Your job or your life

Call this post: FI 2.0. Or maybe 3.0.

One of the most radical and overlooked ideas in Your Money or Your Life comes in Chapter 7. The job of that Chapter is to have you realize that a “job” is not the only, best, most legitimate, most respectable way to have an income. Nor is it your work. A job is work you do for someone else that they “compensate” you for as in making up to you for not doing what you want in the way you want when you want. Your work is your calling, your way of giving your gift and making a difference in the world. It is your scratch on eternity as Studs Terkel once said.

Blessed are those whose job is identical with their work, but that is far from all of us.

And blessed are those who’ve found a way to have an income apart from how they spend their time so they can discover what their true work is (and that might take some… ahem… work). Many FIers struggle after their retirement date to find their legs again in a sea of time and options. You have to look within – a place not easy to find in the workaday world. You go back with some chagrin to the person in college who was trying to find herself.

I wrote this piece for publication in a major paper, but it was too radical for them, so I’m sharing it with you. Comments most welcome!

I haven’t had a job in 50 years. I’m not lazy. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not an underachiever, nor a survivalist nor marginalized nor a slacker.

This does not mean I haven’t worked in 50 years. I’ve worked – often more than people with jobs.

It simply means I haven’t traded my hours for dollars on a job, and my income has arrived sporadically through: the sale of my Seattle home of 20 years, 2 book advances spread over 10 years, two small inheritances (invested in 1987 in said home and US Treasury Bonds), rental income from a MIL apartment in my home (bought with profits from my other home), income-earning loans I’ve made to local businesses, socially responsible investing and now the godsend of social security.

Through frugality, I’ve stretched every dollar and turned all surplus into investments. I did this because early in life I realized I did not want to sell my most precious resources – my mind and time – to someone else to fulfill their dreams. I wanted to live a meaningful life of my own choosing, rather than finding meaning in one profession or one job.

With my time and fertile mind, I’ve studied, created many social enterprises, learned everything from how to butcher a deer to how to facilitate effective meetings, written copy for every movement or candidate I believed in, given talks in to audiences of less than 5 and well more than 500, actually launched 3 initiatives that have gone global (Your Money or Your Life, Conversation Cafes and the 10-Day Local Food Challenge), written 3 books (one a bestseller) with time left over for singing in a choir and dancing with friends.

Lest this sound like a resume dressed up as an oped, my point is that work, income and job are three distinct aspects of everyone’s lives. Separating them reveals opportunities invisible in when they are presumed to be the same thing.

Work has intrinsic value. We do it to contribute to others, to earn respect, to develop our talents, to add to human knowledge, to fill out time, do our duty and be in the company of others. The work of this world consumes more hours than paid employment but is rendered invisible and lower status. We don’t value ourselves, others or these tasks.

Any student can tell you that education to prepare oneself to contribute to society is a lot of work. You worked to learn math, to learn to read, to master a science or skill and to make sense of literature and history – and further to learn the law, medicine, business and finance.  

Anyone who has dated, mated and raised a family knows how much work goes into selection, affection, compromise, housework, power struggles, and surviving the terrible twos and the even more terrible teen years. If the family – however it’s understood – is the basic building block of a healthy society, this is essential work, often neglected in service to jobs with tragic results.

Anyone who has cared for a relative through months or even years of decline knows it’s big work.

Anyone who has served on a non-profit (or uncompensated for-profit) board knows how much work goes into mission development, outreach, messaging, fundraising and conflict resolution.

Anyone who has invented something or started an enterprise knows that their work may end up in failure and even debt – but they do it anyway.

Anyone who has worked passionately on an issue or political campaign knows that civics is work.

This is the work of the world. It is rarely paid.

A job is what you do for money. Sometimes your work is your job (and congratulations) but income doesn’t make your work suddenly worth more.

Income is the money you need to buy what you truly want for a life you love. It can come from a job, or rental properties or social security/pension or a sprint through a decade or so of earning and saving as much as possible and then living from the returns on your investments. It can also come from windfalls – inheritance, lottery, a government program (like the Alaska Permanent Fund).

When you depend on a job for an income and for all the benefits of work – and your job disappears to layoffs, outsourcing, AI and robotics – both your financial life and your sense of purpose can collapse, taking everyone you love down with you.

Our society has dedicated nearly two centuries to employing people in jobs – with unions working for better pay and conditions. We measure our economy by job creation and industrial productivity, even though many jobs don’t page a living wage. And what of the increasingly jobless future predicted by tech giants and activists alike?

Individuals can and should shield themselves from this shifting job landscape through conscious spending, systematic savings and investing for future income. We should also widen our sense of identity from job to all our volunteering and caring and creativity to preserve our joy even if our job disappears.

Society should also prepare for diminishing jobs. Bill Gates believes we should tax robots and share the wealth. Elon Musk, Chris Hughes (cofounder of Facebook), and Andy Stern (former head of the SEIU) among many others – left and right – believe some form of “universal basic income” is critical.

Understanding that work, income and job are different from one another prepares us to live in this rapidly changing world – with that sense of meaning and agency my life has given me.






  1. “I did this because early in life I realized I did not want to sell my most precious resources – my mind and time – to someone else to fulfill their dreams. “. Such words of wisdom, I wish so much more of society really understood how the world would be in such a better place if we paid more attention to our our own dreams and dedicated true effort in making and helping each other make them come true.

  2. This essay hardly seems radical to me. I’m sorry it didn’t get published more widely, but I hope lots of people read it here. Distinguishing between jobs and work is one of the biggest contributions “Your Money or Your Life” makes to our contemporary society. It helped me feel better about being a stay-at-home mom when that was my primary work.

    S in Michigan
  3. Thank you for this article, Vicki. I always look forward to updates from your blog! This was one of my favorite concepts from YMOYL. I appreciate you revisiting it here, and sharing your new essay. I first read YMOYL in my early 20s, and it is still my favorite book. Now in my 30s, life experience has helped me understand the differences between work, income, and job much more deeply than I could understand then — and your essay reminds me how profoundly different they are.

  4. This is very inspiring. I am employing a lot of the methods you list. I still have a “job” but it is my life’s work and I definitely am aware how lucky I am and I am very grateful.

    Dody Dorn
  5. Great article! It makes me think about my own relationship with work. For a long time, I have thought of work as one of the most important things for people to have, but I also attached that with having a job. I like how you differentiate between the two.
    Do you think it is important to determine what work you want to do before leaving your job? There are many things I want to do with my time but I think the work I truly want to do most will be more expensive than my current living expenses. I also enjoy my job most of the time so I am struggling with the decision of retiring and doing some of the cheaper work I want to do, or continue working so I can do the work I most want to do. Any suggestions on how I could think about this?

  6. Thanks for the inspiring article Ms. Robin.
    I am a middle-class person from India. I happened to read your book YMOYL about 9 years ago and it was an epiphny. Started tracking my income and expenses and investing the surplus and lo, just as the book said, am now at the cusp of FI – have investments worth moret than 25 times annual expenses.
    Your book lit a fire in me and prodded me to become conscious about money. Proof that the principles work even in developing countries.
    You are a shining beacon contributing to a better worls.
    Thanks again.

  7. Hi Vicki,
    Sending you good vibes from across the Pacific Ocean here in tropical Cairns Australia.
    Thank you for inducing my “mid-life crisis” and waking me up to what’s important to me. Even better you have enlightened me (the answer was always there) help others too.
    Now the biggest rush and aspiration for both ourselves and clients is to “find their enough” and walk each moment confidently in the knowledge that they have achieved “their enough” and/or are living in alignment with their core values there by allowing them to make smarter choices about their money every day.

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