Mistakes that Delay Retirement from Public Service

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One of the biggest advantages to working in government is the strong likelihood of early retirement. It is common for public servants in their early 50s to have reached retirement eligibility under the rules of their retirement systems. However, early retirement is no guarantee. If they want to retire young from public service, government workers should avoid the following mistakes that can severely delay retirement eligibility.

Starting Public Service Mid-Career

Starting in government mid-career is a fine career choice, but those who start public service later in life will not reap the same rewards as those who come into government work right out of high school or college. Retirement eligibility is almost always based on a combination of an employee’s age and years of service in that retirement system. Age, of course, adds up at the same pace for everyone. So do years of service, but years of service are accumulated differently by employees. People come into public service earlier than others, and some have gaps in service.

Again, starting public service mid-career is no sin. It just means retirement benefits will not be as lucrative for a mid-career starter as someone the same age who spends an entire career working under one retirement system.

Changing Retirement Systems

Government employees do not have the same benefits.

There are many retirement systems that serve public employees. Even the federal government has two retirement systems -- the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Civil Service Retirement System. States, cities, counties, school districts and other jurisdictions have their own systems as well.

Some local jurisdictions -- cities within one state, for instance -- form one retirement system for multiple member organizations.

Transferring between systems without losing benefits is not easy. Few retirement systems honor one another’s service credit. Changing retirement systems can add years to an individual’s retirement eligibility date.

Here is an example. A city employee is 30 years old and has 8 years of service in the city’s retirement system. Retirement eligibility is based on the rule of 80, so this employee will be eligible to retire at age 51. This employee leaves the city to work in county government. The county’s retirement system does not honor the city’s service credit. If the county’s system bases retirement eligibility on the rule of 80 like the city does, this employee will be eligible to retire at age 55. Now, retiring at age 55 is nothing to scoff at, but it is very different than retiring at 51.

Burning Through Leave Time

Like retirement benefits, different government organizations have different rules about leave accruals. When government organizations allow employees to carry leave balances from year to year, it is a good idea for employees to do this. Many times, unused leave can be cashed in at retirement.

It can sometimes be added to service credit which pulls back the date an employee can actually stop working.

While using vacation time to actually take vacations is a wonderful thing, employees should watch their leave balances and be careful not to burn through leave time. Having a healthy leave balance is helpful when emergencies strike, and it is often beneficial when it comes time to retire.

Neglecting Personal Savings

Along with retirement plans and Social Security, an employee’s personal savings make up the three-legged stool of government retirement. Neglecting any one of the three legs makes for an unstable retirement. Government employees do not have to put much effort into monitoring their retirement plans and Social Security, but they do have to put some effort into accumulating personal savings.

Thinking a retirement plan and Social Security will be enough for one’s golden years is an easy trap to fall into. Together, those two can make for a decent retirement, but that retirement may not provide the same standard of living an employee had during that employee’s working years.

Not Having a Post-Retirement Strategy

Many people go into retirement with a proverbial blank slate in front of them. They don’t know what they will do, and they don’t know how they will pay for their lifestyles. They may not even know what kind of lifestyle to expect. This is bad financial planning that can cause people to go back to work after retiring. Figuring out a viable strategy late in a career can add unexpected working years because an employee does not have much time to accrue the savings necessary for the desired standard of living.