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Hidden Factors That Increase Financial Struggles for Firefighters, Police Officers, Paramedics, and Other Public Safety Employees

Being a firefighter, police officer, or any other public safety position can make you much more susceptible to experiencing financial stress and failure.

Over all the years since I started helping people with debt in 1994, I’ve helped many involved in public safety. They’ve had similar but distinct struggles.

One of my past clients told me there was no room in his life to come home after a tough week at the police department and begin thinking about his bills or doing better financially. Talking to firefighters, I have observed poor unconscious decision-making due to the job, stress at home, and known money behaviors you will read about.

Being a firefighter, police officer, or paramedic is not an easy job. But don’t be fooled into thinking all these people do is sit around and wait for the next call.

Between professional studies, qualifications, testing, continuing education, and department duties, the job requires a lot from each employee.

About Steve Rhode – Get Out of Debt Guy
You might not know that I have been a volunteer firefighter and was a search and rescue pilot for many years. I have friends that are both police officers and firefighters, and I care deeply about making sure public safety folks have access to good advice.

In this deep dive, I wanted to look at factors that can lead public safety employees into a debt pit without knowing it. 

My listing of public safety positions includes every person in public safety who struggles—for example, corrections officers fall into this same bucket.

I knew of a correction officer struggling to pay bills and was homeless for a while. He slept in his car while he saved up enough money to rent a place to live. And all the time, he worked a very stressful and dangerous job.

Making sure the public is safe and protected is a thankless job with marginal pay compared to these positions’ risks, liability, and life impact.

The risks in saving lives and taking lives are an emotional pressure most can’t appreciate or understand. So be thankful you don’t have to deal with these pressures.

Money Problems Are Not About the Money

For the most part, debt worries or stress are not created by the debt. If anything, the debt is like the debris swept up on the road after the accident. As I have said, “Debt is nothing more than math wrapped in emotion.”

In all my years working with firefighters, EMS, and police officers, I have found that money is often used to deal with underlying issues. Unfortunately, many of those issues are exacerbated by the job.

Work and the many factors related to public safety occupations may lead to the need to unwind after work and not pay attention to finances.

And the need to live a life outside of work can leave little room to watch over money, credit, and debt with an eagle eye.

Not Everyone is a Natural, and That’s Okay

Some people are naturally detail-oriented money managers, but most are not. That’s okay. People have different natural skills and personalities.

What is essential to be aware of is your money personality, and you can find out what yours is by using my online money personality test. Understanding the natural way your brain thinks about money is the first step to taking conscious action to make things better.

It is perfectly okay if you are more of a visionary or artist than an OCD accountant. Everyone is different. Some people can’t make or keep a budget. We all approach things differently.

Here is a podcast on that very subject. You’ll be surprised; I’m not too fond of budgets. And I take the road less traveled to keep my finances under control. You may find doing the same thing can be liberating and helpful.

Listen to the Podcast

Financial Risk Factors for Public Safety

Any one of the risk factors can lead to unintentional overspending. However, these underlying issues can lead people to want a fix or feel better now using money that can result in unmanageable debt.

Stress

Stress leads people to physical, emotional, and financial problems. Some people drink too much to relieve stress, use drugs, gamble, and engage in risky behaviors.

Firefighters and police officers have all of these risk factors associated with their job. Unfortunately, many have tripped into these harmful behaviors and will do so in the future.

According to a 2010 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study, 16% of female and 11% of male officers showed at-risk alcohol use. – Source

Fifty-eight percent of career and 40% of volunteer firefighters averaged three or more drinks, and similar percentages reported binge drinking on the days they consumed alcohol. – Source

High Stress at Work

Both men and women use unconscious spending as a way to manage stress. But, unfortunately, the higher the pressure, the more unaware people are of why they spend the way they do. The last thing you want to do when you are all wound up is to be reflective on your finances. Talk about a buzz kill.

Over the years, I have observed that women make smaller purchases while men make fewer, more significant impulsive purchases like boats, trucks, guns, motorcycles, etc. The result is the same, more debt, less happiness, and even more life stress.

If you unconsciously spend this way, it can become silently addictive. As I said in this post, “But shopping is much like a drug. And the reality is the more you shop, the more shopping it takes to achieve the same emotional benefit. Just like the more you take heroin, the more heroin you need to get the same high. Or the more you gamble, the more gambling you do to experience the same pleasure.”

Firefighters and police officers can experience a lot of stress. There is the stress of the job, from dealing with the ridiculous bureaucracy of the administration, and stress at home. It all adds up.

High Stress at Home

Police officers and firefighters have odd working hours and can be called into work or have work days adjusted, impacting family life. Coming home tired and mentally exhausted from work can lead to marital strife at home. That can amplify the stress in the household.

Silent shopping to reduce stress can creep in when one or both partners are stressed. The “I deserve this” or “he doesn’t treat me well” arguments can drive us to the mall or the computer to spend for recreation.

In my years of working with people, I’ve also observed this manifesting through excessive spending on extracurricular activities for the kids to make up for regrets from work or home life.

Divorce

Job stress leads to relationship stress, which is exacerbated by money stress. The result may be divorce, which makes a challenging financial situation even harder to deal with.

When you divide a household into two, the money doesn’t stretch as far, and making ends meet becomes mathematically impossible without great sacrifice. 

There is much to talk about and consider regarding divorce and money. Click here to read one of my many posts on this subject.

A Quick and Easy First Step

One easy solution to avoid regretful debt is stopping before you rush to buy something because of stress medication spending. Pausing to question why you are purchasing this or that can raise awareness and help you to be more intentional with your spending.

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People that do this spend less frivolously, and in all of my years of assisting people with debt, the lessons are that awareness extends further than punishment. By changing an underlying behavior, we can achieve a more significant benefit.

We Need to Talk About Mental Health as Well

Talking about stress, we also need to discuss depression. Stress can lead to medical issues and mental health concerns like depression.

Depression

Depression is a major contributing factor for people with excessive debt and money troubles. In this previous survey,

The survey found that 49.3 percent of people with problem debt can be classified as depressed. Of those, 39.7 percent report symptoms of severe depression.

The survey also found that 58 percent of women reported mild and significant signs of depression, compared to 36 percent of men. In addition, more than six out of ten women said their debt level was awful, while 46 percent of men described their situation that way.

Women think about debt troubles more often than men and feel less competent in solving their problems. More than half of women reported their stress level to be high or very high.

Symptoms of Depression
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness 
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down.”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment
  • Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide – Source

If you think you may be suffering or battling depression, contact your department employee assistance line or talk to a medical healthcare professional you trust. 

You can also call the confidential and free Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-4357 (HELP). They are available 24/7, 365.

Tackling depression is often the first step to resolving financial struggles. Once the depression is addressed, people find it much easier to develop a plan, take action, and do better with money.

PTSD

With all the trauma firefighters and police officers face, developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a genuine concern. Frankly, most public safety people I know have PTSD. But, unfortunately, it is an occupational consequence like cancer for firefighters or lethal injury to police officers.

There is no doubt that PTSD can lead to financial PTSD with a knock-on effect.

Firefighter PTSD has also been linked to greater levels of alcohol abuse as a way to deal with trauma. – Source

This article introduces a common condition we have heard much about, PTSD, and the reality that many traumatized by money troubles suffer from the psychological impact of PTSD-related difficulties. 

Without treatment or awareness, PTSD can dramatically alter the healthier path in life that could be possible after money troubles.

According to the National Center for PTSD, a program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about seven or eight of every 100 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD. In addition, certain aspects of the traumatic event and biological factors (such as genes) may make some people more likely to develop PTSD.

The rate of PTSD is higher in the public safety line of work.

Symptoms of PTSD

Re-experiencing symptoms
  • Flashbacks—reliving the traumatic event, including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating
  • Reoccurring memories or dreams related to the event
  • Distressing thoughts
  • Physical signs of stress

Thoughts and feelings can trigger these symptoms, as can words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event.

Avoidance symptoms
  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Avoidance symptoms may cause people to change their routines. For example, a person may avoid driving or riding in a car after a severe car accident.

Arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense, on guard, or “on edge.”
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feeling irritable and having angry or aggressive outbursts
  • Engaging in risky, reckless, or destructive behavior

Arousal symptoms are often present—they can lead to feelings of stress and anger and may interfere with parts of daily life, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

Cognition and mood symptoms
  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted thoughts about the event that cause feelings of blame
  • Ongoing negative emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • Loss of interest in previous activities
  • Feelings of social isolation
  • Difficulty feeling positive emotions, such as happiness or satisfaction – Source

Emergency Mental Help Resources

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
Call or text 988; Llame al 988 (para ayuda en español)
Use Lifeline Chat on the web
The Lifeline provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Support is also available in English via live chat.

Crisis Text Line
Text “HELLO” to 741741
The Crisis Text hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the U.S. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.

Veterans Crisis Line
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1 or text to 838255
Use Veterans Crisis Chat on the web
The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, confidential resource that connects veterans 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a trained responder. The service is available to all veterans, even if they are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare.

PTSD, Stress, and Behavior Economics Theory

Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event, making a person feel detached from friends or family. It doesn’t take much to see how the symptoms of PTSD and stress can turn your life spinning, so managing money is much less of a priority. Instead, making it through the week or next shift becomes a significant achievement.

While you may feel what you are dealing with regarding your financial life is not common, the truth is many are dealing with similar issues. For people who study the impact of thoughts and opinions on money management, enough people are experiencing these issues that have been broken down into identifiable categories.

In 2022 a paper was published titled “Influence of Basic Human Behaviors (Influenced by Brain Architecture and Function), and Past Traumatic Events on Investor Behavior and Financial Bias.”

While this paper was about investment decisions, I have found that many of the same factors also influence other areas of our financial lives. Investments are similar to money worries, debt problems, or financial concerns. They involve money and human nature.

As the researcher noted, “Human behaviors are influenced by past experiences. Stress and trauma are potent determinants of thought processes and decision-making. They also influence perceptionsofs risks. Past studies have linked these behaviors to various financial biases. This article explores human behavior and impacts on investment decisions. Behavioral finance shows that investment decisions are affected by cognitive factors such as biases, mood, and emotions. They also influence the rationality and nonrationality of investment decisions. The paper demonstrates that human brain architecture is an element in decision-making due to its involvement in information processing and memorization. However, cognitive psychology does not fully address the underlying nervous system response to stress and perceived threats. Based on the findings, stress and trauma exposure can increase the sensitivity to financial uncertainty. Individuals who experienced the devastating effects of trauma may be risk averse or excessive risk takers.”

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Baked in Behaviors That Influence Money Choices

Just to show you how difficult it can be for people dealing with issues to self-identify and take action to reach out for help, consider these known unconscious attitudes towards money management that drive people.

Overconfidence Bias

Exposure to stress or traumatic events may stimulate people to develop a false sense of skill and self-belief, negatively influencing their financial behaviors. When people grow a false sense of mastery and self-belief, they tend to make irrational money decisions that yield negative returns (Daniel & Hirshleifer, 2015). Debtors with past traumatic experiences may have low overconfidence in their financial decisions. Past experiences trigger fears in decisions involving money processes and negatively affect the cognitive ability to make the best financial decisions.

Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving cognitive bias is the propensity to attribute positive outcomes to skill and adverse consequences to luck. Self-serving biases stem from cognitive processes distorted by the need to enhance and maintain high self-esteem. The bias also develops from the behavior of perceiving oneself in an overly favorable manner. The biases are critical in influencing money behavior and decisions. The self-serving bias may also be affected by exposure to stress or traumatic events, with a tendency to overly personalize or view others as having evil intent. As social beings, humans tend to take credit for positive outcomes and blame external factors for negative results. 

Herd Mentality

It is a type of bias that explains the influence of peers on others to embrace specific behaviors that are irrational and emotional. Peer influences may also support proper response to threats and fears from past stress and traumatic experiences. The dependence on the peers’ behaviors in making decisions may negatively affect the financial outcomes. Exposure to past traumatic events may trigger emotional influence from peers. The impact of peer or mob mentality yields decisions that are irrational. Debtors are also likely to practice the herd mentality by copying the actions of other people perceived to be successful in eliminating money troubles. 

Loss Aversion

Any rational consumer fears losses and strives to build wealth that minimizes risk exposures. Loss aversion has been described as the tendency for people to fear losses and avoid them more than they focus on trying to make profits. The fear of losses may also develop from trauma and stress. The loss aversion bias often develops from exposure to past traumatic events. When a person has a history of trauma, they will always fear losses. Their money, credit, or debt decisions will reflect their loss aversion.

Framing Cognitive Bias

Framing cognitive bias develops from making decisions from the information presented to an individual rather than their independent analysis of data and facts. The different presentations of the same information will yield different conclusions for people dealing with money issues exhibiting the framing cognitive bias. Those seeking debt help may pick solutions differently, depending on how the opportunity is presented. Framing cognitive bias may also develop from social influences. The actions of other people within a social setting, such as family and friends, may make an individual undermine independent analysis. Stress and trauma may also make victims trust others over their independent investigation. 

Here is another podcast about the negative influence framing cognitive bias can have on your financial health.

Listen to the Podcast

You can subscribe to my podcast on any of the sites below.
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Anchoring Bias

Anchoring is the idea that we use pre-existing data as a reference point for all subsequent data, which can skew our decision-making processes. The bias develops from the dependence on historical data to make future decisions. The past data may be influenced by trauma and stress. Over-relying on past information as a reference point without considering the current conditions and circumstances results in the anchoring bias, negatively affecting the most appropriate decisions. I commonly see this manifest in public safety employees who fear solutions like bankruptcy over assumptions and myths rather than facts and reality. Exposure to past traumatic events may make people disregard present realities. The experiences from past events will inform an individual’s current position without consideration of the changes in circumstances over time.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the idea that people seek information and data confirming their pre-existing opinions. As a result, they tend to ignore contrary information. For example, social media users will attack anyone who raises a question or point that contradicts the held beliefs of others. This can be a very dangerous cognitive bias in money, credit, and debt issues. When dealing with financial struggles, people should rely on facts when making decisions. They should not allow emotions and perceptions to override their emphasis on facts. Yet people do this all the time and wind up with a solution or outcome that is less beneficial than if they allowed themselves to listen and digest new information.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic is a cognitive bias that happens when people falsely believe that if two objects are similar, they are also correlated. Debtors may assume that a strategy or situation that resulted in a specific outcome in the past may be the same as the current one, compromising their rationality in the decision-making processes. Rational consumers should independently view events and make decisions based on individual outcomes. 

Recency Bias

The recency, or availability, bias is a cognitive error in behavioral economics whereby people incorrectly believe that recent events will occur again soon. For example, some people believe housing prices will plummet again as they did during the 2008 mortgage crisis, even though the underlying factors are not the same presently. The social environment may also influence false beliefs. This tendency is irrational, obscuring the real or objective probabilities of events occurring and leading people to make poor decisions.

Sleep Deprivation

Shift work and interrupted sleep, like firefighters have to deal with, can lead to health issues impacting money management. Interrupted sleep can lead to:

  • Memory issues
  • Trouble thinking and concentrating
  • Mood changes
  • Increased risk for depression and PTSD – Source

Can’t Afford to Live Near Where You Work

As real estate prices accelerate in areas, public safety employees can find themselves priced out of being able to live near where they work. 

Do You Have a Question You'd Like Help With? Contact Debt Coach Damon Day. Click here to reach Damon.

Additionally, low pay and long hours require many firefighters to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

As a result of shifting hours worked, paychecks are usually all over the place, making it extremely hard to budget when you can have up to 9 different paychecks.

More jobs, longer commutes, and irregular hours make life more complicated.

Let’s Not Forget the Physical Stress

Firefighters and police officers have physical performance requirements. This physical toll on the body is exhausting and can lead to less time to focus on money management.

For example, firefighters must participate in intensive physical training to execute duties on the fireground, much like a high-performing athlete does. On top of this, training and work can lead to a career-ending injury, and without proper financial planning, consideration, or preparation, money problems are a constant risk.

Emergency Financial Help Resources

Damon Day – Damon is a terrific debt coach that helps people understand the reality of a current financial situation, explains options, and executes them hand-in-hand with the firefighter or police officer.

Steve Rhode – I’m always available to help answer any question you might have. Feel free to submit it for me to answer on the website.

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Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
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