Building Your Work Optional Life

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Tanja Hester and her husband, Mark Bunge, retired in December 2017 at the ripe old ages of 38 and 41. Hester, author of the award winning blog Our Next Life, is releasing a new book, “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way,” to help others create their own early retirements.

As a long time reader of Our Next Life, I was excited to read the book. Hester provides unique insights, in depth analysis and takes strong stances on controversial topics. All of this stands out and creates an environment embracing diverse viewpoints among FIRE blogs that can serve as echo chambers.

Tanja and Mark also have a personal story that resonates with me, as it likely will with many of you. They rejected high earning, but high stress, careers to move to the mountains of Lake Tahoe to pursue a simpler life.

Read on for my full review of “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny Pinching Way.” I’ll share where this book shines and can add value to planning your early retirement, as well as where it falls short, to help you decide if you want to build a work optional life of your own.

Rejecting the Standard Narrative

Hester demonstrates her writing chops from the first paragraph of the introduction, drawing readers in with her personal story. She describes a typical Friday night during their working years that was all too familiar; exhausted, falling asleep on the couches unable to make it through a TV show, one eventually waking the other to trudge off to bed.

She questions the premise that guided her early adulthood and asks, “Is this really what I’ve worked so hard for? Is this what success feels like?” She then challenges today’s constantly connected work culture “in which too many of us wear our busyness and the bags under our eyes as status symbols.”

In Chapter 1, Hester emphasizes recognizing the “freedom to define retirement for yourself.” She provides three categories of retirement – full early retirement, semiretirement and career intermissions – advising readers to choose the path that matches their abilities, needs and desires.

This is consistent with what I call redefining retirement. It demonstrates growth and learning.

Hester accepted society’s definition of what she should pursue by chasing career prestige only to be let down. So she rejects the idea that you have to accept one definition of retirement. Instead she advocates choosing the life you want to live and planning finances around that.

Weakness Becomes Strength

The entire first section of the book, “The Work Optional Life You Want to Live,” was extremely effective. Hester makes it clear she is not naturally frugal, and that she had a hard time saving early in her career despite earning a high income.

I tend to write frequently about investing and tax planning, but not because I am a rare expert in these areas. To the contrary, I can effectively communicate erroneous thought patterns because I had them and quickly spot common mistakes because I made them.

Similarly, Hester turns her past weaknesses and failures into an area where she can assist others with common struggles. She clearly worked hard to develop a framework and system that allowed her to save far more than previously imaginable. The exercises in the book will help others with similar struggles.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Throughout Work Optional, Hester presents an interesting dichotomy. She and her husband retired decades earlier than most and are avid adventure seekers. At first glance, they may seem like daring risk takers.

Simultaneously, she emphasizes risk management at every step and and is serious about planning. The book is extremely detailed, thoroughly researched and well reasoned.

Chapter 9 – Make Your Plan Bulletproof, was particularly interesting to me as someone who tends to at times let worry and fear take over. The chapter hits big risk management issues such as diversifying income sources, protecting against inflation risk and creating a withdrawal strategy.

Where the book, and this chapter in particular, shines is the attention to detail and willingness to talk about topics most people tend to avoid. A reasoned discussion of whether your retirement plan could sustain a divorce is an example of the latter, while unique insights about long term care insurance is an example of the former.

Holistic Approach

Another strength of the book was an emphasis on holistic planning. Retirement planning is often viewed as a financial exercise. Personal wants and feelings tend to get pushed to the side or even presented as a weakness if they go against mathematical probabilities or cause you to save less.

Hester demonstrates that she knows her math and understands technical details of planning. However, she always emphasizes lining up your strategies with what feels right for your situation. She also emphasizes the importance of considering your partner’s feelings and desires in the retirement planning process and making sure all parties are on board with a plan.

These themes are present throughout the book. Hester struck the right balance, making the book accessible to those who aren’t naturally driven by numbers and spreadsheets, while maintaining technical accuracy and not dumbing the book down.

Could Less Be More?

To this point, I’ve focused on the book’s many strengths. But no book is perfect. Here are my critiques of “Work Optional.”

My biggest criticism is of Chapter 4 – Invest to Fund Your Future. The chapter starts strong, emphasizing the importance of simplicity and understanding your investment strategy. The chapter covers the four investment approaches likely to lead to success – total return, dividend focused, rental real estate and passive business income. All of this is spot on and easy to digest.

However, Hester then spent nearly 20 pages dissecting “investment vehicles to consider.” This section jumps back and forth between asset classes (stocks, bonds, real estate), vehicles to hold those assets (including mutual funds, ETFs, REITs, etc.) to detailed explanations of all the tax advantaged account types (including 401(k), Roth IRA, spousal IRA, 529 College Saving Funds, etc.). For good measure, this section also touched on robo advisors, pensions and social security.

She continues with another six pages discussing savings vehicles to supplement investments and investment vehicles to avoid.

Trying to read the book through the eyes of a beginner, it was simply too much information to be able to process and take action. As a seasoned DIY investor, it was equally ineffective.

There was too much detail regarding maximum contributions, catch up contributions and other subtleties for every different type of retirement account. Too many numbers and too much detail stole my interest and detracted from seeing any overarching message. Simultaneously, information provided based on 2018 limits is already obsolete by the time of publication of the book.(Clarification: It was brought to my attention that I reviewed an advance copy of the book. The final published version contains 2019 limits)

While other themes present through the book were very effective, this idea of trying to be all things for all readers is my other critique. “Work Optional” is written to take a reader from beginning, learning to earn and save more and start investing, to end of their financial independence journey, transitioning to retirement and living a fulfilling work optional life.

I appreciate the value of planning holistically from the beginning with the end in sight. However, trying to cover the whole process with this level of detail at every step at times made it difficult for me to maintain my interest. The information, while technically accurate, may have been more effectively presented as two or even three more focused books.

My Recommendation

“Work Optional” is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to escape the grind of a traditional career path. It will help break through limiting beliefs of what career and retirement should look like.

The book is especially applicable to professionals who have difficulty saving despite a high income or for those who feel trapped by career “success.” I wish I could have read this book ten years ago. It would have saved many mistakes I made getting started on the path to my work optional life and provided a reference to return to throughout my journey.

For those already saving and planning for early retirement, this book will challenge your assumptions. The detailed planning exercises and unique insights may allow you to retire sooner and/or more securely.

It will also help you thrive in the work optional stage of your life. Focusing more on the “softer side” of retirement planning such as considering the emotional aspects of the transition from career to retirement and communicating better with my wife could have prevented a lot of the struggles we faced over the past year.

Ultimately, a book that tries to be all things to all people is destined to fall short at times. But “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way” is packed with valuable insights and information that will add value for readers at various stages of the journey to financial independence.

**I have two free copies of “Work Optional” to give away. If you would like one of them, leave a comment below by midnight MST on Monday 2/11/19 letting me know. I will randomly select two winners Tuesday morning. If you are not a regular commenter and want to keep your identity private, you can enter “anonymous” or make up a name when leaving a comment. But you must leave a valid email address (which will not be displayed to the public) to be eligible to win. This will allow me to contact you to find out where to send the book. **

Update 2/12/19 — The winners of the books are Sonja J and Derrick. Congrats!

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