In this meta I explain why it is entirely realistic that John would be in financial trouble at the beginning of Season one. In process I also explore
- John’s military rank and what this can tell us about his medical career
- John’s army pension
- The benefits that John is entitled to in the civilian world
References are numbered and links are at the bottom of the page.
Swimming in Potential Cash
Compared to the national average wage doctors in the UK get paid very well when they reach the top of their careers. However compared to other professionals, such as lawyers and dentists, at the top of their respective careers, doctors’ wages suddenly look a lot less attractive.
An important thing that most people seem to overlook is that junior doctors and even the middle grade doctors do not earn the six figure sums which the media like to quote. Only consultants after many of years service and GP partners earn six figure salaries. It takes a minimum of 10 years training to become a consultant and to become a GP partner can take even longer.
Junior and middle grade doctors consistently work far more hours than is technically legal. In order to prevent hospitals from being fined for this infringement, we are “encouraged” to document all the hours we worked above 48/week as “voluntary”. Thus our true hourly rates are actually very low. In reality I get paid around £7.50/hour, middle grade doctors i.e. registrars who have been working for 6-10 years get around £15-20/hours.
The hourly rate for John Watson’s time as a junior doctor would have been even lower as he would be expected to work around 72+ hours a week. Although doctors wages have increased, this increase is very much on par with inflation, and sometimes slightly less. Thus in real terms John Watson would have spend the first two years of his career earning around £22,000 - £27,000/year. He wouldn’t have gained the extra 40% above base salary for unsociable hours that I do. On the other hand, he got free accommodation in hospital whereas I have to pay private rent in London, which is very, very expensive. Thus it pretty much balances out.
Living in London does not give him or me much leeway to build up substantial savings. I personally have nothing left at the end of the month and I budget very tightly. I doubt John emerged from his years as a junior doctor in hospital with any savings of note.
The Military - A Promising Pay Package
John Watson is supposed to be about 30 years old at the time of season one according to screencaps of his CV (see – Explaining John’s CV). As this is the only source we have for John’s age, I am happy to accept this.
30 is too young for anyone to become a consultant. He can be a fully qualified GP but as an army GP by definition he is employed by the army and does not run his own practice, hence John cannot be a GP partner. A salaried GP typically gets around £50,000/year in the civilian world. However this can vary according to your experience and your extra skills. The BMA (the doctors’ union) suggests that “The salary range for salaried GMPs employed by primary care organisations should be £53,781 to £81,158”. The top end of this range is very rare, most salaries are clustered at the bottom 
The military follows the NHS pay scales in terms of pay and promote army doctors in rank according to their pay scale.
However, John Watson is only a Captain at the time he left the army, which is a very junior rank for an army GP. This suggests that John probably joined the army after qualifying as a GP in the civilian world and spent only 2-3 years in the Army’s employment.
According to Rates of Officer Pay from the MOD website a Captain’s starting salary is £53,803 , which corresponds well with the lower rate of pay that the BMA expect salaried GPs to be paid
I have proposed in previous metas that John could have switched to another branch of medicine/surgery (How to make John a Realistic Army Surgeon) or how he could have quit medicine to become a combat officer (BAMF!John and Reality).
If you prefer the headcanon of John being a full combat soldier in Afghanistan, he would have earned between £38,463-£45,741 as a combat officer with the rank of Captain. As he would have to first qualify as a civilian GP before joining the army in order to work as a locum in Sarah’s surgery, John would only have just made Captain when he was invalided out so his final salary would have been around £40,000.
Alternatively John would have completed his GP training in the civilian world in 5 years after graduating medical school, decided this was not what he wanted, and then entered a core medical or surgical training program with the army.
This means that when John was invalided out of the army 7 years after finishing medical school – he would have completed two years of his core training and started on his speciality training. This means he was only just very recently promoted to captain and thus he would have earned a salary of around £31,000 
Saving for a Rainy Day
The army is a great place to save money – firstly you get heavily subsidised accommodation and free set army meals. Secondly, in Afghanistan there are limits to what you can spend your money on, particularly as doctors are confined to the base the vast majority of the time. So it is possible that John saved a good portion of his army salary during his time there but he would still need to pay contributions to his army pension, his national insurance, and income tax. He would also have expenditures for items that the army does not provide including civilian clothing, snacks, condiments, personal electronics etc.
According to John’s CV, regardless of what branch of medicine he started off and then ended up in, he spent at least two years in civilian hospitals. Thus the earliest point he could have joined the army as a doctor would have been when he was 25 (two years after graduating from medical school).
Again, according to his CV, he would have only been able to serve a maximum of 5 years in the army before he was invalid out. This is enough to build some savings but not be overwhelmed with cash.
Many doctors like to use their savings for long term investments: shares/stocks, property or long term ISA accounts with high interest rates. This is form of “locking-away-to-grow” money is particularly attractive to John because he would have had a steady income and all the basics are provided for him by the army. There was no incentive for him to leave the savings in an ordinary bank account or a short terms savings account, when he could make a far better return elsewhere. Instead, it is much more likely he would have a small amount of money in his current account and leave the rest of his money in a more inaccessible place.
The root cause of John’s financial problems was this inaccessibility but then again he never anticipated that he would be shot.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
John wouldn’t have a contingency plan for a violent event like being shot. Army doctors rarely leave the base and are almost never involved in active combat. The most likely scenario is that Taliban insurgents actually entered Camp Bastion base like they did in September 2012 and started a fire fight in and around the base itself (John, Himself and his PTSD)
I have discussed John Watson’s military discharge already (Explaining John Watson’s Military Discharge). In the original ACD stories, Dr Watson was discharged due to a combination of his wound and “enteric fever”.
I postulated that John might also have succumbed to another infection due to his bullet wound – most likely osteomyelitis of his leg (because typhoid is now very rare). This would explain why John developed a psychosomatic limp in his leg because the brain has a habit of reliving old wounds during times of great stress. (For more information and the exact reasoning read – Explaining John Watson’s Military Discharge)
It is most likely that John was completely unfit for duty and confined to a hospital for several months before he was finally discharged – a combination of the shoulder wound, osteomyelitis and also side effects from the very potent, very poisonous antibiotics he had to be treated with. During these months his sick pay would have come to an end, but he would not have been able to take decisive action for the future in his state of sickness.
Most servicemen who are wounded do not automatically end up being invalided out. The army generally does not discharge personnel for non-chronic medical problems, as long as they are fit enough to continue serving in some capacity. It would be detrimental for the army to lose well-trained and dedicated soldiers due to conditions that can be treated: including psychiatric conditions like PTSD.
I personally think that John expected to stay in the army after he recovered from his bullet wound. He obviously did not anticipate the following psychological trauma (this is distinct from PTSD) and the complications of the bullet wound. If John did indeed have PTSD (and it is very unlikely - as I explained in my earlier meta John, Himself and his PTSD), that, even in combination with his medical problems, would not automatically lead to a discharge on medical grounds because all of these things can be treated with time. Doctors are valuable commodities for the army; they do not want to lose a specialist like John. However the medical board evidently felt that John simply could not continue serving in the army and perhaps by the end of his ordeal John wanted to leave the army as well and finances were probably the last thing on his mind (Explaining John Watson’s Military Discharge).
When John was invalided out from the army he didn’t just lose his job, he also lost his accommodation and his three well-cooked meals a day. He was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to pay for things that he wasn’t used to budgeting for. His savings may be locked away in long term investments, five year ISAs etc. He may have savings but he can’t access them without a hefty financial penalty.
Added to all of this, he was living in London (out of personal choice). The accommodation that we see in the beginning of ASIP may look bare but it is in good condition and obviously came furnished. It is also definitely not a bed sit - in fact it is most likely a one bed flat as there is no hint that John was sharing the rent with anyone else. London rents are very expensive, even in the less-than-salubrious areas. I imagine John wanted somewhere that was close to public transport links due to his limp, which would have made his rent even more expensive.
Before he met Sherlock, we have no evidence that John was working in any capacity. At the beginning of ASIP he was wandering around central London during the middle of the day when he met Mike Stamford. He was very much free to meet Sherlock during the day to view 221B and then follow him around solving the ASIP case that evening.
We do not know how long he lived in the accommodation for, but even a short period of time would have eaten into the savings he had access to. Added to his rent, would be all the living expenses.
During this time, we have evidence that John experienced a great deal of difficulty adjusting to civilian life. It is quite obvious that he did not try to contact any of his civilian relatives or friends and he did not welcome their help. He was very much unwilling to emotionally accept that his career in the army and the lifestyle he was accustomed to had come to an end. Although John is physically able to work as a GP – I doubt he attempted to apply for any jobs after leaving the army. He is still very much holding onto his identity as an army doctor, and perhaps he does not feel he is psychologically ready to see patients on account of his belief that he has PTSD.
Due to his low mood, John may not have found the motivation to budget effectively, despite the essential need to do so. Additionally, a low mood or depression (though I do not think John has clinical depression) can prevent people from successfully planning for the future, which may explain why John did not act to rectify his financial situation despite seeing his resources dwindle.
Pride and Prejudice
In terms of income an army veteran like John is entitled to an army pension, but we have to remember that he only served in the army for 5 years and his pay during these 5 years was not spectacular. According to the army pension calculator, John is entitled to: £8691 lump sum at 65 and then £2897/year after he is 65 . Thus currently John is not able to draw on his army pension.
The British Army runs a program called the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme which compensates soldiers who are medically discharged from the army. However this scheme requires the soldier to actively claim compensation rather than being automatically awarded it upon discharge .
There are many reasons why John would not claim his compensation. Though John does not demonstrate Sherlock’s blatant, sometimes overdramatic displays of pride, he does have a strong sense of pride and independence. For example he refused financial help from his sister.
In the same way that John cannot come to terms with his discharge from the army, he can’t come to terms with the idea that he might be disabled. He does not want to think of the psychosomatic limp or his shoulder wound as a “disability”, he doesn’t want to believe that he is now permanently physically less able than he was before. An important part of being able to hold onto his independence is not claiming for compensation. Claiming compensation would be admitting that he is “disabled”, that he has been permanently changed for the worse by his experience.
Claiming compensation is also a long and arduous task, filled with bureaucracy and, considering John’s state of mind at the beginning of season one, he probably cannot motivate himself to do this.
Additionally, there may not be much of a case to claim for. We know that John regained full movement of his shoulder. In the army compensation tariff in order to qualify for compensation the injury has to give “residual permanent significant functional limitation and restriction”.
With regards to psychiatric conditions: I have discussed before that John most likely does not PTSD but he believes he does (John, Himself and his PTSD). Military psychiatrists are experienced at diagnosing PTSD in soldiers; civilian doctors have much less experience. Generally PTSD soldiers are treated by the military mental healthcare teams and remain in the army until it is clear that their PTSD will not resolve or is too severe for active duty. I proposed that John failed to convince the military psychiatrists he had PTSD, and they refused to treat him for a disorder he did not have, prompting him to leave the army in search of treatment (Explaining John Watson’s Military Discharge).
John could potentially claim under the section Mental Disorders for his PTSD and his psychosomatic limp if he was formally diagnosed by a civilian psychiatrist but he has to prove that there is significant functional limitation and restriction.
When we see John in ASIP, his “psychiatric disorders” do not functionally limit him in any way when he is chasing after Sherlock.
Civilian Disability Living Allowance for army veterans is linked directly to their compensation application. If they are approved by the armed forces they are supposed to automatically get DLA. . Therefore if John didn’t apply for his army compensation he wouldn’t get his DLA automatically and given he cannot bear the thought of asking the army, to which he contributed so much of his energy, I very much doubt he would want to claim DLA or jobseeker’s allowance from the government.
A Negative Balance
Thus by the time The Blind Banker roles around: John has probably cleaned out the last of his accessible savings. However he has also turned over a new leaf emotionally and made an interesting new start with Sherlock.
Although Mrs Hudson is giving Sherlock a special rate for the flat, they are most definitely still paying her rent. The general prices for two bed flats in the Baker Street area is hideously expensive at around £1500 - £2000/week. This is a prime central London location, the only way either of them can afford to live there is because Mrs Hudson is very generous.
However, I am sure she still charges them a substantial amount in rent, if only to cover all the expense that Sherlock racks up as a tenant (think bullet holes in the wall, broken locks etc.) and to pay for the upkeep of a three storey Georgian House, which would be expensive. Most landlords charge rent in advance, there is no reason why Mrs Hudson wouldn’t, after all I doubt John is going to admit his financial difficulties to her.
Thus that month’s rent was probably the last of John’s money for the time being. At the beginning of The Blind Blanker his low mood has pretty much dissipated and his now able to plan positively for the future. A combination of renewed purpose and financial need is what drove John to finally put the past behind him and move on to another job.