A week ago, I delved into a couple of great books penned by millennials, and largely for millennials, detailing the path the financial freedom.
I’m a Generation Xer. Many of your favorite FIRE bloggers are, too, like Mr. Money Mustache, Justin @ Root of Good, Vicki from Make Smarter Decisions, Joe from Retire by 40, Miss Mazuma, the Early Retirement Dude, Carl from 1500 Days, and one of today’s featured authors, Tanja Hester of Our Next Life.
We Gen Xers are now in our late 30s to late 50s. We’ve done some living. We’ve experienced career highs and career lows. Our lives probably haven’t gone quite the way we anticipated, which may be a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, we’ve probably learned a few things throughout our years.
Today’s books are Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny Pinching Way by Tanja Hester and RESET: How to Restart Your Life and Get F.U. Money by David Sawyer.
Both are married Gen Xers with public relations careers who chose financial independence as their life-improvement vehicle of choice. They both believe so much in the power of financial freedom that they put much of their heart and soul into creating a book to share what they’ve experienced and what they’ve learned with the world.
I thank you both for sending those books to me and I’m happy to share my views on them.
Financial Freedom for Generation X
Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny Pinching Way
I’ve been a regular reader of Tanja Hester’s Our Next Life blog since pretty much its inception. The site dates back to 2015, the year in which I was devouring financial independence blogs before launching one of my own early the following year.
Tanja’s paperback reflects the quality of her site. Work Optional is thoughtful, organized and cleverly written.
I noticed in both this book and RESET, that a lot of questions are asked of the reader. You’re encouraged to not only read the question and consider the answer, but to physically put pencil to paper and jot down your thoughts.
The authors understand that the best way to help you is to get you fully engaged, and the action of starting a notebook, journal, or even a few scratches on a napkin is a habit that is more likely to lead to real change.
I think the Gen X perspective is inherently going to involve more introspection and looking back on where one has been. It’s exciting to look ahead, particularly when contemplating what financial independence can mean for your future, but it’s important to also process what your life has looked like up to this point and how you and your life are going to have to change to accomplish your goals.
Work Optional is divided into three distinct parts.
- The Work-Optional Life You Want to Live
- The Financial Plan for Your Work-Optional Life
- Thriving in Your Work-Optional Life
After a 9-page introduction, you’ve got a 239-page text divided into 12 chapters, weighing in at 8.7 ounces. I wouldn’t care to know that last bit, but I’ve still got the kitchen scale I used to list some stuff to sell on Ebay on the desk next to me. So on the scale Work Optional goes.
Work Optional: The Good
Rather than prescribe the ideal life to you, Ms. Hester helps you formulate the concoction on your own, offering guidance as to what tinctures and adventures you might want to blend in.
She also addresses the meaning of retirement in the opening pages, again allowing the individual to decide exactly how that term will be defined for themselves. Three distinct options are discussed.
- Full early retirement in which one never needs to work for money again (but might)
- Semiretirement that would require some income or maybe work for benefits (sometimes referred to by others as Barista FIRE — but Tanja doesn’t like labels like leanFIRE, fatFIRE, or Barista FIRE)
- Career intermission a.k.a. using your F.U. Money (again not her term but one made known to me by J.L. Collins who discovered the concept via James Clavell’s 1986 novel Tai-Pan)
Of course, her own journey and that of her husband Mark’s are intertwined throughout the book. She does so in a way that helps the reader realize that their plan and past does not have to be perfect.
Here’s someone who used to live paycheck to paycheck in her twenties. Dropped $1,000 on a dinner at New York City’s Per Se (and doesn’t regret it but would not do it again)! All this and still retired by 40.
Changing your mindset and approach to money can be powerful, and that is clearly demonstrated. She outlines how her money mindset and habits evolved, and she asks the readers the important questions to help them realize what truly makes them happy and how money relates (or barely relates) to those things.
Do you have a money mission statement? You will when you’ve completed Chapter 3 if you follow her instructions.
As the book progresses, Tanja explains what you need to know to invest competently. She admits to being no investment guru (I’m not, either) and it occasionally shows, but we’ll cover that below.
Healthcare coverage, which is a huge conundrum for many early retirees, gets the attention it deserves with an entire chapter devoted mainly to paying for healthcare. As a couple, they’ve each got pre-existing conditions, and they’ve learned to navigate the Affordable Care Act like pros. I saw her give a talk on this at last year’s Camp FI Midwest, and she zipped around a health insurance exchange site and knew it like the back of her hand.
The book closes with the three chapters of Part III, Thriving in Your Work Optional Life. Since most early retirees will spend more of their adult lives in retirement than in a career, it’s vital to consider how you’ll spend those years, too.
The focus is on making that transition away from work as smoothly as possible, prioritizing your physical and mental health, and ensuring that your life is filled with purpose. Ikigai and such. All things I’ll be focusing on in the coming years.
Tidbits from Work Optional
When I read a book for review, I fill it with those little plastic stickies. Some of them say “Sign Here” — I believe in reusing plastic when possible — and all of them point to something that stood out to me as worth revisiting. Let’s revisit some of the high points.
Can’t Knock the Hustle?
Maybe you can. Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom celebrates The Hustle, but as Tanja Hester points out, you don’t need to hustle around the clock to be successful. While she did hustle as a yoga and spin instructor for 10 years, she also notes the following:
“Quite a few multilevel marketing schemes out there prey on folks who are eager to make a little extra on the side, and they often result in those people losing money. A good rule to follow: If you’re spending large amounts of money upfront or to keep it going, it’s probably not helping you reach your goals.”
The FI Community
Later on, Carl & Mindy Jensen of 1500 Days get a shout out. They’ve also stayed at our lake place with their family. The financial independence community is rather tight-knit like that. Carl, Noah, Becky, Tanja, the aforementioned J.L. Collins, and I all hung out for a weekend with about 50 other FIRE seekers at Camp FI Midwest last summer, and I look forward to returning in August.
On getting your partner on the same page:
This is good. If you’re new to FI and have a plan to get your partner to hop right on that bandwagon, throw that plan out. Start from scratch with your partner and formulate a plan together.
Tanja and Mark do not have kids, but she understands that most of her readers probably do or might someday, and children play a substantial role throughout the book, as they will in your financial and actual life if you’ve got them.
On time and money:
Early on in this blog, I wrote about how money used to buy me stuff, and now it buys time. Ms. Hester reminds us that we can always make more money, but time is in finite supply.
She reworks the 4% rule to demonstrate that every $1 of monthly expenses eliminated is $300 you don’t need to earn and save for retirement. Reframing money in terms of time can be a powerful motivator.
When working on your money mission statement, she asks if there was a time in your life when you enjoyed your lifestyle but spent less than you do now.
As someone who loved the hell out of his college years, I answered with a resounding Yes!
Whenever people complain that they couldn’t possibly live on X amount of dollars (say half of what they spend now), I like to ask if they were happy in college and how much they had to spend back then. The question can backfire, but it seems that most people did enjoy college, so it usually works.
Before retiring, while earning in the upper tax brackets, Tanja and Mark decided to start a donor advised fund. It’s mentioned several times in the book, and I applaud her for this.
If you’re a high-income professional who can afford to retire early, you can probably afford to work a little bit longer for the greater good and add philanthropy to your list of purposes in early retirement. I’m a big fan of the DAF for all who can afford it, but especially early retirees.
On buying versus renting your home:
One of my critiques of Financial Freedom was the rosy picture painted of homeownership. Ms. Hester cites data suggesting that 64% of the US population lives in a county where it’s cheaper over the long term to rent than buy, and that the decision is far from a no-brainer. She discusses non-financial aspects of the decision, as well, as she often does on big-picture issues.
There are no “one-time” expenses. Or if there are, there are so many that the category becomes a regular occurence, so don’t ignore the one-offs. In the few years that I tracked spending, this was painfully true.
On lattes, specifically: keep ’em if you love ’em. RESET mentioned the latte, also. If I had a dollar for every time I read about lattes on a personal finance site, I could buy a crapload of lattes. Curse you and your blasted latte factor, David Bach!
For the record, I’ve never drank a latte. Or coffee.
As she highlights, the first years after retirement can be harsh for a relationship. For the first time in forever, you actually end up spending most of your days and nights with your partner. That, again, could be a good thing or a bad thing.
She recommends having a plan that has you financially independent as an individual with half of your combined assets. It can get messy with the unknowns that are legal costs and possible alimony, custody battles, child support, etc… but it is something to consider and one of the most likely ways your FIRE plans could fail. The 4% rule might fail 3% of the time, but marriages fail about 10 times as often.
I didn’t think I had any symptoms of burnout until I was financially independent and it occurred to me that work was indeed optional. I don’t hear this one often, but we see eye-to-eye here.
Tanja says “And it’s possible that our secret plans actually exacerbated our feeling of burnout, because we felt so close to being able to retire instead of having to survive our jobs like most people.”
I can relate.
Work Optional: The Not-as-Good
A few of those plastic stickies direct me to points that I didn’t exactly agree with or were simply inaccurate. The positive stickies outnumbered the negative stickies by about a 10:1 margin, but a balanced review requires revisiting the low points, too.
Citing references and resources:
Earlier, I recalled the Bouillons and Jensens. They are mentioned along with other bloggers / podcasters like Chad Carson, Jamila Souffrant, and a few others. However, there was no mention of the great resources these individuals have to offer.
The only reference I could find to a blogger’s website was to Karsten Janske’s Early Retirement Now in the reference section at the end of the book. Perhaps the Kindle version has some hyperlinks to their sites that cannot be recreated in the paperback, but I doubt it — it would be easy enough to print out the URL on paper.
Even when referring to a particular blog post, only the author’s name is mentioned. I recognized the CAPE-based withdrawal method as an article from Can I Retire Yet, but in the book, it’s referenced only as “analysis by Darrow Kirkpatrick” and there are no references listed for Chapter 9 where the discussion appeared.
It’s certainly her prerogative to choose which resources she wants to share with readers, but the lack of such mentions seemed rather conspicuous to me.
Investing & Taxes:
As I mentioned above, the investing section was imperfect. This was not entirely unexpected, as I’ve noticed misuse the term “backdoor Roth” to describe ordinary Roth conversions in retirement numerous times on her site. She does use the term correctly in the book. It’s fine; you don’t have to know everything or be perfect to be successful, but I would have expected these errors to be picked up in the editing process.
On page 58, we’re told that “over every 10-year period in US stock market history, markets have been up from where they were a decade earlier, even after you adjust for inflation.”
No reference is given and I know that to be untrue not only for inflation-adjusted returns but also for nominal (strictly numerical) returns. The graphs on pages 122 and 123 bear that out, using the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a guide, but the same is true of other indices like the S&P 500. There have definitely been 10-year periods where the markets have been down.
There were a couple of misstatements in regards to taxes. It comes down to nomenclature, but semantics matter when it comes to money.
For example, on page 64, we learn that “many bonds issued by state and local governments are tax-free and thus are not subject to capital gains tax, which helps offset some of their low yield.” Substitute “income” for “capital gains” and it’s an accurate statement.
However, an important aspect of tax-efficient investing is to understand that bond yields are never subject to the usually-preferential capital gains tax treatment, but are taxed either at your marginal income tax rate (or not at all in the case of some government-issued bonds).
There’s another misstatement on page 117 where it says you’ll collect dividends from stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, and pay income tax on the dividends.
Again, stocks and bonds will be treated differently, and most dividends from mutual funds, particularly index funds, will be qualified dividends and subject to the more favorable long-term capital gains rate. You will generally pay state income tax on them, and possibly the NIIT (Affordable Care Act surtax) of 3.8% if you make a good income.
Ordinary dividends are taxed like income, but an index investor will mainly see qualified dividends.
The income tax on dividends line is repeated on page 120, and what is ignored in the book is the awesome and important fact that both qualified dividends and long-term capital gains will not be taxed at all at the federal level if you have a taxable income of $78,950 or less (in 2019) when married and filing jointly (or half that as an single filer). This is huge for early retirees!
457(b) accounts are lumped in with 401(k)s as being nearly identical, but as someone who will soon be spending money from a 457(b) account at age 44 as part of my drawdown plan, I can assure you they are different enough from a 401(k) to warrant a few sentences describing the advantages and disadvantages.
Namely, the 457(b) can be accessed at any age once you leave your employer (which is big for early retirees) and the balance is in the form of deferred compensation that is not yours until you withdraw it. It’s best not to let that money linger.
Grant Sabatier kind of swung and missed on this topic of the 457(b), too, so the author’s in good company.
Money & relationships:
When discussing the comfort level of both partners in a relationship when it comes to early retirement, I struggled to comprehend this line:
“Mark is three years older than I am and understandably felt that it was unfair that I would end up working for fewer years than he would.”
They ultimately agreed that it made the most sense to retire together. Uff da.
My life and marriage is obviously very different than theirs, but I’ve never had any misgivings about the fact that I’ve made > 99.9% of the income around here just as my wife doesn’t consider it unfair that she’s packed 99.9% of the kids’ lunches.
It can be dangerous to look for fairness and equality in relationships. The give and take will typically be unbalanced out of necessity and as you play to one another’s strengths. As long as you’re both understanding and not harboring any unspoken resentment, all is well.
Excuse me while I go make some sandwiches.
In the healthcare section, there were a couple of statements that rubbed me the wrong way.
I’ll be the first to admit that health care sharing ministries are an imperfect solution and likely won’t make sense for those with pre-existing conditions. Most do have rules against reimbursement for immoral behavior, and abuse of alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs is among the prohibited activities. Fair enough.
However, she makes a blanket statement that “they disallow smoking and drinking alcohol” in the brief mention of these plans.
The smoking is a non-issue for me, but I wouldn’t be considering this option if they flat-out banned their members from any alcohol intake. I’ve clinked pint glasses with a number of fellow bloggers who have generally had good experiences with Medi-Share and Liberty HealthShare, and there’s nothing in their documentation that mandates abstinence from alcohol.
The second line that riled me up was on medical tourism. While I’m not opposed to anyone getting care overseas, and I know there are quality facilities worldwide, I’ve dealt with, seen, and read about enough bad situations resulting from care in foreign hospitals to characterize the following statement as false:
“These facilities are modern, and the staff are every bit as well trained as medical staff in the US, making this type of care safe and a fraction of the cost you’d paying in the US…”
That may be at least partially of true of some places, but certainly not across the board. Dental work in Mexico, Thailand, and Eastern Europe are offered up as good ways to ease your way into medical tourism. Yes, you can get good care there on the cheap, but you can also get shoddy care with unsanitary instruments by lesser trained individuals.
You can also get care that leaves you with an abscessed tooth, leading to a neck abscess that swells to the point at which your airway is closed and you cannot breathe, and you die. It can happen here, too, but the standards and safeguards are not universal worldwide, nor is the medical training.
I’ve been involved with some close calls as outlined above when people have returned from their medical vacations, and I’ve seen some ridiculous dental implants from Mexico that didn’t put the patient at risk (in hindsight) but looked faker than fake.
Yes, as a US based physician, I have some implicit bias, but I’m also intricately familiar with the rigors of earning and maintaining board certification in the US, and I know it’s different around the world. It’s much easier for a US trained physician (residency, not medical school) to work outside the country than vice versa, and for good reason.
On life insurance:
I was surprised to learn that both the author and her husband plan to carry term life insurance into their fifties when the terms expire. It may only cost them a few dollars a day, but if they’re truly financially independent, that’s maybe up to $1,000 a year or more that could be put to better use.
Term life insurance is redundant in their case. They know they can live on half of the nest egg as an individual; in the event of an untimely death of a partner, they’ll have the full amount.
Opt in to Work Optional
Tanja Hester’s debut personal finance book has a wonderful message, comes from the heart, and will have you excited to plan the next chapter in your life. It’s not perfect, but I set the bar awfully high.
I am thoroughly impressed with the transformation she and Mark made in their lives to achieve financial independence. They are active in their communities, generous with both their time and money, and are model citizens for aspiring early retirees to attempt to emulate.
I recently contemplated the future of the FIRE movement, closing with the following statement inspired by someone like Tanja Hester. Or maybe it’s you.
“If a person can earn and save enough to take care of herself and her family in just 10 or 15 years, what do you suppose she’s capable of in the next 10, 15, or 50 years?
RESET: How to Restart Your Life and Get F.U. Money
I knew Tanja Hester. We had talked and hugged and read each others’ stuff.
I did not know David Sawyer. He was a bloke that e-mailed me out of the blue to let me know he was writing a book.
After several e-mails, some of which seemed a little form-letterish, he sent me the final copy of RESET in .pdf form. This was late summer heading into the fall when I would be working more than full time and struggling to get blog posts published on time.
I was not particularly responsive. As in, I didn’t respond.
When he sent the full book in electronic form, I said thanks, but if you want me to read it, I’m going to need a hard copy.
Stalling. Buying time.
Finally, after a couple of months of gracing my nightstand, I thought this RESET book might make a good complement to the other Gen Xer’s book that I reviewed exhaustively above. Over the last two days, I read it cover to cover. I may have skimmed over the U.K.-specific talk of Sipps and Isas, but the majority of the book is absolutely applicable to anyone interested in personal finance and financial freedom.
I Underestimated David Sawyer
Wow! This guy can write.
As a career public relations man, it’s been his job to create copy, spin things in a company’s favor, and craft a positive image for his clients in this digital age.
He describes RESET as his creed, the culmination of six years of self-discovery that led him down one rabbit hole after another, the most influential being the US-based financial independence blogosphere.
He’s a Scotsman, a scary-fast marathoner (2:40), and a father of two boys that happen to be the same age as mine. At 45, he’s a ways away from financial independence, but he knows what it will take to get there, and he and his family are making strides to make it happen within about 10 to 15 years.
He took the better part of a year off to write his manifesto, and I’m glad he did. It’s clear he did his research and homework; he lists about 10 books just on writing that he consumed as part of this quest. Yes, On Writing was one of them. He read hundreds more on personal finance.
In the testimonials, William Danko, co-author of The Millionaire Next Door, sings the praises of the text. Now, you’ve got my attention.
The book is a bit eclectic. At times, I felt I was half-heartedly laughing so as to seem I was in on the inside joke even though I didn’t quite get it. Think Tim Ferriss meets Mr. Money Mustache meets Groundskeeper Willie and they all pay Marie Kondo a visit. That’ll happen when you explore all the rabbit holes.
Go RESET Yourself
As you might guess from the subtitle, Mr. Sawyer uses some colorful language. There are a few swears, and he apologized to his kids for them in the Acknowledgements. But that’s not the colorful language that I most appreciated.
As a Glaswegian (a person from Glasgow), he uses all sorts of cheeky lingo that I find fun. Maths. Technicolour, programme, fug, and bollocks. I haven’t encountered language like that since the 17th time I watched Trainspotting.
Although it feels a bit scatterbrained at times, the book follows a fairly straightforward progression. Identify what matters in your life, futureproof your career, remove the fluff, get paid, and live the life you were meant to live.
As Ms. Hester did, Mr. Sawyer flavors the directives with anecdotes from his own life and the remarkable transformation he and his family have made over the past six years. While the book covers the same topic, in essence, it is wildly different at the same time.
RESET spends more time on a stark transformation from the humdrum status quo to a new way of thinking. Old habits and how and why to break them are in sharp focus.
My friend across the pond may not like the phrasing, but he’s asking you to think differently about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Philosophy is prominently featured, and you’ll learn from the Greeks, Romans, modern-day thought leaders, and even The Big Lebowski himself.
The goal of the book is to bring the FIRE Movement home to his native land that is Great Britain. The investing chapter, in particular, is written specifically for those who live there, and it’s quite thorough.
The remainder of the book is applicable to anyone from anywhere, and although I have read it, I’m not remotely done with it. You can scarcely turn a page without David mentioning one author, blogger, or podcaster worth exploring further.
The reference section, complete with links (and shortened URLs in the paper version), will direct you to over 500 unique resources that David found influential. I’m proud to be listed as reference #428 and one of six must-read personal finance blogs.
With over 300 pages, 40 chapters, and weighing in at a hefty 1 pound, 6 ounces, this is a book that deserves your attention and would do some damage if hurled at you from across the room.
I didn’t read this one with the intent of a thorough review. Hence, no stickies, no tidbits, and no nitpicking. If I were to say anything negative, I would say that, at times, it felt a bit like reading one blog post after another.
The large-font headings, generous white space, and short sentences and paragraphs were all there. For whatever reason, I agree that those aspects are important on a blog post, but not necessarily in a book. I’m not sure why.
Nevertheless, I will be leaving a glowing review for RESET on the US version of Amazon, which will be the 4th such review. To date, the U.K Amazon has over 80 positive reviews, and for good reason. I respect what this speedy, minimalized, self-actualized Gen Xer has put together.
If you’d like to read a sample, the first 10% is available for free here. If you’re hankering for more, read on.
Who Wants a Free Book?
As we did last week, I’m happy to be able to offer you the book of your choice. You can thank Ms. Hester and Mr. Sawyer for the gift; it’s not costing me a thing.
To enter the sweepstakes, be an email subscriber (opt in here) and leave a comment. If you have a preference for either Work Optional or RESET, let me know in your comment below, and if you’re cool with dealer’s choice, that’s cool, too!
[UPDATE: Congratulations to Sara C and Michael, the winners of our sweepstakes as selected by Google’s random number generator.]