired there is little accountability or requirement to keep you in shape. Health, movement and mobility should be a priority while on duty and into retirement.
Active lifestyles look different for everybody. Maybe it is going for a walk each day or doing a bootcamp-style workout. For me, just simply walking my dogs each morning helps with my fitness, exercises my dogs and gives me time to reflect on the day ahead and what I would like to accomplish.
Try something new! Paddleboarding and pickleball have been my go-to activities in retirement. Both are activities I have participated in for years but never had the time to do so consistently. Now, in retirement, returning to activities I enjoy helps me stay in shape and has been a great social platform to meet new people in the community.
3. How will you allocate family time?
Just like that! You go from shift work and mandatory overtime to having to remember what day it is. You have received the gift of time. How you spend that time is what you can adjust in retirement.
Do you have children that you can now take to school? Can you visit with your parents more often or take your wife on that vacation you have always talked about? One big benefit of retirement is being more available for your family. I have seen this benefit in my retirement. While working, I was unavailable for day-to-day activities like school drop off and pick-up. Helping around the house has also allowed our family to spend more time together in the evenings rather than stressing about house chores.
4. Will you continue to work or volunteer?
Choosing to work after you retire can be a big decision. Although you might have saved up and have a good pension you still may need (or want) to continue to work, to be around people and to have some extra income. Where I live, first responders are not covered medically after they retire creating a financial gap for some people. Working part-time can help offset those financial changes and also help keep your brain engaged a few days a week.
I have chosen to work part time and also continue my volunteer work. There are a lot of jobs that pay decent wages and volunteer opportunities that can also give you a purpose to spend part of your time.
If you can afford it, part-time work is a wonderful option. You should enjoy your time off with your retirement. Do something that you are passionate about that helps define your “why.”
5. How will you have fun/give back?
Now that I’m retired, most people ask me, “How is retirement?” I begin to smile like most retirees and simply tell them, “It’s the best!” I had always heard good things about it, but now that I’m in it I see firsthand the joy it brings me every day. I currently meet with a group of retired deputies once a month for breakfast. There is another group that meets for lunch or will catch a “matinee” movie. While I like to meet with my friends, I do also like my alone time. This is when I go paddleboarding, read a book, go for a walk, work on a house project, or bath the dogs. These are all things I might have done before, but now I do them when I want.
Toward the end of my career, I was part of my department’s Peer Support Team and helped start a full-time Wellness Unit. Now, more than ever, our fellow officers need advice, somebody to talk to, or just someone they can “check in” with every so often. We all need a mentor or coach who will be available to listen. Giving back to our officers by providing advice, listening to them, and letting them know about some of the mistakes you may have made and the wins during your career can be life-changing for officers and first responders. If you are retired or thinking about it, maybe start a breakfast club for your department. Maybe assist your department in exit interviews and be a resource for someone who might not otherwise have that.
While I still enjoy being retired, I have returned to work part-time as a wellness coordinator for the Chula Vista (California) Police Department. I am honored and excited to develop and implement a cohesive wellness program for the department in the city where my family lives and works. As the wellness coordinator, I will work with the department to proactively use resources available to the officers and employees so they can serve the public better, l have a healthy career, and head into a healthy retirement.
We work in a stressful environment and know there are going to be ups and downs during your career. As we get late in our careers and begin retirement we owe it to the next generation to try to help them make their career fulfilling and healthy.
For those who are close to retirement, you are going to make it and it all will be worthwhile. For those who are retired, congratulations! You are about to embark on the next chapter of your life! Enjoy and be safe!
About the author
Mike Lawson recently retired from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after 23 years. His last 10 years he worked on the Peer Support Team, was a Peer Support Coordinator, led first responder support groups and was instrumental in starting a full-time wellness unit. Mike is currently a life coach and is the director of public relations for “Law Enforcement Coaching.” Mike has recently been hired as the Chula Vista Police Department’s first-ever wellness coordinator. Contact Mike at email@example.com or Michael.Lawson@lawenforcementcoaching.com.