September 20, 2013
You just never know whom good fortune is going to shine on. I just saw that there was only a single winning ticket for the $400 million dollar Powerball lottery. Somewhere in South Carolina, someone didn’t show up for work yesterday. For the rest of us this means that while our dreams of sudden wealth continue to tantalize us, we’re going to have to keep having them in our cars on the way to and from the office. Fitzgerald asserted that the rich are “…different from you and me”, and I think we’d all like to personally experience this difference in our own lives, but is life all that easy for the recipient of sudden wealth?
At first glance, I think most of us would find it difficult to empathize with the problems of the nouveau riche. However, I think the anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore. Haven’t we all heard of, or read about, folks whose instant wealth ultimately led to financial ruin? And since not all of these people are guests on the Jerry Springer show, I think we have to grudgingly acknowledge that living with the sudden acquisition of wealth is not as easy as it might seem.
I think the first thing that people like our, as of yet, anonymous South Carolinians are going to have to deal with is that everyone is going to view them in a different light. Certainly, there will be the distant relative that doesn’t want to be distant anymore, and that girl from school who now thinks that her kid suddenly bears a striking resemblance to you, but I think there is a potentially broader issue. Since $400 million (probably closer to $200 after taxes) definitely qualifies you as part of the “1%”, will people you’ve known all your life suddenly start hating you? Will throngs of unwashed college students with degrees in modern dance and anthropology now decide to occupy your front yard? For the more thin-skinned Powerball winner, being called a “Capitalist Fascist Pig” can cause some hurt feelings.
I think the gift of sudden wealth probably forces winners to look at their lives from a more existential perspective. I’m sure the questions just keep on coming. Should I send my kids to a better school? What does living in my same house say about me? Should I ask my fiancé to sign a pre-nup? These are issues the average wage slave just isn’t faced with. Even the most modest among us are almost certain to succumb to the allure of the new options that an expanded bank account can offer. You may tell folks that your money doesn’t define you, but your new Bentley certainly does.
Even relations within your own family probably change. For example, when everyone knows that you’ve won $400 million, does a Barnes and Noble gift certificate really cut it as a birthday present anymore? Let’s face it, even in the most dysfunctional of families, where the Thanksgiving dinner table features all the good will of a demilitarized zone, you are suddenly the “go-to” guy. As the family’s new source of financial salvation, does your standing really have any place to go but down? If you agree to invest $10,000 in your niece’s in orthodontia, can you really say no to underwriting cousin Billy’s seventh trip to rehab? Of course not, and from such humble beginnings does your personal financial death spiral begin.
Maybe instead of envying people like that Powerball winner, we should look on them with pity. Unlike the person who has earned their money gradually, or even was born into it, the newly wealthy have not had the opportunity to acclimate to their status. For the lottery winner dealing with their newfound status, it is always going to be an exercise in on the job training. So let this be a cautionary note to all you multi-millionaire wannabes out there. I can assure you that these thoughts will weigh heavy on my mind as I hand my weekly numbers to the sales clerk at my local convenience store this afternoon.