Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance

[February 2019 update:  My friend retired a few months ago.  There’s way less stress and they’re much happier.  They’re working on their health with a new energy, yet their advice is the same.]


I answer a lot of reader questions here, and I also get good advice. Today’s guidance comes from a friend I’ve known for decades.

“Unlike you I decided to make my government pension my primary means of retirement, with O-6 and 30 years as my goal. Ironically I ended up making flag officer but what I didn’t count on is the impact that stress and a sedentary life would yield. Now I have emerging health problems that may be unresolvable. (Hypertension is one of my new chronic diseases.) This sort of dampens the retirement plan. I’m thinking my major focus will be on health and an exit plan– maybe in two years if I can swing it.

“By the way I tell your story to my children. At the end of the day life is about, well, enjoying life. Sitting behind a computer at the beck and call of the bosses is not my idea of the stress-free life I was hoping to achieve.

“Please let your readers know that rank does not equal quality of life. Quality of life is the absence of insane stressors and enjoying life while you have health to do so. While I’m fairly certain I could retire and be a professor or an administrator, I think retiring and teaching kayak lessons is more my speed.”


Financial Independence Gives You Choices.

When you reach financial independence, you can choose the life you want to live. You could simply stop working for a paycheck and surf all day, of course. You could spend more time with family, develop your entrepreneurial side-hustle projects, or travel the world a few months at a time. You can also seek out fulfilling work. You can stay on active duty, or transfer to the Reserves/National Guard, or you can retire from the military to start a bridge career.

Photo of man working hard and pausing to wipe off sweat |

“Hang in there”?

Personally, I learned that you should not grimly clench your jaw and hang on for the pension. It may seem like the simplest answer, especially when you haven’t made the time to learn about the alternatives.

Staying on active duty may seem like the only way to take care of yourself and your family, especially if your frequent transfers mean that you have the household’s only paycheck. If you’re handicapped by ignorance and fear then the status quo (with stubborn perseverance) may seem to be the only option.

My friend’s situation can happen all too easily. When I was nearing the end of my active duty, during a routine physical exam the corpsman suggested that I might want to take a look at my blood pressure. A dentist noted that I’d been grinding my teeth enough to show signs of excessive wear. At physical fitness tests, I was above the height/weight tables (my thick Navy neck helped me stay within the bodyfat limits). I had minor headaches and occasional allergy flare-ups. I had a history of respiratory infections that often deteriorated into ear infections, bronchitis, and occasionally pneumonia.

When these warning signs came up I wasn’t on sea duty or at a high-pressure staff job– I was teaching at a submarine training command. I had two great COs and two outstanding XOs. I worked with over 40 of the best instructors I’ve ever seen (many of whom I still keep in touch with 15 years later). I was enjoying the aloha spirit in Hawaii.

I had everything that Malcolm Gladwell says we should have in our careers: fulfillment, complexity, and autonomy. Compared to my other submarine duty stations, my work stress was so far down the bell curve that I could hardly believe I was still earning submarine pay.

It might have been lower stress than I was accustomed to, but it was still too much.

I was not living a sedentary lifestyle, either. I was bicycling a 24-mile commute more often than I was driving it. (Yes, I kept track of the mileage!) I was running on the days that I didn’t cycle, and I was working out on the weights almost every day. My daughter and I were training in martial arts.

I never figured out why my health was getting worse. I just gritted my teeth, tightened my grip, sucked it up, <insert military metaphor here>, and persevered as only servicemembers can.

Ironically while I was teaching submariners how to operate nuclear reactors within their safety limits, I was pushing my personal physical limits. A few months before I retired, a doctor threatened to put me on blood-pressure medication.

In hindsight, the really interesting changes came when I began terminal leave. For the first couple of months, if I took a “nap” then I’d sleep for 2-3 hours. My jaws stopped being sore and my headaches gradually disappeared. The allergy attacks and ear infections stopped.

During the first year of retirement, I dropped 10 pounds. More importantly, I exchanged another 10 pounds of fat for muscle. I lost several inches on my waist and added four inches of surfing muscles to my chest & shoulders. My old pants, shirts, and suitcoats didn’t fit anymore so I donated them to Goodwill.

My blood pressure dropped 30 points after retirement, and it’s still dropping. Today, even with white coat syndrome my BP is a little below normal.

When you’re in your 20s and 30s (especially when you’re in the military) then you learn to tolerate high levels of stress– both acute and chronic. However, as your body ages, you gradually lose the excess physical capacity that gave you a margin of safety between “stress” and “physical damage”. In your 40s you might be more accustomed to chronic stress than you were in your 20s, but your body struggles to keep up with the repairs. In my 50s, I’m keenly aware that I start each day with a certain energy level from my sleep, exercise, and diet. My recovery takes nearly twice as long as it used to. If I push too hard and use up too much of my daily energy– whether it’s surfing or working on other issues– then my body can’t recover overnight anymore. I’m still searching for the magic talismans that will help me raise my energy and level up my game, but the margins are getting thinner.


How Can You Avoid Stress Health Problems?

First, save and invest for financial independence. It’s not just for years from now. It’s going to give you peace of mind today. When your career derails or there’s a family crisis, you won’t be crippled by student loans and consumer debt. You’ll handle the problems better because you have an emergency fund and your net worth is high enough to survive the transition.

Next, stay in shape. (If you don’t then I’m sure the chain of command will be happy to help.) The habits and discipline that you learn in the military will not only improve your financial and physical condition, but they’ll help you maintain it for the rest of your life. This is simple but not easy, and you have to make the time for it. That time investment pays off in your 40s and 50s when you notice that some of your classmates are dealing with lifestyle diseases.

Finally, be aware of your work-life balance. Understand that it may change when you get married (or divorced), start a family, have a health crisis, or help support aging elders. The graph is never a flat line but rather a series of curves.


What About the Work Part of Work-Life Balance?

Stay on active duty as long as you’re having fun. (Check with Malcolm Gladwell on your fulfillment, complexity, and autonomy.)  When the fun stops, it’s time for you to think about leaving active duty. For most servicemembers that could be drilling with the Reserves or National Guard until you qualify for a military pension. For some, it might mean going completely civilian (or in the IRR for a year or two) and continuing to save your own retirement assets.

This means you’ll have to learn about the Reserve/Guard, and you’ll have to keep track of how your military skills will translate to a civilian career. Hundreds of readers have told me about their transitions, and I know that employers want your military skills. When you’re saving and investing for financial independence, you’ll be a lot less worried about moving to the Reserve/Guard and civilian careers.

How will you know when the fun stops? I’m pretty sure that you’ll recognize it when you see it, even if you’re as stubborn as I was. Your body (and your physical, mental, and psychological health) will let you know how it feels about the situation. Don’t just clench your jaws and keep going. Pay attention to the symptoms and be ready to make changes.

My friend and I will be happy that you’re taking care of yourself.


Related articles:
When Should You Stop Working?
During Retirement: Healthy Lifestyle
Hanging On For The Military Pension
One More Year Syndrome
Book Review: Energize Your Retirement
Stay For 30 Or Retire At 27?

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Career. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance

  1. Peter Gregory says:

    A think going forward the US military will be a far different one I served while active duty Navy (1985-2007).

    -Up or out/DOPMA driven officer career patters will be a thing of the past.

    -People, boots, sailors, trigger-pullers will be far, far less on the payroll than the Reagan era 3.5 million force I joined.

    -20 years and out, or nothing, will become more flexible as service people will have exit ramps, on and off active service. A “reserve/Guard” career will resemble more of the active, and visa-versa.

    -Service folks will have to manage their money far, far more closely than most career folks of my era. I retired from Uniform service at 52, but took on a bridge-career job to see me to 62. I could have stayed until 28 years of service, but the whole family life work-balance took on a whole new meaning with the arrival of grandkids. My own kids suffered enough in my career, I was not going to allow that all again, for the second generation. No matter how much retirement money I left on the table. I have witnessed many a funeral, never have I seen a Brinks truck follow the hearse.

  2. Deserat says:

    Another great post – yes, one’s physiological limitations really start coming home to roost in your 40’s and 50’s. The energy levels you had when you were younger can decline or it takes a lot longer to recover after a huge exertion. Even when working out, you notice it takes longer to bounce back. Balance becomes key and learning it early on will help one grow older more gracefully .

    I’ve also found that doing research on how to get where you want to go in life is important. Taking the longer way may allow you to finish what you may not have been able to finish at a faster pace by allowing you to have that balanced energy approach over the long haul. The Reserves is that way – you spread out your effort over a longer amount of time and yet the readiness requirements keep the discipline in your life for fitness, health and educational pursuits over a longer amount of time.

  3. Eric says:

    Nord, what about if you signed up for an active duty service commitment (ADSC)? And now you would rather get out or finish earlier than you committed to. I’m not not sure you can get out of those without any penalties. Any thoughts from yourself or others in your blog?

    • Doug Nordman says:

      That’s never an easy answer, Eric. It’s possible that your service could offer an early-discharge program, but those are scarce now that the drawdown has ended. If you took a bonus payment for that commitment then you’d almost certainly be expected to pay it back.

      Severe medical or physical issues would be assessed through the medical evaluation board process, and you’d talk with a medic or doctor about that.

      If you’d rather dig into the details outside of the blog comments, then I’m at NordsNords at Gmail.

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