The guilt of wealth

During my recent trip to Florida for Camp Mustache Southeast, I had an interesting conversation with some of the attendees about the guilt of wealth. About half of the folks at the weekend retreat had already achieved financial independence — they have enough money to support their current lifestyle indefinitely — while the other half were well on their way to that goal. But achieving wealth can have some surprising side effects. Guilt is one of them.

For instance, one woman received an inheritance when her mother died. This woman is young. And she’s smart. She knows she didn’t do anything to actually earn that money, so it weighs heavily on her. Being a good Mustachian (or money boss, if you prefer), she’s not wasting the inheritance. She’s slowly turning that money into more money through careful investing. But that doesn’t stop her from sometimes feeling unworthy.

This guilt doesn’t just affect those who experience windfalls. Even folks who work long and hard to build their nest eggs can suffer from the feeling they don’t deserve the money they have. This is especially true for people who travel. When you explore the world and realize how many advantages you have — not just financially, but in all things — the sadness and sorrow can cut deep.

Deserve's got nothing to do with it

The Guilt of Wealth

“You know, you once wrote about the guilt of wealth at Get Rich Slowly,” noted another Camp Mustache attendee.

“Did I?” I said. “I don’t remember. But it doesn’t surprise me. It’s something I think about all of the time.”

In that seven-year-old Get Rich Slowly article, I shared two examples of folks who built wealth without windfalls.

  • One of my friends was raised way below poverty level, for instance, but he’s worked hard to obtain an education, build a career, and he now owns a couple of businesses. It was never his aim, but he has become wealthy. He’s proud of his accomplishments — justifiably so — but he also feels guilty. He’s embarrassed by some of the stuff he has, and he worries that his kids will grow up to take for granted those things he views as blessings.
  • Or there’s my former neighbor, my real millionaire next door. He’s a retired junior-high shop teacher who lived frugally and invested wisely. He built an enormous nest egg. When my neighbor retired, one of the first things he did was buy a boat — something he’d always wanted. At first, however, he was embarrassed by the size of the boat; it was so much bigger than most of the others he saw. “I was worried what other people thought of me,” he said.

Both my friend and my neighbor are generous. They contribute time and money to their friends, family, and community. They’ve built wealth through hard work, and can afford the indulgences they allow themselves. Yet they both feel some degree of guilt over the things they have — as if they don’t deserve them.

Suffering and Sorrow

Last week, I met a Money Boss reader for lunch. Ian and I met at a local “food cart pod” — what Portlanders call a collection of food trucks — on a rainy Thursday afternoon to sip beer and nibble vegetarian sushi. (I often meet Money Boss readers for lunch. If you come to Portland and want to chat, feel free to drop me a line!)

Ian has an interesting story. After serving in the military, he developed muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that confines many people to a wheelchair. Not Ian. He does struggle to get around sometimes, but through hard work and the help of alternative medicine, he’s still relatively mobile.

Meanwhile, he’s saved enough to own his home free and clear, and he’s doing his best to keep his costs as low as possible. That’s good, because he doesn’t make a ton of money. He nets $3000 per month in disability payments.

“In theory, I’m financially independent,” Ian told me. “I spend less than I receive in disability income. But sometimes I feel guilty about it. I mean, it’s not like I earned that money through work, right?”

“True,” I said. “But it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty.”

“I know,” Ian said. “I know. I didn’t do anything wrong to get this disease. It’s not a result of bad habits or poor choices. It’s just a random thing that happened. It’s simply a fact, not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a fact”

“Right,” I said. “And so are the disability payments. I don’t think you should feel guilty about getting them. There’s a system in place that says somebody in your situation should receive that money. That’s simply another fact. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a fact. And there are lots of other people who would squander that amount. They wouldn’t use it productively.”

Gratitude — Not Guilt

“Do you ever feel guilty about how you got your money?” Ian asked me. “It was pretty sudden, right?”

“Yes, it was,” I said. “For years, I struggled to make ends meet, even though I was earning an average salary. Eventually, I started making better choices. I turned things around. I built a debt snowball to pay what I owed, then turned that into a wealth snowball to save for retirement. I was very fortunate that my website grew rapidly and I was able to sell it for a lot of money. But even if I hadn’t sold it, I would have reached financial independence within a couple of years.”

“So, you don’t feel guilty about having this money?”

“No. I used to, but not anymore. Why should I? What would the guilt accomplish?” I thought for a moment. “I guess what I feel is gratitude. I’m grateful to have achieved this level of wealth. I’m grateful to have learned what I’ve learned. And that’s a large reason I do what I can to pay it forward. I meet with people all the time. I answer emails. I attend meetups and conferences and don’t charge speaking fees. These are my ways of sharing the love.”

“That makes sense,” Ian said.

“The thing is,” I said, “is that people usually struggle with windfalls. They squander them. A windfall — or any other kind of surprise source of money — is a fantastic thing. But it reminds me of that Spider-Man quote: With great power comes great responsibility. Having a lot of money is like having great power. But it’s up to you to manage it wisely.”

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The Bottom Line

Here’s the bottom line: Feeling guilty about your wealth does zero good for anyone.

I’m not saying you should be an asshole. I’m not saying you should flaunt whatever wealth you might have. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t do what you can to help those who are less fortunate.

I’m simply saying you shouldn’t feel bad about the money you do have. (Unless you got it through nefarious means, of course. Then you should feel bad!) I’m simply saying that you should be grateful the products for your hard work and good fortune. And you should do what you can to help others do what you’ve done.

During last Thursday’s conversation with Ian, he and I came to what I consider a useful conclusion. Our goal — whether we have money or not — is to be good people. Our relative wealth doesn’t make us any better than anybody else. It’s simply a fact. If we do what we can to be good people (whatever that means to each of us individually), then there’s no reason to feel guilty about the money we have.

Do any of you ever feel the guilt of wealth? Why or why not? And how you handle it? Do you give more to charity? Volunteer more of your time? Share what you know with others?

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There are 21 comments to "The guilt of wealth".

  1. Matt @ Optimize Your Life says 14 March 2017 at 07:32

    This is a good reminder. Rather than “You shouldn’t feel guilty because you worked hard for it” or “You shouldn’t feel guilty because you deserve it” just “You shouldn’t feel guilty because it doesn’t help.” The first two can be argued and downplayed. The third can’t.

    I’ve definitely dealt with the guilt before. I sort of stumbled into a well-paying job with a good work/life balance based on ending up in a career that matched up with my natural skills. I worked hard, sure, but I feel like there are plenty of people that have worked harder than me and started from more difficult situations that haven’t achieved my level of success.

    You’re right, though. Feeling guilty doesn’t help. Just gotta continue using your time and your money to help others and pay it forward.

  2. Dorothy says 14 March 2017 at 07:36

    This is an interesting and human dilemma. It’s the opposite of people who feel unhappy or resentful at others’ good fortune or conspicuous consumption.

    If we feel guilt it’s time to stop and think: have we done something wrong? (In the situations you discuss, No.) Should we now do something different? (Perhaps we can give more of our time and attention to others in a myriad of ways — donations, volunteering, writing blog posts that may help educate others, etc.)

    But if we’ve got our ducks in a row, we need to re-focus our minds from guilt to something more positive. We’ve become so accustomed to debt and the worry that goes with it. Most people cannot grasp the notion of owning one’s home free and clear, or not making a car payment. There’s nothing wrong with the peace of mind that comes from good choices. Even the woman who inherited money chose to invest it rather than spend it all on champagne and caviar.

  3. J @Modern Philanthropy says 14 March 2017 at 08:40

    Yes! Sometimes I do feel guilty. No windfall here for me, just years of hard work. I’m so glad you are writing here again. I followed you for years on Get Rich Slowly. It was one of the first Financial Independence blogs I read. Now that I’m financially independent, I’m trying to use my money to help others. That lessens the guilt feelings.

  4. Doug Nordman says 14 March 2017 at 09:11

    Aloha, J.D., I enjoyed reading your very thoughtful analysis! Although I think that Stan Lee has Peter Parker riffing off Socrates or Plato about power & responsibility.

    My spouse and I don’t feel guilt about our wealth– we worked our assets off for it– but we occasionally feel Imposter Syndrome. (We manage to get over it.) What I feel very personally, though, is the burden of stewardship. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to do something better than just piling this up higher and deeper, but we haven’t figured out all the answers for that part yet.

  5. Aime Lopez says 14 March 2017 at 10:28

    Some years ago I used to feel guilty for all the good things I have, I have a nice house, nice car, nice food in the fridge, all because I compare my situation with my parents and my siblings, they don’t have the same financial situation I have, they are practically broke… and I do help them but… still I felt guilty… but my subconscious always tells me (yells, actually) what have they done to do what you have done?, nothing!, I finished College, I finished my MBA, I have worked my a** since I was 18 to get where I am now, so.. there is a BIG Fact… maybe they didn’t have the same opportunities, but I was living in the same house like them, and I Looked and Fought for those opportunities… the difference, is the decisions we make to get what we want to achieve… so now I’m just grateful and try my best to invest for my future… and don’t bother what others think or say…

  6. JC Webber III says 14 March 2017 at 11:09

    Now you’ve done it. You’ve made me feel guilty about NOT feeling guilty. 8^}
    I reached FI 10 years ago and am damn proud of it! BUT, I have to admit, I’m kind of stingy when comes to helping others. I have occasionally given to the Red Cross during some sort of natural disaster or another, anonymously paid for a disabled Vet’s meal, but rarely and not so much that it hurts (me). Does that make me a bad person?

    • Katherine says 17 March 2017 at 10:07

      I don’t think it makes you a bad person for wanting to keep what you have worked hard to obtain but now that we have you thinking maybe you could consider… Rather than giving to the Red Cross please find local to you places you could help out. My brother has also felt the same way but has found ways to help the local volunteer fire department when they need heavy equipment or resources. I myself do not care for most large organized charities because I feel most of it cost to the administration. I would rather help locally and know that my contribution is used for the people. Many times I give of my time and get more out of it than I can tell you.

  7. Fulltimefinance says 14 March 2017 at 13:00

    I haven’t found too much guilt on my side, does that make me a bad person?

    In reality your right it does no one any good. Also the presence of wealth with you doesn’t preclude wealth elsewhere. Finance is not a zero sum game.

  8. Liz@ChiefMomOfficer says 14 March 2017 at 14:47

    Sometimes I do feel guilty, like I should be focusing on giving back more vs. reaching my own financial goals. But I’ve decided that it’s like putting on your own oxygen mask first on a plane. If I get get my financial house in order, and make sure my kids are set for what they need for college, then I can have more to give over time.

  9. Shara G. says 14 March 2017 at 15:34

    I have always found guilt to be a very self centered emotion, usually centered around making YOUR real pain about MY self inflicted pain (usually when your pain is due to something I did) or about making myself feel pain rather than taking action. Like somehow the self inflicted pain serves as penance and everything is even again.

    When you share “I feel guilty” it is almost a call for sympathy or attention [I know that’s not what you’re doing here JD, this post is more philosophical] when in fact any real guilt should be internal and a call to action to fix whatever it is (if it’s earned) or let go (if it’s not).

    Guilt is much like worry. It is wasted energy. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t feel it when appropriate, but that it is only good as far as it changes behavior. I personally feel guilty when I waste money instead of respecting it. I feel no guilt for the money I have, for the money I can spend, or what it can buy me. Me being better off doesn’t make anyone worse off, and in fact when I invest in a company to make more money, I ALSO make an opportunity for that entrepreneur, and anyone s/he employs. I can’t donate anything I don’t have. And so many people have had the same opportunities as I have and not made anything of them. So no guilt here.

  10. dh says 14 March 2017 at 18:54

    I never felt any guilt. The only thing I ever felt is: “That’s it? That’s what all the hype was about?” Because I don’t really feel any happier or more fulfilled or whatever now that I own two businesses and am totally debt free and can buy whatever I want or go wherever I want. If anything, I just have more stress now from the extra work of buying a second business two years ago. What makes me happy is watching old movies on TCM and goofing around on the internet, in other words, the same stuff I was doing when I didn’t have all that much. I guess it’s like a Citizen Kane kind of thing …”Rosebud.”

  11. savvy says 15 March 2017 at 06:52

    I don’t feel guilty but I do sometimes feel uncomfortable about the conspicuousness of our (relative) wealth. While I certainly don’t flaunt what we have, people tend to notice that we travel a lot, have costly hobbies, etc.

  12. LW says 15 March 2017 at 08:05

    Yes, I can relate to this. My husband and I both were raised in economically-blessed homes (although not “rich”). Our path, though, was to work in Christian ministry, so our incomes have never been elaborate. We struggled financially through most of our 20s, 30s and most of our 40s. But then things changed. Through a family death, I became a beneficiary of a family trust, which produces the equivalent of a decent middle-income salary each year. That, plus our work incomes, have resulted in a very nice income stream for us over the past 10 years. We were able to buy a very nice home at the top of the housing crisis in ’09; we have enjoyed some very nice (although mostly pretty frugal) vacations which has always been a dream of ours, we have given more generously and we have been saving quite a bit of money. But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I catch myself feeling guilty at times. I do believe some people are confused as to how we can enjoy some of the things we do while working the jobs we do. We do not choose to tell people about my extra income source because it is no one’s business. I have to remind myself sometimes to just be grateful for our financial blessings, and I do have to occasionally battle the “we deserve it” mentally. Our dream is to retire from paid ministry employment a few years earlier than we would have so we can devote more of our days to some local ministries we would like to be part of. And hopefully, still enjoy some more travelling.

  13. Steve from Arkansas says 15 March 2017 at 12:16

    I’ve never felt guilty, I was smart enough to get a degree that most people just don’t have the brain cells to obtain, chemical engineering, and talented enough to rise to the top of my company at an early age. All I’ve ever felt was lucky to have had great parents and good genetics and a wonderful spouse. It’s virtually impossible to miss becoming wealthy in this country if you get those three right. Of course you have zero say in the first two, so that’s the lucky part. We live so simply, used cars, modest house, outdoor low cost hobbies that nobody knows we are wealthy outside of our closest friends. One reason maybe for no guilt is we have given 10-15% of our pre tax income to help others from day one, when we had nothing, and still do. It helps keep money in perspective.

  14. Joe says 16 March 2017 at 09:22

    I have never felt guilty about being FI. I worked hard to achieve FI and I’m proud of it. Besides, it’s not like I’m rich or anything.
    All I feel is gratitude. I think you’ve got it right.

  15. Mr. Enchumbao says 16 March 2017 at 10:06

    It’s amazing how amassing wealth changes you. My old self (5-3 years ago) used to be more judgmental about others that weren’t working to be in a solid financial position or become FI like my wife and I did. However, as we got closer to FI, I became less of that and more compassionate. Not that I was an asshole but now I also think more about the circumstances surrounding individuals that are less fortunate than we are. I feel that I’ve grown in that area as our wealth grew.
    That’s the nice thing about become more experienced as your wealth grows. It takes away the worry of how we would handle wealth in our lives.
    We don’t feel the guilt as much because we help others as much as we can. Last year we gave away almost $11,000 of our spending budget in gifts, charities and help to our parents. That was about 21% of our total expenses. I don’t talk much about it and keep it very hi level when discussed on the expense reports but we feel great to be in this position to help others.
    The wake up call for me was when I found myself not being able to help my parents because I had a huge mortgage under my belt. I thought to myself: “If I don’t help them now that I’m grown up and already making a decent salary, when would I?” Life started to change after that moment. I got rid of the expensive lifestyle, set up a budget to help them and soon after, I was debt free, building wealth and expanding that gift category to other causes. Whenever the wealth guilt tries to hit, I think of all the good we’ve done with our money and remember that we earned it by working harder and smarter than yesterday.

  16. Ms. Must-Stash says 17 March 2017 at 09:20

    Great discussion! I don’t feel guilt because I have always been very ready to acknowledge the advantages that I started with, eager to express gratitude to my parents for what they gave me (good education etc), and I have always worked very, very hard to make money as an adult and be responsible with it.

    But, what I am struggling with right now is exactly the “great privilege = great responsibilty” piece of the equation. I want to give back more and I’m trying to figure out how much we “should” be contributing to charity and other causes we believe in. We are high earners but also save quite a bit, live in a smaller house (in a walkable neighborhood), have 1 car, etc. We have a lovely life, we just purposely design it to be on the frugal end of the spectrum.

    We have always given to charity but again I don’t think we give enough, and that is why I am trying to figure out the right way to quantify this. Maybe it really is as simple as the 10% tithe concept (although to charities etc. vs. strictly to a religious organization)? Any thoughts appreciated…

    • David says 11 April 2017 at 20:35

      I do think it is as simple as the 10% tithing (mine does go to religious organizations ). I think you find the organization/organizations you are in support of and carve 10% right off the top. You always have the option to do more but the 10% is a minimum.

  17. Tonya@Budget and the Beach says 20 March 2017 at 06:35

    I think you need to develop a way to try and not let what other people think of you, get to you. Easier said than done. I think there will always be people who form opinions about people with money whether they are deserved or not. It’s how you feel about yourself and you’re right in saying that it does stem from gratitude. However you attained the money, just appreciate it and be sensible about it.

  18. Dividend Growth Investor says 24 March 2017 at 15:13


    You have worked very hard to get to where you are today. There have been sacrifices for you and your family, including working and writing GRS, posting several times per day, doing research and sharing research with others. You have changed a lot of lives for the better, by spreading your message.

    You have delivered actual value to others, and as a result, you have accumulated some money. A lot of other people who are FI have taken the road less paved, and taken risks and sacrifices to get to the promised land. Neither of you should not have any money guilt.

  19. Sara Parsons says 02 July 2017 at 09:46

    Growing up poor have me so much drive and a feeling of responsibility to help others. I also feel so much joy in trying new things and traveling. How do I instill that drive in my kids? How do I ensure they aren’t bored as young adults because they’ve already tried sushi and traveled internationally as children? Any recommended books?

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