When I was offered the opportunity to receive an early copy of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny Pinching Way, I was thrilled. Our Next Life was one of the earlier financial independence, retire early blogs I started reading regularly, well before I even considered writing my own. Beyond that, I’ve gotten the meet Tanja Hester in real life at the inaugural Cents Positive retreat that she put together, and she is a wonderfully knowledgeable person in real life as well as just being a good human.
I knew that Work Optional would be different from her blog, but I also knew that I’d likely enjoy anything she’d written because she has a fabulous way with words and tends to focus on getting to the heart of an issue rather than simply sticking to the “black and white” of the financial piece (which is never really black an white anyway). I was not disappointed reading this book.
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Part One: Define Your Work Optional Life
The first part of Work Optional doesn’t talk numbers at all but instead begins with a roadmap to outline what you would consider your best “Work Optional” life. Unlike the more “article style” posts on her blog, this book is set up to be an interactive guide to help you work toward your own version of financial freedom, whatever that might be.
When someone finds the concept of financial independence for the first time, it is much too easy to dive headfirst into the numbers and the idea of simply escaping from your current work situation without taking into consideration what you might actually want to do during the hours you’d normally be at work. Instead, Tanja leads us through a comprehensive process to first determine what we really want out of life outside of money constraints, and only then does she get down to the nitty gritty of how to pay for it all.
Part of this process includes walking through a list of questions to determine what you value most in life and mapping them out visually (you can see mine on page 24!). While I thought I had a pretty good sense of what I did want out of life and the long goal of financial independence, mapping it out helped show a clear vision of what that life looks like (and was confirmation for why I’ve made the changes I have well before hitting financial independence).
Amazingly enough, I asked my husband if he would be willing to go through the exercise as well, and he agreed (shocking as he has VERY little interest in all this personal finance / financial independence stuff other than just generally being on board with the concept). I’m not sure how this layout worked for him, but anyone who can get my husband to write out some long term goals and life themes has done something amazing in my book.
Even better, this exercise showed that our hopes and dreams for both now and in the future are well aligned with each other (spoiler alert: lots of time spent with family and out in nature together). While obviously each of us has particulars that we don’t share, overlap feels pretty important when planning for a shared life.
Part Two: The Financials of Your Work Optional/Early Retirement
Only once you’ve determined what you actually want out of life does the book walk through the logistics of actually creating the wealth required to retire early (or downshift a career, make a leap to entrepreneurship, etc – basically whatever life you described in part one). You need to figure out your “why” beyond simply wanting to walk away from work, not only to determine what you’ll be doing once you have all that free time, but also what’s most important to you while you’re working on getting there.
Something that Tanja is particularly good at is discussing contingency plans, and this part of the book is filled with that discussion. While of course there is information about the basic black and white numbers of what is typically considered to be financial independence (somewhere between 25x and 33x+ your annual spending), she spends quite a bit of time walking through each piece of what might make up your expenses over the long term, especially as you age and may need more / different health care.
A somewhat different approach to her take on what is “enough,” Tanja and her husband calculated their number based on a two tiered retirement – the money that would take them through their “early retirement” years (pre-59.5 years old) and then separate buckets of money to see them through their “traditional retirement” years.
I love this breakdown because it is an extra contingency plan in and of itself; if for any reason you were wrong about how much money you needed to see you through your earlier years, you’re (more likely) young enough to make some more money / adjust as necessary. She reminds us that the advice “just go back to work” isn’t as easy as it seems. The point where you find yourself needing more money after all may be at a point where you are no longer in a position to make it due to age, personal circumstance, economic downturn, etc.
As she puts it, she doesn’t want any chance of running out of money when she’s seventy-five and out of options to make more (and doesn’t want any of us to be in that position, either). Of course, she lays this out as an alternative option, not a requirement, laying out a more “typical” early retirement plan that blends the total money saved into a single bucket; something she never does is tells you that her way is the only way forward.
Even if you decide not to be so conservative, she lays out all the alternatives so you can pick the path that is best for you, with eyes wide open. Personal finance is personal, and this book does a good job of reflecting that reality.
“Optimal is only optimal if it truly works for you, and there’s no shame in creating your own systems that suit who you are.”
After laying out the hard numbers and all the possible roadblocks in place to living your financial independence dream, Tanja still does have a positive outlook on how we can get there: “After you have your big life vision and roadmap on place, you find that many of your priorities change in ways that help you get to your goals faster.” She does a good job running down the ways in which this is possible, and this is something I have definitely seen in my own life.
Once I had a clear picture in mind for our finances, our big goals seemed so much more attainable and within our control. The biggest question is what are you willing to do and what are you willing to forgo in order to get there (and the answer doesn’t always have to be optimizing to the last penny).
Part Three: Making the Big Leap
Interestingly enough, the last part of the book was less interesting to me, though for most people just starting out on the path of financial independence and early retirement, this is the most exciting part. As we aren’t running toward a path that soon removes work from our lives, the discussion of the post retirement years felt like something I might return to when we get closer to the idea of walking away from our careers.
Even so, there was a lot to take away from the last chapters, regardless of your short and long term future. “Focus on the best parts of work” is excellent advice to someone who has one year left, five years left, or has no plans to retire even in another twenty. There is so much focus in the financial independence community on the finish line that ends in early retirement that our working years get pushed off as something to endure instead of enjoy to the fullest.
Regardless of what your ideal life looks life based on the exercises in part one, making sure to stay present and enjoying the years that pass is vitally important. Even for those who plan to retire extra early at thirty five or even younger, I hope they don’t look up and find a decade has passed without actually being lived.
And then of course, the transition to (early) retirement isn’t just about the numbers. With any big life transition, there are a lot of emotions that go along with that change, and the book lays out how to tackle each of these pieces, to include paying attention to your social circle and making sure you have a community for when your life is not overwhelmingly connected to your work.
In a small way, I found this to be true in the early months when I was home with my new baby, when all of my friends were working during the week and I was oftentimes alone for more hours that I would have liked.
“Creat[ing] social circles with aligned spending habits” and in similar life stages is great advice for all of us, not just those looking to take the leap away from work. I’ve found this in my own life with our fabulous neighborhood as well as the wonderful online personal finance community. While it may not feel quite as important when work is a large part of our lives, this advice is especially sound for anyone deciding to head down the path of retirement, regardless of age.
But really, why should we wait until retirement to have our lives be optimal in terms of experiences and outlook? So much of what an early retired life looks like can look that way right now.
At the end of each chapter, the book includes a checklist with the details that have just been reviewed. As we get closer to a more defined plan, these will be something that I will review over and over again. I’m a lover of checklists, and they are a clear roadmap of each piece that needs to be considered before making the leap into early retirement.
Fully following each of the steps in this book would make me extremely confident that the plan we put in place would be one that would succeed long term. Tanja has thought long and hard about each interconnected piece of what it takes to find yourself fully financially independent, and she’s laid it out in such a way that we can all follow (in our own “choose your own adventure” kind of way).
The beauty of the many real life examples that are sprinkled throughout the book makes it obvious that there are many different paths to financial independence; just because one path has gotten more air time does not mean there aren’t thirty different paths open to us depending on what we want most in life.
As promised, my review of Work Optional also comes with my very first giveaway on this blog. I loved this book and found it to be such an awesome manual for someone looking to pursue a “Work Optional” life that I decided I wanted to host a giveaway so I could pass a copy along to a reader.
Up to two entries per person: 1) comment on this post or 2) subscribe to the blog (box below) – if you’re already a subscriber, send me an email, and that will count as an entry. If you’re looking to order a copy now, you can buy Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way on Amazon – the official release date is tomorrow, February 12th, so it will ship the following day.
The contest closes the evening of the 14th and I will announce the winner in this week’s Friday’s Frugal Five post on the 15th.
With that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book that really capture what this whole “financial independence” thing is really all about:
“…retirement itself isn’t about never contributing to society again. It isn’t even about whether you work or not. It’s about having the freedom to control your own time and to decide for yourself how to spend your focus and attention.”
What do you want your life to look like?