This guest post from Robin is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want submit your own reader story? Here’s how.
A few weeks ago, J.D. wrote about how sometimes he feels like a monkey dancing for money. After reading his story, I decided to take a hard look at my own work. I wanted to calculate what it’s worth to me, what I’ve paid to have it, and why I do what I do. I chose to lay out all of my benefits and expenses — not to compare them to others, but to give me a realistic view of how much my profession is worth.
I’ve been working as an intelligence analyst in a police department for nearly 10 years. This is the type of job where if the topic of “what do you do” comes up at a party you say “adult day care”, “computer work”, “a lot of math” or anything other than crime intelligence analyst. I’m used to constantly explaining that it’s not quite like CSI, and that if you must know what TV character I play in real life I’m more of a Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds.
I love my job. Seriously, it’s the best gig I could ever dream up. In real life I could be tracking serial bank robbers one day, then helping break up a child sex trafficking ring the next. I enjoy the fraternity-like environment of the police department. I adore the men and women who are on the streets using my data. And there’s nothing better than catching a criminal. That said, there are some realities of police work that aren’t so glamorous.
I have a union job in a City in the Northeast. (Yes, I know how most people feel about unions, but hear me out.) This City has gone bankrupt in the past, taken money out of the pension fund to cover its debt, and even laid off cops. Because this is a union position, my job is relatively secure which is a great perk. However, union positions don’t have merit-based pay scales, raises are often taken away (haven’t had one in five years and they’re normally just 2%), and we pay dues which can be rather high. While everyone has their opinion of union jobs and the people who work them, I can assure you that it had no bearing on my choice of career.
So what does a crime intelligence analyst make? After ten years of service to a large city police department with a high crime rate, I make about $38,000. This is a good paying job considering the unemployment rate and factoring in the average income in the US.
In order to get this job I needed a Master’s Degree, which came with $70,000 in various student loans. I was fortunate to get academic scholarships for the majority of my education. I also have a pension that I will become vested in at the official ten-year mark (soon). In order to receive a full pension, or 50% of my working salary after retirement, I will have to stay at this job for another fifteen years.
Most people think that City and State workers have it easy because of our pensions. The fact is most of them are disappearing, and the ones that are still around are more like a forced long-term savings plan. My pension requires me to put in $150 per check or 10% of my total pay. Now it’s still considered a benefit to have a pension, even though they’re using my own money to invest for me. I realize that 401(k)s are more volatile and appreciate the security of the pension but I want to clarify a few myths about this benefit.
- Pensions are not free. As I said, they take 10% of my pay to cover my pension.
- If I leave before the ten-year mark I get my contributions back with no annual return. Call it an interest-free loan to the City by everyone who works less than ten years and takes a different job.
- Pensions are not secure. Our Union negotiates with the City every four years to keep our pensions in the contract. If we lose that negotiation, we will get our money rolled over into a 401(k) like many other Cities have done, but we’ll lose out on the one-to-ten years worth of compound interest.
- Unless you die in a work-related incident, your pension is not passed on to a family member, so if you die a year after you retire your pension is essentially void. There’s no inheritance the way there is with traditional retirement vehicles.
- My pension means I forfeited the ability to collect my social security benefits. I’m not sure if this applies to every state, but my state has a law requiring me to send my social security back because I will get a City pension. So, while most people have their 401(k) and social security benefits, I only get my pension.
So here’s the breakdown of my average paycheck:
- Bi-weekly pay: $1500
- Total Deductions for medical, Union Dues, Pension costs, and Taxes: -$625.00
- Take Home Pay: $875
- Student Loan Payment: -$200
- Commuting Costs: -$150
- Total left: $525
Once I calculated this number, I still felt good about the career I chose. But then I started thinking about the “cost” of my line of work.
There are immeasurable emotional costs associated with this and any other public service job. It may sound like a fun and exciting career, but anyone in public service — especially those dealing with crime — are subject to the worst experiences life has to offer…and we have front row seats.
How do you calculate the psychological burden of your work? I still haven’t been able to come up with a universal answer to this question, but in my ten short years I’ve dealt with the loss of two officers to suicide, three to cancer, several life-threatening injuries that forced early retirements, and watched countless comrades deal with drug and alcohol addictions. This is the reality of police work. Whether you support or despise your local police, please understand that their burden is the burden of witnessing every single person they deal with on the worst day of that person’s life. It can wear on anyone.
Personally, I have suffered from major depressive episodes, sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and felt completely hopeless many times. The cost of doing what earns a living in this case is very high. Thankfully, I have reasonable medical coverage for mental health, but I’ve still spent $2,000 beyond my medical coverage in a bad year to get back to a state of mind to do my job well. It’s difficult to put a price tag on your personal wellbeing, but it’s important to factor this in.
Most of my friends with non-law enforcement jobs seem much happier. I realize that happiness is relative. There are many career choices that pay much better, that require less emotional investment, and that can bring personal satisfaction. For me, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the world. There are days when I wish I could forget the things I’ve seen or erase the pain that comes from losing a co-worker at the hands of a criminal. But the good days tend to outweigh those difficult ones.
The Bottom Line
One last consideration is that $525 left over every two weeks. $1050 a month sounds like a lot of money. And maybe it is. However, living in the Northeast where a studio apartment costs $1200+ per month, you can see how the math just doesn’t work. I had two choices for housing: get another job to pay for it or move back home. So, I’m back in my childhood bedroom with the extended family (mom, dad, and grandma) making it work and paying $600 a month in rent. I never thought after going to college, graduating with high honors, and serving the public in law enforcement that I’d be still “scraping by”.
I want to end my story on a positive note.
Because of the way things have worked out, I’ve had some wonderful experiences with my grandmother that I’ll never forget. I’ve also learned the value of “things” and have become very conscious of how many hours, or how many crimes I have to see, to balance out the stuff I want. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to get an education, and I am thankful everyday for that. I’m also incredibly lucky to have family who have supported me, and who would tolerate that extra space in their house being taken up by a 30-something with a professional career.
The way I see it, my job is very rewarding — but also very costly. In the end, though, these are things I can deal with and be grateful for the experience.