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TESS VIGELAND: Robert Frank noted that politics has distorted the debate over what makes you rich. But perceptions play a big role, too.
You’ll remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about the rich being different from you and me, and that applies to how they perceive their own wealth.
Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman has our story.
THAYER CHEATHAM WILLIS: Hi, sorry this dog is very friendly. Do you mind? Terrible manners. We’ve given up trying to teach him dog manners.
MITCHELL HARTMAN: Thayer Cheatham Willis, unlike her dog, has impeccable manners to match her impeccably decorated Tudor home in the exclusive Portland suburb of Lake Oswego. She’s an heir to the Georgia-Pacific lumber fortune, and a “counselor to the rich” — psychological, not financial. She wrote a book, “Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth,” which she admits is a bit precious.
WILLIS: Well, like, give me that problem. I mean, that’s a problem?
But in fact, she’s seen a lot of depression, isolation and failure come along with a big inheritance.
WILLIS: I saw so many of my peers struggle, and so many tragic endings.
Willis says those who inherit often live with deep doubt and insecurity about their so-called friends.
WILLIS: How do I know if people like me for me?
And not for the money?
WILLIS: Is it always you who pays for coffee when you go out for coffee, or do they pay half the time? You pay attention to those little things.
Sometimes, though, friends don’t know you have ‘old money.’ It’s kept under wraps so inheritors don’t even know how rich they are.
MIKE LAPHAM: Basically when I got to age 16 they said, ‘By the way, that mill where your grandfather works, is owned by our family and has been for generations.’
Mike Lapham grew up what he thought was solidly middle-class in Rochester, N.Y.
LAPHAM: It came as a surprise that I was going to get dividends, and somewhere along the line they said, “You might have enough money that you wouldn’t have to work.” It was an adjustment, let’s say, to go from thinking you’re just like everyone else.
Lapham now works for a group, Responsible Wealth, that enlists rich people to support progressive causes. But he learned from his parents to keep quiet about his money.
LAPHAM: Some dos and some don’t messages. Don’t tell anyone, because they’ll treat you differently. Don’t show that you have wealth. Certainly don’t spend it.
This is common in families anxious not to squander what’s left of their fortune, says Thayer Willis.
WILLIS: Inheritors have less conspicuous consumption and that sometimes is from not having the confidence that they could recreate that fortune. Whereas successful entrepreneurs often have the confidence, “Well I did it once I can do it again.”
Kristin Hull learned that lesson from her father. Blair Hull built a phenomenally successful trading firm that sold to Goldman Sachs for $500 million. But when Kristin Hull was a kid, they lived on food stamps.
KRISTIN HULL: He also managed apartments so that we could live there for free.
Now, Hull works as an educator and for the family foundation. The family investments help support her lifestyle in the Oakland Hills, but…
HULL: I grew up without it so I know I don’t need it. I’m confident in my ability to earn my own living.
Still, she’s wary of letting people know how wealthy her family is.
HULL: You know, it really matters and it can be really scary to be in new relationships and new friendships, and wonder what people are thinking.
Donna Hill-Wiley of Houston isn’t worried about what other people will think of her wealth. She barely knows what to make of it herself.
DONNA HILL-WILEY: I never honestly thought that we would inherit much of anything, perhaps a house. I never ever expected anything like this.
‘This’ is more than $1 million from the estate of her parents, African-American professionals who’d invested prudently. She had high hopes.
HILL-WILEY: That I would be able to follow a couple of dreams I’d always had — to go to art school, maybe to start a business, purchase — my husband and I — some investment property.
But the economy had other ideas. Soon she and her husband, a draftsman, were both unemployed. And Hill-Wiley has diabetes. Now, they’re living off their inheritance, which doesn’t sit well.
HILL-WILEY: We in America love the idea of earning your money. When someone leaves it to you, somehow it just doesn’t have the same glamor. You feel guilty, for one thing, because someone died for you to be in the position you’re in.
But spending it does have a certain thrill. Like the time they got turned down for a car loan, because of being unemployed, even with $1 million in assets.
HILL-WILEY: I pulled out a checkbook, and I wrote a check for a car. That’s something I’ve dreamed about doing pretty much my whole life. Would I describe myself as wealthy, heiress — I would not. Bag lady fears, yeah, I have those fears just like everyone else. $1 million is not what it used to be. We lost two incomes, we pay terrible health care premiums. What I think wealth has done for us is shield us from a lot of that. To me, that is wealth.
I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.