Lifestyles of the rich and foolish

It’s the first of April. You know what that means. Spring is here! Your friends and family are pulling April Fools’ Day pranks. And my tree allergies are kicking my butt. Every year, tree pollen makes my life miserable. This year is no different.

Facebook kindly reminded me this morning that three years ago, Kim and I were in Asheville, North Carolina. After wintering in Savannah, Georgia, we’d resumed our tour of the U.S. by RV.

While in Asheville, we toured the Biltmore Estate, the largest home in the U.S. This 250-room chateau contains 179,000 square feet of floor space — including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces — and originally sat on 195 square miles of land. (Today, the estate “only” contains 8000 acres.)

The Biltmore Estate

“This feels like Downton Abbey but in North Carolina,” I said as we walked the endless halls. Just as Downton Abbey documented the excesses of British upper class, so too the Biltmore sometimes feels like an example of how rich Americans indulged in decadence.

George Washington Vanderbilt II, the man who built Biltmore, was a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. His grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was born poor in 1794, but by the time he died in 1877 he had become one of the richest men in the world. During his lifetime, he built a fortune first from steamships and then as a prominent railroad tycoon.

By family standards, grandson George didn’t have a lot of money. He inherited about $7 million, and drew income from a $5 million trust fund. He decided to use the bulk of his fortune to build a huge house high in the Appalachians. Work on the Biltmore Estate began in 1889, when George was 26 years old. Six years and $5 million later, he moved into his palace. (That $5 million would be roughly $90 million in today’s dollars.)

Strolling the grounds of the Biltmore Estate got me thinking about the stories we hear of wealthy people who squander their riches. How and why do they do this? Are there lessons from their stories that you and I can put to use?

We hear all the time about the “lifestyles of the rich and famous”. Today, on April 1st, let’s look at some lifestyles of the rich and foolish.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Foolish

There are so many stories of athletes and entertainers who have blown big fortunes that it’s tough to know where to start. Who should we pick on first? Since I’ve never been a fan of Nicolas Cage — and since he seems to be especially bad with money — let’s use him an example.

Over a period of fifteen years, Cage earned more than $150 million. He blew through that money buying things like:

  • Fifteen homes, including an $8 million English castle that he never stayed in once.
  • A private island.
  • Four luxury yachts.
  • A fleet of exotic cars, including a Lamborghini that used to belong to the Shah of Iran.
  • A dinosaur skull he won after a bidding contest with Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • A private jet.

It’s not fair to characterize Cage as “broke” — he’s still a bankable movie star — but his net worth is reportedly only about $25 million. (That’s like someone with an average income having a net worth of roughly $25,000.) He could be worth ten times as much but his foolish financial habits have caused him woe.

Cage got in trouble with the IRS for failing to pay millions of dollars in taxes. He’s been sued by multiple companies for failing to repay loans. His business manager says that he’s tried to warn Cage that his lifestyle exceeds his means, but the actor won’t listen.

Cage is but one of many celebrities who have done dumb things with money. Other prominent examples include:

  • MC Hammer sold the rights to his songs to raise money after being bankrupted by his lavish lifestyle. Hammer earned more than $33 million in the early nineties, but spent the money on a $12 million mansion (with gold-plated gates), a fleet of seventeen vehicles, two helicopters, and extravagant parties. [source, source]
  • Actress Kim Basinger paid $20 million to buy the town of Braselton, Georgia in 1989. When Basinger filed for bankruptcy just four years later, she was forced to sell the town. [source]
  • On the night of 01 February 1976, Elvis Presley decided he wanted a Fool’s Gold Loaf, a special sandwich made of hollowed bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a pound of bacon. He and his entourage flew from Memphis to Denver. The group ate their sandwiches and then flew home. Price: $50,000 – $60,000. [source]
  • Even authors get in on the act. Writer Mark Twain made tons of money through his work, but he lost much of it to bad investments, mostly in new inventions: a bed clamp for infants, a new type of steam engine, and a machine designed to engrave printing plates. Twain was a sucker for get rich quick schemes. [source, source]

When it comes to frittering way fortunes, it’s hard to compete with sports superstars. In a 2009 Sports Illustrated article about how and why athletes go broke, Pablo S. Torre wrote that after two years of retirement, “78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.” Within five years of retirement, roughly 60% of former NBA players are in similar positions.

Some examples:

  • Boxer Mike Tyson earned over $300 million in his professional career. He lost it all, spending the money on cars, jewels, pet tigers, and more. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. [source]
  • When Yoenis Cespedes signed a new $75 million contract with the New York Mets, he drove a new vehicle each day during the first week of training camp, including a Lamborghini Aventador ($397,000) and an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione ($299,000). [source]
  • Basketballer Vin Baker earned $100 million during his career. He’s now worth $500,000. He manages a Starbucks store in a small town in Rhode Island. (To be fair, Baker sees to be turning his life around, which is awesome.) [source]
  • Hall-of-fame pitcher Curt Schilling earned $112 million during 20 years in the big leagues. It wasn’t enough to keep up with his spending. Plus he lost $50 million through the collapse of a company he owned. In 2013, he held a “fire sale” to avoid bankruptcy.

It can be tough to sympathize with these folks. Used wisely, their immense fortunes could sustain them and their families for a long time. Instead, they squander their money on fleeting pleasures and the trappings of wealth.

Still, I believe it’s best to keep the schadenfreude in check. “There but for the grace of God” and all that, right? I’ve seen plenty of examples of average folks who have wasted smaller windfalls. In fact, this sort of thing seem to be the rule rather than the exception.

But why does this happen? The answer might be Sudden-Wealth Syndrome.

Lottery winners have the same kinds of problems. A 2001 article in The American Economic Review found that after receiving half their jackpots, the typical lotto winner had only put about 16% of that money into savings. It’s estimated that over a quarter of lottery winners go bankrupt.

Take Bud Post: He won $16.2 million in 1988. Within weeks of receiving his first annual payment of nearly half a million dollars, he’d spent $300,000. During the next few years, Post bought boats, mansions, and airplanes, but trouble followed him everywhere. “I was much happier when I was broke,” he’s reported to have said. When he died in 2006, Post was living on a $450 monthly disability check.

Sudden-Wealth Syndrome

In 2012, ESPN released a documentary called Broke that explores the relationship between pro athletes and money. How does sudden wealth affect young men? What happens when highly-competitive athletes with high incomes hang out together? Lots of stupid stuff, as it turns out.

Broke is an interesting film. The players speak candidly about the mistakes they’ve made: buying 25 pairs of shoes at one time, buying fur coats they never wore, buying cars they never drove. They’re not proud of their pasts — some are ashamed — but they’re willing to talk about the problem in the hopes they can help others avoid doing the same dumb things in the future.

Curious how much your favorite actor or athlete earns? Check out Celebrity Net Worth, a website devoted to tracking the financial health of people in the public eye.

Broke does a good job of explaining why our sports heroes can’t seem to make smart money moves. The problem is Sudden-Wealth Syndrome. Essentially, young folks who earn big bucks don’t get a chance to “practice” with money before they’re buried with wealth.

The typical person earns a little when they’re young, but watches their salary grow slowly with time. Their income peaks during their forties and fifties. As a result, they get time to make mistakes with small amounts of money first which means (in theory) that they’re less likely to blow big bucks down the road.

On the other hand, athletes (and entertainers) have a completely different earning pattern. They leave school to instant riches. For a few years, they earn great gobs of money. But usually their income declines sharply with time — until it stops altogether.

Here’s a (pathetic) chart I created to help visualize this phenomenon:

Sudden Income vs. Normal Income

Athletes and entertainers need to figure out how to make five years of income last for fifty years. This never occurs to most of them. “[A pro athlete] can’t live like a king forever,” says Bart Scott in ESPN’s Broke. “But you can live like a prince forever.”

Sudden-Wealth Syndrome doesn’t just affect athletes and actors. Lottery winners experience it too. So do average folks who inherit a chunk of change or business owners who sell their companies.

The fundamental problem is that nobody ever teaches us how to handle a windfall. Windfalls are rare, and in most cases they can’t be planned for. (Some folks might be able to plan for an inheritance or the sale of a business, but these situations are relatively uncommon.) As a result, when the average person happens into a chunk of change, they spend it.

Here’s what you should do instead.

How NOT to Waste a Windfall

When you receive a windfall, whether it’s a tax refund, an inheritance, a gift, or from any other source, it’s like you’ve been given a second chance. Although you may have made money mistakes in the past, you now have a chance to fix those mistakes (or some of them, anyhow) and start down the path of smart money management.

It can be tempting to spend your windfall on toys, trips, and other things that you “deserve,” but doing so will leave you in the same place you were before you received the windfall. And if that place was chained to debt, you’ll be just as unhappy as you’ve always been.

If you receive a chunk of cash, I recommend that you:

  • Keep five percent to treat yourself and your family. Let’s be realistic. If you receive $1,000 or $10,000 or $100,000 unexpectedly, you’re going to want to spend some of it. No problem. But don’t spend all of it. I used to recommend spending one percent of a windfall on yourself, but from talking to people, that’s not enough. Now I suggest spending five percent on fun. That means $50 of a $1,000 windfall, $500 of a $10,000 windfall, or $5,000 of a $100,000 windfall.
  • Pay any taxes due. Depending on the source of your money, you might owe taxes on it at the end of the year. If you forget this fact and spend the money, you can end up in a bind when the taxes come due. Consult a tax professional. If needed, set aside enough to pay your taxes before you do anything else.
  • Pay off debt. Doing so will generally provide the greatest possible return on your investment (a 20 percent return if your credit cards charge you 20 percent). It’ll also free up cash flow; if you pay off a card with a $50 minimum monthly payment, that’s $50 extra you’ll have available each month. Most of all, repaying debt will relieve the psychological weight you’ve been carrying for so long.
  • Fix the things that are broken. After you’ve eliminated any existing debt, use your windfall to repair whatever is broken in your life. Start with your own health. If you’ve been putting off a trip to the dentist or a medical procedure, take care of it. Do the same for your family. Next, fix your car or the roof or the sidewalk. Use this opportunity to patch up the things you’ve been putting off.
  • Deposit the rest of the money in a safe account. It can be tempting to spend the rest of your windfall on a new motorcycle or new furniture or new house. Don’t. After attending to your immediate needs, deposit the remaining money in a new savings account separate from the rest of your bank accounts — and then leave this money alone.

To successfully manage a windfall, you must allow the initial euphoria to pass, getting over the urge to spend the money today. Live as you were before. Meanwhile, calculate how far your windfall could go. Most people have unrealistic expectations about how much $10,000 or $100,000 can buy.

In 2009, I received an enormous windfall. The old J.D. would have gone crazy with the money. The new, improved model of me was prepared, and made measured moves designed to favor long-term happiness over short-term happiness.

Today, the bulk of my windfall remains in the same place it’s been for the past five years: an investment account. That cash eases my mind. It helps me sleep easy at night. And that’s more rewarding than spending it on new toys could ever be.

Setting a Good Example

Not everyone who gets rich quickly does dumb things with money. Especially as the plight of pro athletes becomes better known, there are prominent examples of young superstars making savvy money moves. They’re learning from the lessons of those who came before.

Take Toronto Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard, for instance. This 27-year-old NBA MVP earns $23 million per year — but still clips coupons for his favorite restaurant. He drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. Sure, he bought himself a Porsche, but he’s not interested in flash and bling. “I’m not gonna buy some fancy watch just to show people something fancy on my wrist,” he says. [source]

Jamal Mashburn has made wise use of his wealth. So has LeBron James, who takes his investment advice from Warren Buffett:

Here are other superstars who act as money bosses:

  • During his 12-year career in the NBA, Junior Bridgeman never earned more than $350,000. Unlike most players, however, he planned ahead. He recognized his basketball income would eventually vanish. He bought a Wendy’s fast-food franchise and learned the business inside-out. He became a hands-on owner. He expanded from one store to three to six — and then to a small empire. Today, twenty-five years after retirement, Bridgeman owns more than 160 Wendy’s restaurants and 120 Chili’s franchises. His company employs 11,000 people and generates over half a billion in revenue every year. His personal net worth tops $400 million. [source]
  • Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — who just retired last week — is a shining example of how to handle sudden wealth correctly. The 29-year-old earned over $53 million for playing on the field — and hasn’t spent any of it. Here are his own words: “To this day, I still haven’t touched one dime of my signing bonus or NFL contract money. I live off my marketing money and haven’t blown it on any big-money expensive cars, expensive jewelry or tattoos and still wear my favorite pair of jeans from high school.” [source]
  • Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch has a similar story. During his twelve-year NFL career, Lynch has collected nearly 57 million from his contract. Reportedly, he hasn’t spent a penny of that money. Instead, he’s been cautious to live only off his endorsement earnings. Whether this is true or not, Lynch is known to be a good example to his teammates, helping them with their 401(k)s and other financial issues. [source]

Sometimes superstars who have been poor with money have a flash of insight and they’re able to turn things around. Former NFL player Phillip Buchanon is a perfect example. After watching ESPN’s Broke, he realized he was headed for trouble. He mended his ways and started managing his money wisely. Now he’s written a book with advice for other folks who are fortunate enough to encounter a windfall. [source]

When people make a lot of money, they’re able to spend a lot of money. Sometimes the super-rich can afford to build a place like the Biltmore Estate. The problem isn’t a single extravagant purchase, but a lavish lifestyle in which they spend more than they earn. Real wealth isn’t about earning money — it’s about keeping money.

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There are 24 comments to "Lifestyles of the rich and foolish".

  1. Corina says 01 April 2016 at 10:54

    Great post J.D. So glad to have you back writing.

    Speaking of the Vanderbilt family, there is a great book that chronicles the folly of such incredible wealth. “Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt”. Sometimes it gave me a headache reading how they spent the vast inherited fortunes. The fortunes were vast and were wasted by people bored out of their minds, as none of them did anything for a living other than inheriting money. There is a great quote in the book: “shirt tails to shirt tails in three generations.” What this generally means is one generation earns wealth, the next generation preserves the wealth and the following generation spends the wealth. The Vanderbilts followed that path to the letter.

  2. PhysicianOnFIRE says 01 April 2016 at 12:13

    If you ever want to see disgusting displays of spending, watch CNBC’s “Secret lives of the Super Rich”. It’s incredible how much money some people can make and spend.

    I prefer the stories of the sensible wealthy, but the headlines aren’t nearly as sensational. I’ve written about the handful of NFL players whose frugal ways have been featured in the press. Ryan Broyles, Giovanni Bernard, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Kerrigan, and Alfred Morris have received press in recent years for their financial wisdom. I’d love to see more articles written about guys and gals like them! Thanks for pointing out a few more.


  3. chacha1 says 01 April 2016 at 12:14

    That last sentence is so important. Wealth is really not about what you earn – it’s about what you keep.

  4. Tristan @ Dividendsdownunder says 02 April 2016 at 04:19

    If someone suddenly came into a million dollars, they’d think they were rich and are set for life. $1M will only last 20 years at $50,000 a year.

    Nearly everyone starting work now will earn over $1M over their working life, if you actually lay it out and think about it, you can do wonderful things with they money, but so many don’t, put it off. Why would you choose not to make your money work for you? And spend your money wisely?

    People who earn more have even more scope to spend and blow up spectacularly, like so many examples you gave. Yet there are other celebrities out there who have kept their cash, invested well and are now hundreds of millionaires, if not billlionaires.

    It is extremely frustrating when you hear/see all these old school families, particularly English ones, who have these large mansions, have had wealth for generations yet have invested hardly any of it and fritter it all away. For how long those families have had (some 100s of years) to make compounding work for them is crazy when quite a few of us on this website will end up richer than them.


  5. says 02 April 2016 at 21:33

    Very nice blog and we really like your life story too.
    What I always like to look at is the ratio of 2 numbers:
    X = your current Net Worth
    Y = How much you have made over your life (add up the Medicare wage numbers from Social Security Admiration statement)
    Compute X/Y and see how much is left after you pay taxes and consume. Serious savers that we are, we are on track to bring that number back to 1.0, so all of our savings/profits reinvested grew back to how much we initially made before tax + consumption.

  6. MrFireStation says 04 April 2016 at 07:24

    Great article to kick off April “Financial Literacy Month”. I think I will watch the ESPN “Broke” documentary with my 18 year old son this week. He’s a good saver and has seen what saving has don for his parents – I early retired from my corporate/executive job on Friday at age 49. Still, I think seeing how people who “have it all” still screw it up is highly educational.

  7. Corey says 11 April 2016 at 18:34

    Jay Leno is another interesting case. I saw an interview one time where he was talking about his father. He had told Jay as a child he should always have two jobs, one to live off and one to save. At the time he retired from the Tonight Show he had stated he had never spent a dime of his Tonight Shown earnings. He had always lived on the money earned from his stand up performances.

  8. Steveark says 01 April 2019 at 09:32

    Aw JD, you make me feel smart! When I inherited a large amount I spent about 5% upgrading our hobby equipment and put the rest into our investment portfolio. We already had a paid for house and zero debt.

    Interestingly I think there is a syndrome opposite to the sudden wealth one. And that’s the get rich slowly/frugality syndrome. After a lifetime of buying used cars and living in modest housing and having enjoyable side gigs that earn more than I can spend I find myself still earning in retirement, still traveling economy class, still splitting entrees with my wife, still taking home doggie bags and still watching my net worth go up even though I can easily afford to spend a lot more. I could, but I can’t?

    I don’t think it is nearly as harmful as the MC Hammer type but I do think I could have a little more fun if I could loosen the purse strings just a little.

  9. JC Webber III says 01 April 2019 at 10:26

    I took ERN’s advice and did the math. My NW is $1742275 and my ‘Medicare’ earnings were (past tense because we’ve been retired since Jan 2007) $3.31M. So, my ratio is 0.525. I don’t know how that ranks against others, but it looks pretty good to me. 8^)

  10. Chloe says 01 April 2019 at 15:31

    I always admired musician Dave Grohl for his very suburban lifestyle considering how famous the guy is.

  11. JM says 01 April 2019 at 19:11

    Your 3rd recommendation, “pay off all debt”. Does this include a home mortgage?

  12. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says 02 April 2019 at 01:24

    Good stuff JD, I had not heard of some of those crazy stories. Peanut butter and bacon? No wonder Vegas-Elvis got fat…

    I did a recent post
    highlighting some athletes who are doing it right.

    • Geoffrey Sadler says 29 June 2019 at 14:01

      I have worked with many wise-guys who are doing well and then have nothing 10 years later after living way beyond their real means. It’s amazing. Of course sports celebrities are famous for squandering millions, tens of millions… Spoiled rich families, old money, often wind up 3 or 4 generations later with nothing. But I love to see folks in their 50ss and 60s inheriting a decent amount of assets and winding up in great shape after some careful investing and saving. Or seniors who sell their life insurance policy and then use that lump sum to invest and basically winding up with a small fortune after decades of struggling. I love it. Smart people tend to do some smart research when they begin amassing some real cash in the bank, as I have in the past. But I did not grow it as cleverly as I might have. Mentioning inheritance cash, and using that to springboard into a small fortune – I think those heirs are smart to opt for inheritance funding. Known as inheritance loans or probate loans. Getting an advance on inheritance assets. Researching inheritance lenders, finding a good inheritance funding company is key, after doing research on inheritance loans on sites like or, or this website, AARP perhaps; Or sites like I guess these folks assume they may as well get some real use out of that cash now rather than later on after probate closes out. A wise assumption, in my opinion.

  13. Vano says 02 April 2019 at 03:40

    Awesome article, JD.
    Although you have highlighted famous actors and sportspersons to ram the point home, I believe this phenomenon also works at a much lower level, eg lower-league sportsmen who might be earning $100k/year until they have to hang up their boots where they’ll have to swim with the rest of the populace, or even just regular workers who may have the chance to earn better money contracting at some point in their career but seek the stability of a permanent position a little later on in life.

  14. Scarlet at Family Focus Blog says 02 April 2019 at 05:45

    I can see that sudden wealth syndrome would cause a problem. They think they have so much money they could never run out because they are not used to having money. But the more money they have, the more their tastes often run extravagant and wasteful.

  15. Joe says 02 April 2019 at 07:12

    I heard that they make rookies sit through finance class now so they understand how the money works. You earn a lot, but usually not for long. Most players probably have good control of their finance. We just hear about the ones that can’t handle sudden wealth.
    It’s probably a similar percentage as regular people. Lots of working class people can’t handle their money very well either.

  16. stellamarina says 02 April 2019 at 13:04

    When I visited Biltmore a few years ago, I was impressed by the modern agriculture advances that the Vanderbilts introduced on their farm at the time. A visit to the farm barns area at the estate is really interesting.

  17. S.G. says 02 April 2019 at 21:12

    My husband plays an online game with a couple very wealthy people from around the world. One gentleman confessed to spending about $300k on the game, which seems accurate based on what the game charges and what he *has* in the game.

    I have no idea what percentage of his wealth this is. But picturing being in a situation like that stretches my brain.

  18. Peter R Payne says 02 April 2019 at 23:21

    I nominate this post for Best Damn Post About Money I’ve Ever Read. Great job!

  19. Mariele Storm says 03 April 2019 at 11:56

    Excellent post. It’s too true. My family’s money spending habits were not wise for a long time–if we had a windfall of any sorts, it was spent immediately. By the time I took over the family finances, we had $50k in credit card debt alone. We slowly developed good money habits–bit by bit, debt was paid off, necessary repairs were handled with cash (except for the rare car repair, which we normally put on credit and then paid off in a month or two), and our overall spending was seriously slashed.

    Very recently we got a windfall. We spent a very small percentage on a necessary home repair (around 3%), then nearly all the rest on finally paying off the last of the credit card debt and some other debt. We set aside some for taxes and I don’t think spent it on anything else, except to replace a couch and chair, which cost not even 2% of the windfall…

    I sometimes hope for a large windfall of some sort simply to take care of my parents better. They’re living in an RV an hour drive from their job (which costs a fortune in gas because they need a 4 wheel drive vehicle because they live on a bad gravel road) and can’t move into town because they have so many animals. They’ve always wanted to live in a small mobile home, so if I got a windfall of my own, I’d buy them a small mobile home out in the country near their workplace, with an area for their animals and a small garden bed by the sidewalk. This would cost roughly $50k (as selling the RV would give us the rest of the funds necessary) to have it be completely debt free. That being said, I think this is a pretty modest and useful way to spend a large windfall and I feel like the entire family has made enough mistakes with money that we’ve learned from experience. Wisdom is something that comes from experience, not necessarily age. 🙂 I’m still in college–for Accounting and Finance, no less!

  20. Some Old Guy says 08 April 2019 at 09:28

    Wealth (sudden or not so sudden) also tends to paint a target on your back. Once people decide that you are “wealthy” all sorts of “friends” and “family” and “advisers” start coming forward, each with a plan to help separate you from your money. I’d sure that many of the famous people who squandered their money did so (in part – I am not completely absolving them of their own bad decisions here) because the people around them were constantly trying to convince them to spend more.

  21. joselito s. pascual says 08 May 2019 at 07:10

    it’s like when they’re filthy rich it’s forever. they don’t know there’s an ending to everything!!

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