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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