FIRE Advice for Federal Employees and Other Government Workers

Yo, yo! Happy Monday money nerds! Today we’ve got a celebrity guest blogger — Sam a.k.a “Gov Worker” — who runs a kick ass FIRE blog that helps government/federal employees work towards financial independence.

What I love most about Sam is his attitude toward his job. It’s a refreshing change from the common complainy-pants people out there. Also I love the way Sam helps and encourages his co-workers. It’s truly inspiring!

Whether you work for the government or not, you’ll enjoy Sam’s perspective and have some cool takeaways from this guest post. 👇👇👇

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It was only supposed to last 3 months. 

Twelve weeks (or six pay periods) to be exact. Twelve weeks until I could go off to college and make my fortunes in the world.

While I still remember my first 12 weeks of federal employment, it happened more than 20 years ago. Somehow, I never left my first “real” job after leaving high school. 

For someone who wanted to get in, make money, and get out, I kind of failed at the “getting out part.” Not only am I now a long time fed, but I have also created a personal brand around helping federal employees with their unique money situation. 

While I’ve shared lots of personal stories on my blog, I never really explained how I ended up being a federal employee money expert. 

I thought this guest post would be a great chance to mix in a whole bunch of advice for federal employees along with my personal narrative of my 20-year government career.

My 6 Biggest Tips for New Federal Employees 

1. Get in the door any way you can

It can be hard to land your first federal job. However, I had a fluke occurrence that landed me in a (temporary) federal job at age 18. 

In the last few months of high school, everyone was buzzing around the school talking about what kind of summer job they got. It was the first time that most of us were 18, and therefore lots more jobs were available to us. We all wanted to make a ton of money before heading to college in the fall.

I knew that I wanted to go into the sciences and thought it would be great if I could get a job in any sort of laboratory doing menial tasks. I cold-called every business with the word “laboratory” in the phone book by sending them a cover letter and resume in the mail. (This paragraph makes me seem like a grandpa; technology has changed a lot in 20 years!)

I got a call from a federal laboratory near the university I was planning on attending. They said they didn’t have any laboratory technician jobs, but they needed someone to mow the lawn for the summer.

I was about to tell them I wasn’t interested when they said it paid $10.50 an hour ($15.46 in today’s dollars). That was at least $1/hour more than anyone else I knew was making. I kindly told them that I would love to interview for the position as soon as possible.

Advice for potential federal employees

What does my personal story have to do with potential federal employees? I probably never would have qualified for the lawn mowing position if it had been a permanent job. The federal hiring process has provisions for veterans’ preference, and many positions that do not require a college degree are filled with veterans. 

However, at the time, the federal government could hire students into temporary positions non-competitively. I was hired as a STEP (student temporary employment position) with a not-to-exceed date 12 weeks after my start date. 

Once I was there, great things started happening. I found out it was a great place to work. They found out that they liked my work ethic and were always looking for undergraduate students who could work independently. I eventually got another STEP position doing research and after several years was able to apply for a SCEP position that helped me land a permanent full-time government job.

While I don’t think you can copy my playbook entirely (for one thing the government abolished the STEP and SCEP programs and replaced them with the Pathways program), my advice for federal employees still stands. If you know that you want to work for the federal government, just try to get “in the system” any way you can. Moving from one federal position to another is much easier than moving from the private sector into the federal government. 

2. Understand your compensation

Most jobs have a simple compensation structure. You work. You get paid. If you’re lucky, they’ll toss something into your 401(k). 

In contrast, the federal government has an incredibly complex compensation structure with many non-taxable federal employee benefits that increase your total compensation. 

Part of this complexity comes from federal pay rules. The federal government developed their pay plan in 1923 to ensure fairness in pay across different jobs. (i.e. a mail-clerk working for the Department of Agriculture in Kansas would make as much as a mail-clerk working for the US Patent and Trade Office in Maryland). 

Unfortunately, jobs today look nothing like jobs did in 1923. Since changing the federal pay structure requires Congress to pass legislation (which requires both political parties to agree on something), pay and compensation is still based upon this 1923 model with minor tweaks here and there.

Depending upon when you were hired, you may or may not pay into Social Security, you may or may not have government match on your TSP (or Roth TSP) contributions, and you may pay anywhere from 0.8% of your salary to close to 5% into your pension annuity.

Confused? I spent hours reading and re-reading every employee handbook I could find. I eventually became the “go-to” person in my office when people had questions about pay and benefits. (There are a surprisingly high number of federal employees that have no clue how their pension works. If you don’t believe me, check out Reddit or Facebook). 

I got so tired of seeing people make bad decisions from bad information that I decided to start my own blog where I break down these Byzantine employment rules into easy-to-understand first-person narratives that people could relate to. 

Helping other federal employees has been a huge joy. I often get “thank you” letters and they warm my heart. 

3. Tune out the media

One of the worst parts of being a federal employee is that everyone seems to have an opinion about us.

When the economy is good, we are portrayed as lazy and unmotivated for not applying for a high-paying private sector job. When the economy is bad, we are portrayed as lucky. People feel that we are getting paid too much and that our pay and benefits should be slashed like they were for all the other people in the U.S.

And let’s not forget phrases like “drain the swamp.” 

In fact, I can’t remember anyone ever saying anything positive about federal employees. Here is a sobering statistic: While almost 6% of Americans work for the federal government in some capacity, only 17% of Americans trust federal employees to do the right thing. 17% means that only federal employees, their spouses, and parents trust federal employees…  

Which is sad since federal employees do incredible things to keep our country safe and make it great. 

Did you ever experience the pleasure of spreading some grade AA butter on fresh bread? Some federal employee made sure your butter was amazing and a company didn’t give you rancid fat they tried to pass off as butter. 

Have you ever received a small business loan? Or a Social Security check? Or seen the Grand Canyon? 

Yeah, federal employees made that possible. 

My advice to federal employees is to avoid the media (and as much social media as you can). You may be this country’s Superman, but everyone just sees you as a dorky Clark Kent and is incensed they pay your salary. 

Revel in your secret public service and don’t let the ignorant masses get you down.

4. Celebrate your length of service milestones

Wanna know what video games and federal employment have in common? You can “level-up” in both of them. While your hit-points and magic-points won’t increase with your “years of service,” your federal employee benefits level up the longer you work for the government.

At three years, you start earning six hours of vacation per pay period and are fully vested in the TSP. Once you reach 10 years of service, your spouse will receive your pension benefits if you die in service. That can be a huge benefit (and potentially reduce your need for life insurance depending on your financial situation). And there’s nothing more magical than 15 years of service — when you start earning a jaw-dropping 8 hours of vacation per pay period.

In fact, I’ve tabulated all of the milestones of federal employment and you “unlock” a new benefit at 1.5, 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 years of federal service. See how many of them you can collect before you retire!

5. Bask in your health insurance after retirement

Hopefully you find your federal employee journey to be as positive as mine has been. If you find yourself enjoying federal employment into your 50s, you might want to stick around until you reach your minimum retirement age (MRA)

Once you reach MRA, you can keep your federal employee health insurance in retirement.

Not only can you keep your health insurance, but you can also keep paying just the employee portion.

For the rest of your life.

This is by far one of the best stealth-benefits of federal employment (and I calculate it’s worth at least a half-million dollars). However, if you retire early from the federal government you lose this incredibly valuable benefit (even if you leave just one day before your 57th birthday). 

Enjoy Federal Employment for What It Is

Hopefully you enjoyed my advice for federal employees based upon my own personal narrative. Ultimately, my biggest piece of advice for federal employees is to enjoy federal employment for what it is. You get a chance to make Americans’ lives safer and better every day at work. If you make a long career of it, the government will provide you an adequate (if not generous) pension for helping the country. At the same time, you’re never going to be a billionaire working for Uncle Sam. 

In my mind, there’s no one else I’d rather work for. My government job is filled with purpose and service; two qualities that are linked to happiness in life. On top of that, I get plenty of vacation and can clock out after my 40 hours are done. If you’re feeling down about your federal job, try to step back and take a look at the big picture. 

At the end of the day there are lots of great reasons to work for the federal government. And I am so happy that a random cold call landed me a job with the world’s biggest (and in my opinion best) employer.

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Be sure to check out Sam’s blog GovWorkerFI and subscribe to his ongoing posts for more nuggets of wisdom!

Have a great week, y’all! I’m off to go searching for a cool new federal job! 😉

– Joel

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6 Comments

  1. Adam November 3, 2021 at 8:37 AM

    This was fantastic to read. Living two miles from the DC line, I have dozens of federal employee friends and family; my dad retired after 34 years with NASA (covered under CSRS) in 2010 and makes more in pension than the combined W2 income of my wife and myself. These folks are incredibly dedicated and underappreciated.

    Reply
  2. David @ Filled With Money November 3, 2021 at 9:10 PM

    I really wished I started in some federal employee job when I was younger. I think I would’ve enjoyed that much more than working a retail job as a cashier making minimum wage. $15 an hour would’ve been phenomenal, even if I was just 18 years old.

    Reply
  3. Beau W. November 7, 2021 at 1:08 AM

    Working for the government or your local municipality or State is one of the best jobs around. The benefits are top shelf! You can go as far as you want up the ladder. Like he was saying about length of service the longer you are employed the faster you generate more vacation and sick time. I got a free 30 minute phone call with a financial advisor every year. Best job on the world too me.

    Reply
    1. Joel November 7, 2021 at 11:36 AM

      Beau, your attitude is second to none my friend. Love it!

      Reply
      1. Beau W. November 12, 2021 at 5:41 AM

        Thank you Mr. Joel.

        Reply
  4. Jean December 4, 2021 at 8:00 PM

    I found it just interesting about US fed. govn’t benefits. I’ve worked for several non-profits, 3 global private firms (engineering. law and accounting), 1 national firm and 3 different govn’t organizations: 2 different provincial jurisdictions, final one is a municipality in 3rd different prov ince.

    I’m glad to book end my career with public service. I did learn lots in private sector to bring over into my public sector jobs.. it makes one sharper when entering public service since you may deal same private firms on the other side of the table.

    What you do as an employee is a very tiny building block, but yes, there is a purpose of adding to service, making a difference to daily lives and permanency….public infrastructure is around and used for next 75 -100 yrs.

    It is my feeling that covid….has revealed the role of govn’t set ground rules to keep us safe and somehow keep economy falling through the ocean.

    Reply

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