Why Work Optional Matters to Us

Two weeks ago, Angie and I were sitting on the patio contemplating the future. I had just started reading Work Optional by Tanja Hester (of the blog Our Next Life) and we were brainstorming a list of ideas for what we thought an early retirement might possibly look like for us.

We’ve never had a specific goal to retire early but we have always had a “work optional” attitude. Angie retired from formal employment in 2012, right before we moved to Florida, and I have worked only part-time for the past 3 years. We’re not high wage earners yet we still manage to live on only 63-65% of our current income. Ridiculously frugal. That’s how some folks describe us. (At this point, you might be thinking that those expensive ice cream bars we blew our budget on a few weeks back weren’t all that frugal. Well, guess what? We used a coupon! 😊)

Anyway, back to the point…

Though we’re not in a position to fully retire right now, we are in a position to start thinking about the next chapter of our own work optional story. This is exactly what we were trying to do that day on the patio, but life happened, and that is the real point of this post.

Our great-niece was supposed to stay with us for 3 days while her little brother had an exploratory procedure in preparation for open-heart surgery in July. He was born last December with a congenital defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome and will require a series of three surgeries to repair his heart. The exploratory procedure last week did not go as planned and the doctors had to move up the timeline. On Friday, the little guy had surgery to place a shunt between his pulmonary artery and his heart. He is doing better than expected but will still be in the hospital for several weeks, during which time we have a very energetic 3-year-old house guest to entertain.

While this leaves little time to breathe, much less write a blog post, it has really highlighted one thing – if we were tied to normal jobs on a traditional career path, we would not be able to do this, at least not without the fear of losing our security. As a grant writer, my work is driven by deadlines but the work itself is flexible. No one cares if I write proposals before dawn, midday, or after dark…as long as the quality is good, and the deadlines are met. (I’m an early morning person, in case you’re wondering.) No matter what the next steps are in our work life, the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to jeopardize that type of freedom in any way. Work optional only works when the work is truly optional. (Say that three times fast!)

Angie and I will resume our brainstorming and planning when the time is right. Absolutely nothing needs to be decided today…except what to pack for a picnic at the playground, because that’s what a certain little one said she’d like to do today.

Retirement Redefined

A few years ago, Angie and I were watching a football game on TV when a commercial for TD Ameritrade came on. I wasn’t really paying attention but for some reason when I heard the word retirement, I spontaneously muttered, “I think I will retire tomorrow.” It sounded good in my head and of course, impractical at the same time, as it tumbled off my tongue. Though I expected no response, I still remember to this day what Angie said – just one little word, okay. This wasn’t the same okay that I usually get when she’s reading and only half listening to me. It was more like the one I get when I suggest we go get ice cream.

“And then what will we do?” I asked with a hint of sarcasm that was mainly directed at myself for suggesting such a thing in the first place.

Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, if it rains like they say it’s going to, then we’ll watch movies.”

It was just that simple. And yet that profound.

For several days after that, I pondered the question: Just what is retirement anyway?

In my grandparents’ day, retirement meant you were old enough to receive your company’s pension and could spend your days doing all the things you had dreamed of while working for 40+ years. Today, I turn on the news and retirement means that our older generation is no longer employable in their career field but can’t support themselves because they’ve overspent and under-planned, so now they must work at Walmart. Don’t believe it? Just Google “Americans Unable to Retire” and you’ll be bombarded with sad statistics like 85% of Americans are worried about retirement, only 54% have a retirement savings account, and 24% fear they will never be able to retire.

Or maybe it’s time we call bull-crap on those statistics and the pessimists who publish them and come up with our own definition of retirement.

Jacob Fisker did. He’s the author of Early Retirement Extreme.

Pete did. You may know him as Mr. Money Mustache.

Long, long ago, the definition of retirement was simply to withdraw to some place, especially for the sake of privacy. I like that. I like it a lot!

If I were going to craft my own definition of retirement, I might start out pretty similar, with one that has nothing to do with money. But you can’t do that, I hear you saying. Money has to be the starting point. You have to have enough of it to survive once you aren’t working anymore.

Nope. Not in my definition.

Retirement is not a financial achievement, though as Americans, we’ve come to see it that way. We work for years to reach a point where we can buy back our most valuable resource – time – and use it as we see fit. We think retirement is when we can travel, spend time with loved ones, take on new hobbies, or simply greet the day with no intentions. No wonder so many of us find the concept of early retirement so appealing! We want to do those things now. If we wait until TD Ameritrade says that we have enough money, most of us will be long past dead!

Retirement shouldn’t be about how you spend your money, but rather, how you spend your day. If you want to work, that’s okay. If you want to fish all day, that’s fine too. It’s your life, live it however you want. And don’t wait until you reach some arbitrary age or ask permission from some greedy brokerage firm to do it. Retirement starts the day that you choose to spend your time pursuing life instead of money.

Retirement is a state of mind, a place of peaceful living and time spent with loved ones, a nap on the couch, or an afternoon enjoying a good book. Retirement is getting up each day, knowing your time is your own, regardless of what you choose to do with it. And by that definition, retirement is a place we can arrive at any age.