Why You Don’t Really Want to Be Rich (At Least, Not Yet)

“I want to be a millionaire. I think everyone in the world should be a millionaire!”

This from a friend who is otherwise quite sensisble.

I’ve done my homework, though, and I DO NOT want to be a millionaire, at least not without a long, slow climb to that position. Because those who get rich quick are seldom able to keep it. Just Google “Fate of Lottery Winners” (or click on the link–I’ve done it for you). A supposedly neutral title, yet the first few dozen links talk mostly about “curses” and losing it all. Maybe even losing your life, or the life of someone you love! What the hey???

And it’s not just lottery winners who suffer from “sudden wealth syndrome.” The more biographies I read of self-made millionaires, the more familiar I am with the story: I made a fortune. I lost a fortune. I made another fortune. I lost another fortune.

It’s like a roller coaster, with some folks going up and down and through the loops many times before they finally reach level ground.

There are lots of reasons why sudden wealth is often more curse than blessing:

1) We tend to make friends who are approximately as wealthy as we are, and our family memebers are often in our same socio-economic group. My friends and family are slightly more diverse than most, but my richest friend would still be described as middle class. A lottery win or a spectacularly successful business or a multi-million dollar sports contract or movie deal suddenly throws you out of your world, and into a completely different one.

Your friends and your family turn into leeches. They think, and not unreasonably, that you’ll want to share your sudden riches. Be honest–if your best pal or your sister or brother won the lottery, you’d expect a cut, wouldn’t you? But it doesn’t stop with your best pal–you’ll find that you’ve got family you never knew existed until then, and “friends” will start crawling out of the woodwork. Not to mention “charities,” many of which are bogus.

You’ll either go broke because you gave all your money away, or you’ll feel like a cad. Lottery winners have been kidnapped and even murdered. One unlucky man gave money to his granddaughter, who promptly OD’d.

2) If you survive the gamut of folks who want a cut of your earnings, there’s still the problem of YOU. You want a home, a fancy car, an around-the-world trip that never ends. It goes faster than you think, because you forget about maintenance (Who’s going to clean a five thousand square foot house by themselves? Who’s going to do the gardening on five or more pristine acres? Not I, which is why I only want a two or three bedroom bungalow…) and taxes. How many movie stars and sports greats have had their humungous mansions repossessed by the tax man? More than a few, that’s for sure.

3) Finally, there’s the loss of meaning to life that comes with having everything you want and never having to work again. Human beings are hard wired with the desire to contribute. Unless something is seriously wrong with a person (and I’m talking about someone who is so sociopathic that they can’t function in normal society), the lack of ability to contribute causes a severe hit to self-esteem. Even my severely disabled son prefers going to work to watching television all day.

That’s why so many retirees turn right back around and find another job, either paid or volunteer. Not because they’re desperate for the money, but because they need something useful to do with their time. Other less well-prepared retirees (and this includes those who have won sudden wealth, or made a fortune in real estate) end up as alcoholics or drug addicts, or as victims of severe depression. Some even kill themselves.

Proper use of wealth is something that needs to be learned over time, time that those who receive sudden windfalls don’t get. Developing relationships takes time–as you garner wealth slowly, not only will you develop friendships amongst your new peers, you’ll also be able to condition your family to the reality that if they want to be rich, they’ll have to earn it themselves. And it’s a lot easier to do this if you’ve earned your money over time and with visible hard work than if you’ve suddenly inherited a fortune.

Most of all, you’ll slowly develop the habits and self-discipline needed to maintain your wealth. You’ll learn to make and stick to a budget. You’ll learn to invest and care for your wealth. You’ll learn which charities will give you the most inner satisfaction for your donation dollars. You’ll learn that experiences and doing things give you more satisfaction than buying more stuff. You’ll learn to care for the stuff you do choose to buy.

And once you learn all of those skills, you’ll eventually realize that it doesn’t really matter if you have a million dollars in the bank, or half a million dollars, or for that matter, half a dollar. Because being truly wealthy isn’t about the size of your bank balance. It’s about having an income that exceeds your expenses, and the resources to carry on when life knocks you flat for a time. It’s about not having to deal with the shame of owing money you can’t repay.

It’s about having a body that is warm, well-fed, well-clothed and able to perform basic functions, like hugging and walking and swimming and laughing and crying and loving. It’s about feeling safe and secure and loved in your own home and out of it. It’s about being able to provide the necessities of life, and maybe a little extra, for your spouse, your children, and your aging parents.

Being wealthy, as opposed to being rich, isn’t about having lots and lots of money.

It’s about having enough.


About Ruth Cooke

Ruth Cooke B.A, M.Div., MPS is a writer, public speaker, and itinerant preacher whose areas of expertise and interest include poverty issues and solutions, parenting exceptional children, sexual orientation, and the place of religious institutions in society. If you would like Ruth to come preach, speak or lead a class or group, please contact her via email.
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