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Early retirement didn't make my depression go away. That's not how life works.

Bitchtastic Book Review: Tanja Hester on Early Retirement, Privilege, and Her Book, Work Optional

Dear readers, we’ve been holding out on you. For there is something beyond the basic financial literacy we strive to teach you here at Bitches Get Riches. Something that comes after you level up as far as you go with your money.

It’s called FIRE, or “financial independence, retire early.” And it’s something a lot of our esteemed colleagues in the money-writin’ biz are fighting tooth and nail to achieve.

One of the beacons of light in the conversation about financial independence and early retirement is Tanja Hester, author of the brand new book Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way.

Tanja is awesome. Her book is awesome. Her advice is awesome.

She’s like the result of a long, fulfilling, romantic relationship between a timelessly wise Amazon warrior and your favorite cool aunt, the one who both comforted you about the mean kids at school and bought you your first box of condoms. I’d trust her both to carry my body to Valhalla from the field of battle and to give me sound financial advice, is what I’m saying.

Up until recently, Tanja was the anonymous proprietor or the award-winning FIRE blog Our Next Life. But she pulled aside the proverbial curtain of anonymity when she and her husband, Mark, left their jobs to retire early.

That’s right: our girl Tanja retired at 38 years of age after a career as a political operative. She and Mark did it through a strategic mix of increasing salaries, extremely frugal living, and wise financial management. But more important than the how of Tanja’s early retirement is the why. And that’s what makes Work Optional so goddamn special: it’s not just some lame how-to manual. It’s inspiration of the highest degree.

Full disclosure, Tanja is one of our ride-or-dies. We go way back. We view her as sort of the general of our army of special snowflakes dispensing financial advice with a side helping of social justice.

An Evening with Ms. Our Next Life

On fucking, marrying, and killing

So when I sat down to interview her about her book, I came prepared with some real hard-hitting, in-depth questions, as you can see:

Piggy: Let’s get down to brass tacks. Fuck, marry, kill: Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, Gaby Dunn?

Tanja: Kill Dave, that’s easy.

Piggy: Duh.

Tanja: Fuck Suze, marry Gaby.

Piggy: Nice. Now that we’ve gotten the important stuff out of the way, why the fuck did you decide to tell your story? And in a book no less? That’s a lot of work.

Tanja: I’ve always wanted to write books, and when that’s your dream and a publisher comes to you to say they’re interested, you don’t turn around and say, “Nah.” So part of it was taking the opportunity that was in front of me. But part of it was also wanting to contribute something different to the personal finance book genre, which tends to be very black and white instead of accounting for people’s circumstances and different personal values. I feel good that I was able to bring something different to the discussion, but yes, it was a lot of work!

On the latte factor

Piggy: Let’s talk about that personal finance book genre! Because you’re right—your book is something different. In what ways do you break off from the pack?

Tanja: First, I don’t know many money books that start off not talking about money. But money is just a tool, and making it the sole focus is to turn things out of whack. Instead, the book starts out talking about what you truly value in life and want to be able to spend your time doing. I believe strongly that it’s only after you know that that you can build a solid financial plan to make it possible. Not to mention that envisioning your dream life makes it so much more motivating to save money, which—let’s be honest—can be boring and frustrating otherwise.

I also am not interested in judging particular financial choices. A lot of people like to hate on lattes, for example. I say, if that’s the very best part of your day, savoring that latte, then spend that money and never look back. But if you barely taste the latte, then stop spending that money. The key isn’t what I value, but what you value.

Piggy: So… The Secret is real?

Tanja: Haha! I promise the book is not the financial accompaniment to The Secret

Piggy: What a massive disappointment. Interview over.

This is what I’m saying about inspiration. Anyone can tell a wealthy person wasting money on mindless consumerism to cut back and save more so they can quit the 9-5 before sixty. But the philosophy behind Work Optional is more about identifying the truly important parts of life… and fighting for them tooth and nail, no matter your circumstances.

On choosing your own adventure

Piggy: No but seriously: What I like about it is you’ve taken that “choose your own adventure” approach, which is different from other early retirement gurus. Why do you think it’s important to encourage readers to design their own path to financial independence?

Tanja: Thank you! It’s important because, 1) that is what everyone is going to do anyway, so we might as well acknowledge reality, and 2) because everyone is coming from a different starting point, has different means, and cares about different things. There’s literally no way to make it one-size-fits-all unless the goal is to shoehorn everyone awkwardly in to one particular vision of early retirement.

Piggy: Right. Like, my dream of a private island staffed by Chris Hemsworth clones funded by my career of telling people “no” as disdainfully as possible… that’s not realistic for everyone!

Tanja: Chris, really? Not Liam? I’m so disappointed.

Piggy: Gurl. GURL. Are we having a Hemsworth-off right now??? Ok I’m going to have to steamroll right on by that blasphemy…

Just so we’re clear: Chris is the Norse god with the big hammer. Liam is one side of a YA love triangle.

On the big fat fucking lie of “anybody can do it!”

Piggy: Serious question. I’m a bit of a book review connoisseur. So I’ve read a lot of reviews of early retirement books that basically amount to “Yeah, easy for you to say, Scrooge McDuck. NORMAL people can’t even contemplate financial independence, let alone early retirement.”

So here is your platform. What say you to that sort of knee-jerk reaction to not just your book, but your whole philosophy?

Tanja: I actually agree with a lot of those people! I wish we lived in a society in which we had more financial equality and financial independence was more achievable for larger swaths of our population. I get frustrated when I see people say, “Anyone can do this!” Because it’s just not true. But, I think a lot of that hater energy comes from seeing things as black and white instead of seeing all the shades of gray that exist for people.

If you can save enough to be able to not work for a year and be okay, then you’re work optional. You could quit a bad or abusive job, and you’ve now put yourself in a position of power. It doesn’t have to be full early retirement that you’re aiming for, but just the flexibility to give yourself options. That’s why I devote a lot of the book to talking about different options besides never working again, including semiretirement and career intermissions.

Piggy: That was beautifully stated. I think what you’re getting at is a frustration with the Gospel of Positive Thinking, which is a thing I just made up to describe how some advice-givers just… ignore things like privilege and systemic poverty.

Tanja: YES.

Piggy: But you’re saying you can give encouragement and advice without the undercurrent of “Anyone can do this, and if you can’t then it’s because you, personally, individually suck and it’s your own fault.”

Tanja: That’s exactly it. I have zero interest in judging anyone for having debt or for being, like, human.

On starting at rock bottom

Piggy: I knew there was a reason I liked you! So on that note, what do you have to say to our readers who are starting at rock bottom, financially? Any words of encouragement? Dark magic to impart?

Tanja: The biggest thing is to think about ways to work with your own nature. I think we foster this dumb belief that the only way to be good at money is to be naturally virtuous and frugal. I am none of those things, I suck at anything requiring willpower, and yet I still retired early. (It helped that I earned six figures my last few working years—not trying to gloss over that!)

The key for me was finding the systems that helped me save in spite of my non-frugal nature instead of beating myself up about it, and that was having my paycheck split so a little slice went into savings each month. I didn’t miss the $50 a paycheck I started with, and I slowly amped that up over time, including any time I got a raise, so I could save more.

My words of encouragement are: don’t worry about whether you’re naturally good at money. Focus on making yourself artificially good with money, because it gets you to the exact same place.

Piggy: That’s some damn good advice.

On invisible disabilities

Piggy: Another thing I love about your book (and you!) is that you put a lot of importance on maintaining health and relationships. Can you talk about how your invisible disability and your marriage impacted your ability or decision to retire early?

Tanja: Those are such important things to keep central to your planning! If you just focus on saving money to have it, you’ll end up like Citizen Kane, all alone with his money and dreaming of his sled.

Tanja: So much better to focus on health and relationships and make money secondary to that. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which is a connective tissue disease that gets progressively worse over time, and I saw my dad get worse and be forced into early retirement in his early forties because of it.

Knowing that could be my future for sure motivated me to hurry up and save because I might not have a ton of able-bodied years left. (Don’t worry—I’m doing pretty well!) And Mark and I both had super high-stress careers that took a real toll on our marriage, and we saw friends and colleagues split up as a result of that. We didn’t want to wake up one day in our sixties when we were traditionally retired and be like, “Who are you again?” So that meant figuring out a different path than the one we were on. We could have just changed career paths, but when we saw that we could retire early within a reasonable amount of time, we chose to pursue that route instead.

Piggy: I know we have a lot of disabled readers here at BGR. What’s your advice to them on taking control of their finances while dealing with a disability?

Tanja: The unfortunate truth is that our system makes it really tough on disabled people, and not everyone who is disabled is equally able to save enough money to become financially independent. But I think, if you’re able, focusing on the gift you’re giving your future self in the way of options can help curb the urge to treat yo’self in the present.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to work forever, given my genetics, and I could have just keep spending as I was doing, or I could save what I could while I could, and I’m so glad I did the latter. It doesn’t have to be full early retirement, but just giving yourself the option of taking time off when things are especially bad and you need more self-care can give you a ton of peace of mind.

On lifting as you climb

Piggy: Ok, I’ll throw you a softball question now.

I’ve always admired you as a community leader, an organizer. And yeah, that’s coming from being part of your legion of feminist personal finance writers. But I think you’ve taught me by example that we’re not alone in this. We have a responsibility to give back to our community, whatever that might be, and to accept help in return. And that shines through in Work Optional. So talk about community: what do we owe each other? What can we expect from each other when it comes to managing our own personal finances but also building a better global economy?

… No pressure.

Tanja: Easy question!

Piggy: I thought so!

Tanja: To me, there’s no point in having been able to retire early if I can’t use some of my newfound free time to make things a little better for others, whether that’s through charitable giving, volunteering, or advocating for the future I’d like to see. If those of us pursuing financial independence are essentially pulling the ladder up behind us, what will it all have been for? I’m much more interested to push people to think about how they can use their free time to benefit society as a whole.

I’d love to see a world in which more of us can do what Mark and I did, and that means getting realistic about how horrifically underpaid so many people are (especially women, people of color, and disabled people), and fighting for broad economic justice.

Piggy: PREACH!

Tanja: It also means improving financial literacy so that even those who got dealt a bad hand still have some options. I have no interest in putting out content that only helps rich people get richer. If you were born on third base, good for you. But that’s not true of most people.

Piggy: You can’t see me, but I’m snapping.

In all of Tanja’s work—her blog, her book, and the podcast The Fairer Cents, which she co-hosts with Kara Perez of Bravely Go—this civic-mindedness is what sets her apart from more conventional sources. She’s not just teaching self-improvement, but making a larger point about broad policy changes and their impact on both individuals and society.

In this way, Work Optional is not for the self-absorbed. But it is for the idealist. And it might even be for the optimist, too.

On the first disc boss that is money

Piggy: Back to Work Optional. Throughout the book you keep coming back to this idea: “Money is the easy part.” What does that mean?

Tanja: The real work of building a strong financial plan tends to happen in one big burst, and then, it’s just a matter of letting time pass while your savings pile up. That doesn’t require constant thinking or planning, just occasional tending. But figuring out what you want to be when you grow up? Thinking about how you’ll get self worth without a traditional job? Figuring out how to manage your time when you have no structure in your life? Those are tougher questions to answer! They require much more soul-searching and can feel existential. But it’s so worth it to go through the process of thinking them through!

My thinking on early retirement evolved so much over the course of planning, and it’s evolved more since actually being early retired. As my friend Carl, who writes the blog 1500 Days, puts it: When you have more free time, you no longer have any excuse for not dealing with your shit. And I so agree. Sometimes work can distract us from whatever is troubling us, and having to confront those things can be tough. Worth it, but tough.

Piggy: What kind of shit have you confronted since retiring?

Tanja: Depression has been a part of my life for a long time, and I think on some level, I assumed I’d feel it less if there was no more work pressure, school pressure, etc. But that hasn’t ended up being true. I had some tough moments in the last year, and then you can get into that spiraling thinking of, “Why am I sad when my life is perfect?” which just makes it worse. It’s so easy to get caught in magical thinking of, “If this one thing changes, then life will be awesome.” But that’s not how life works. Even if you’re financially independent and never need to work again, you’re still human. It’s important to remember that. Early retirement is wonderful, but it’s not magic.

Piggy: What a fucking gift you gave yourself: the time and space to address your depression without the distraction of “omg I need to make money”!

We Bitches have lots to say on the topic of mental health, as we covered last May for Mental Health Awareness Month:

On retired life

Piggy: I feel like that’s kind of the point of the Work Optional life: get work out of the way so you can “work” on other, more important shit.

Tanja: Yeah, totally! I think the single best thing the book does is help you think about what you truly value, both financially and in life. And if what you value is stuff outside of work (like improving your health or well-being), then it gives you the tools to do that.

Piggy: How’s retired life going, anyway? Are you and Mark and the doggos happier, more fulfilled, healthier, livin’ the dream?

Tanja: Mark just spent several days building the dogs a maze out of snow, sooooo… yeah, I’d say we’re living our best lives over here.

You can get Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way by Our Next Life’s very own Tanja Hester at your favorite bookstore or librarium. It should go without saying, but we thoroughly endorse it, even if early retirement isn’t your financial goal.

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8 thoughts to “Bitchtastic Book Review: Tanja Hester on Early Retirement, Privilege, and Her Book, Work Optional”

  1. Great interview! My two favorite finance blogs together – it’s like a fire-fever-dream! Tanja and you (Piggy+Kitty) are writing important stuff. Stuff that needs to be said, especially in the fincon blogosphere.

    The point about no longer having an excuse to not work on your shit…woah, I never thought of early retirement that way. Such food for thought, always, from BGR and ONL. Thanks so much to all three of you. You have informed my thinking on these topics more than I would have thought possible.

  2. One of the things I really appreciate about Tanja and BGR is the continual acknowledgement and empowerment of disabled populations. I’m staring down the gun neurological disorder that may end my career with brain surgery or unmanageable symptoms preventing me from working until 67. Heck, even the next 6 months of being able to work isn’t a guarantee. Work Optional is a way that people who feel good now can prepare for a future that is less certain. It’s a message of empowerment to combat the fatalism of my physiology. Love this!

    1. Thank you SO MUCH for this comment. It’s nice to know when we’re doing something right… so we can do more of it! We definitely still have a lot to learn about disability, but you’ve inspired me to get the research done.

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