BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) – In the movies, the Los Angeles police officer lives in a rental apartment, works long hours for an average salary and thinks a 529 is dispatch code. Picture Russell Crowe in "L.A. Confidential."
Hollywood's stock characters in the beauty trades, meanwhile, are often daffy incompetents, like Reese Witherspoon's manicurist sidekick in "Legally Blonde" (Jennifer Coolidge).
Those stereotypes don't hold true in life for Mike and Christina Berretta. In fact, this L.A. police officer and former makeup artist are model financial citizens. With more than $308,000 in savings and home equity, in fact, the couple could be millionaires in 10 years.
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When Mike joined the police force at age 22 he was following his heart, not his pocketbook. "I was really passionate about police work," he said. "If I weren't doing this I'd probably be in Iraq right now."
Now nearly 10 years into the job, he realizes that his career choice has some financial benefits as well. "I have a two-year degree and am making almost $100,000," said Mike, who makes a base salary of $75,000 plus about $20,000 a year in overtime.
Savvy career choices
"I've always been a saver," said Mike, 31. "I'll spend money on my wife and children, but if I want to buy a pair of new shoes I'll think about it for a month."
In addition to the $400 he puts away each month in his 457 retirement fund – the 401(k) equivalent for government employees – Mike is also earning a pension. Right now, its cash value is $36,000, but if he works until he's 55, that pension will pay him 90 percent of his salary. Retiring at 50, as Mike hopes to do, means earning about 75 percent of his salary.
"It's not the easiest job in the world," said Mike, who works primarily in the gang unit. "The job is 98 percent pure boredom and 2 percent pure excitement."
After working as a makeup artist in the movie industry for more than a decade, Christina, 36, recently retired from her job to stay home with the couple's 18-month-old daughter Kaela. Their oldest, Althea, is 6 years old.
The crazy hours common with the film industry made her job anything but family friendly. "It's very hard to get a babysitter to come to your house at 3:00 a.m.," said Christina, who was a single mom when she met Mike five years ago.
Christina is now finishing her prerequisites for nursing school, which she plans to attend in autumn 2004. The program will take two years at a local community college, where tuition is inexpensive.
"This was a very practical decision on my part," said Christina. Indeed, with nurses in great demand, she should be able to find a job that works well with her family's schedule.
"Because Mike's benefits are so good, I could work on a per diem basis and make more money," she added. "Starting salary for nurses in this area is $37 to $40 an hour if you're per diem."
Spending foolishly is a crime
One important lesson Christina took away from her career as a makeup artist was the importance of saving for the future. "I would make a big chunk of money from one job, but I often didn't know if I'd be working the next month," she said.
In her early twenties, Christina did have her share of credit card debt. "Then one day I added up the interest I was paying and realized just how much money I was wasting."
Her decision to cease charging more than she could afford proved to be a good move financially and, as it turns out, romantically. "If she was a credit card spender we probably never would have gotten married," Mike quipped.
In 2000, the couple married and bought a three-bedroom house in Santa Clarita. They paid $205,000 for the house, with a $42,000 down payment. "Just last week one of our neighbors sold a similar house for $352,000," said Mike. As such, he estimates they now have about $190,000 in equity.
Other than their mortgage, the couple has no debt.
Besides retirement saving, each month the couple automatically puts $75 in a vacation fund and $50 into each of their daughter's 529 college savings plans. They also pay an extra $100 a month to their mortgage. Depending on how much overtime Mike earns in a given month, they put another $200 to $1,000 in a savings account.
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"We'd like to get our cash savings to $30,000," said Christina. Their savings account now has a balance of $26,000, most of which is in a certificate of deposit. "Once we get to that level we'll consider eventually investing our extra savings or using it to buy rental property or land."
Another possibility is eventually leaving Los Angeles. "We're really not big-city people," said Mike.