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From Public Sector Career to Cozy Retirement: It Won’t Plan Itself

May 8, 2015
Investing, Retirement Planning
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By Brian Kuhn 

Learn more about Brian at NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor.

A career of putting your life on the line fighting fires or even dealing with the crowds at the DMV should have a comfortable retirement at its conclusion. Federal employees and other public sector workers have financial goals to accomplish just like stockbrokers and surgeons. But retirement planning in the public sector has its quirks, as well as unique opportunities to seize.

If you’re in the public sector, these tips will help to make the most of your decades of hard work. They apply in particular to those who work for federal, state or local government, police, fire or public safety departments, the military and other public agencies. But the advice is instructive for anyone hoping to retire — and relax.

Do plan ahead

It’s a mistake to think you can show up on your final day of work, sign a few papers and start getting all the retirement benefits that are rightfully yours.

Many things can affect your retirement benefits, including job transfers, government or agency changes, and military buybacks (where you can “buy back” your military service time, applying it toward your federal pension). Another challenge is the dearth of human resources employees at many organizations who can help workers navigate the complex process.

So you may be on your own. To guard against mistakes or oversights, check your pension estimate once a year, as well as your years of service, salary and other personal information. If there’s an option you are considering such as a buyback or lump sum payment, be sure to review that thoroughly with a financial expert long before you make a decision.

These documents are essential

Government employers often provide a comprehensive set of employee benefits, but rarely do they pay for an experienced outside attorney to review your entire financial picture and draft important legal documents. But sometimes your employer’s benefits will include a prepaid legal service and the drafting of a will.

Hire an attorney who can draft other important legal documents, including a durable power of attorney and a medical directive. With these documents you’ll be able to declare your wishes for important financial and medical decisions should you be incapacitated in the future.

Go to benefits meetings and be inquisitive

If you work for a small, private company, you may find the only time the staff convenes for a benefits meeting is when employees are being told how much health care premiums will be going up. But public sector employers, especially the federal government, frequently sponsor comprehensive benefits sessions that include presentations by professionals who aren’t there to sell anything. If you are able to attend these meetings, do so and ask plenty of questions.

It’s ‘free money,’ so grab it

The federal government and many state employers will match a certain percentage of your contribution to their retirement savings plan. Try to contribute as much as you can to the plan. But definitely contribute up to the employer match, as that is considered “free money.”  To learn more about retirement savings plans, check out this summary from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Long-term-care insurance may be a great deal

For many individuals, long-term-care insurance has grown prohibitively expensive over the last decade as many providers have left the market. Long-term care isn’t for everyone, as NerdWallet explains, but expenses such as a short-term nursing home stay can quickly eat up retirement savings.

But at many public sector employers—especially the federal government—workers have access to comprehensive, long-term-care insurance at competitive prices. You may not need the coverage, but it’s a good idea to explore your options.

Image via iStock. 


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