I held off writing this review of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, by Tanja Hester, for months. It’s not because I haven’t read it. Rather, it’s because I keep returning to a certain section for help with my own post-career life. Plus, I am finding the book to be a great resource as I craft the last unit of my Early Exit Academy courses. While the financial component of the book is rather routine, the focus on creating a joyful post-work life is what sets Work Optional apart from the typical personal finance book.
Work Optional is divided into three parts:
Tanja sets the tone early in the book by describing the thought process she and her husband went through to retire at the ages of 38 and 41, respectively. She writes about the potential of inheriting a genetic disease that could limit her mobility at a young age, and the desire to create a life based around her values and passions. While Tanja and Mark enjoyed respectable salaries, Work Optional proclaims to be a guide for the “average person.”
For readers who are well-versed on the fundamentals of FIRE (Financial Independence, Retired Early), the financial planning section will be “old hat.” But for people who are just starting out, the approach Tanja takes can help clear out the clutter and inconsistencies that result from google searches. She offers 12 steps that people can take to reach their work optional goals – the first 4 steps are shown below.
Unlike some personal finance “experts” who insist they hold the only true path to wealth, Tanja uses the 12 steps as a guide – a starting point. The plan feels flexible.
One of the biggest concerns/worries about leaving the workforce early is the overpowering thought of running out of money. Work Optional does an “okay” job on this topic. Tanja recommends allocating assets based on age (120 – Age = % to allocate to stock index funds). She notes there are circumstances in which it makes sense to have a larger bond allocation or cash buffer, but this means people will need to save up a lot more money before they exit the workplace. In truth, there are so many factors that go into designing an allocation that works on an individual basis that the “120 rule” feels like a clunky artifact of an earlier time.
At the time Work Optional landed in my mailbox, I was in the midst of reading Designing your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. The book is modeled after a class with the same name taught at Stanford University. Designing your Life offers strategies on how to build a coherent life – one in which who you are, what you believe, and what your do – are aligned. In many ways, this book complemented the approach taken by Tanja in Work Optional. And this is where the book shines.
Both books offer mind mapping as a way to unlock themes that bring joy to your life. The processes are explained differently, but in essence, it gets you to the same place – thinking about what you want out of life. For people considering early retirement, there are plenty of “push” factors, such as toxic work environments and long hours, that prompt workers to escape the traditional workforce as soon as they can. But as the research demonstrates, if you don’t have a destination when you leave the workforce (“pull” factors), you are likely to be disappointed and unhappy.
Tanja asks a series of questions to prompt readers into thinking about their post-work life – questions about day-to-day life, big-picture dreams, legacy and purpose, self-worth, central relationships, and life logistics. It’s a great approach to the topic, although it can feel like an intimidating exercise. The next steps are to identify your top time and budget priorities and to group them into themes. Here’s a video that outlines the process of mind mapping.
My simultaneous read of Designing your Life and Work Optional led me to ponder the concept of purpose. Purpose is defined as the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. Burnett and Evans, the authors of Designing your Life, note that relatively few people can tell you they have a purpose or passion. And yet Tanja’s last chapter is a call to live a “purpose-filled life.” Ah, there’s the conundrum. It turns out, purpose is an awfully loaded concept – just the thought of it (or lack of purpose) can invoke anxiety.
It’s this quest for a different way of life – one in which your value is not based on your work or income – that is so difficult to grasp. The questions and tools Tanja offers in Work Optional are wonderful resources to begin your own exploration of life after work. But if you don’t find purpose at the end of your journey, you won’t be alone. Just follow the things that bring you joy and make you feel alive. Maybe it really is that simple?