How Does It Feel To Grow Up And Move Down In The World?

What does it feel like when your family fortune fades? I’ve thought about this since Duchesse asked. Whether I can sum up remains to be seen. Let us approach the subject with logic, even though it’s tricky and emotional. Or maybe because it’s tricky and emotional.

Logically, we have to look first at what it felt like to grow up with family fortune, and then at the feelings about fading. As with many historical phenomena, we shall rely on the construct of eras.

Era the First. Or, Money’s Magical Abundance.

In many ways, as I have said, mine felt like any other childhood. At least in the moment. Here’s the effect of growing up rich, as best I can synthesize. (Note that High WASPs are a particular kind of rich; there are others.)

  • A fine-tuned eye for the, well, fine. An unerring attraction to the rare, the beautiful, and the precious.
  • A concurrent heightened opinion about what is or is not good taste.
  • An understanding that one ought to rise above the material, despite its charms. Said understanding is fostered by a very good education and lots of travel.
  • Almost unlimited privacy, nutrition, and time to explore. Imagination is the true luxury of childhood.

And possibly, (as this is an emotional undercurrent my culture will not allow me to know for sure), the connecting of luxury to love.

  • Silky edges on knit blankets.
  • The weight of brass buttons.
  • Smells of Diorissimo and Christian Dior lotions applied in front of a very large mirror. A padded seat in front of said mirror.
  • The wood-turned leg of a Danish midcentury sofa.
  • Hall mirrors.
  • Silver, in various guises.
  • Linen sheets you rip, at 13, having thrust your feet into bed with erratic pre-pubescent energy.

Era the Second. Or, Money Says Its Name.

Then come the teen years, and college. In California of the early 70s, no teen worth their salt owned more than two pairs of pants and shirts. Riches be damned, thus largely unfelt. At Princeton, in the late 70s, I lived more like a Californian far from home than a person of privilege. I struggled with Shetland sweaters and bright pastels.

At 21 I came into my inheritance; 9 months later I graduated from Princeton and began looking for work. In this phase, one makes one’s way in the world and, absent financial pressures, wanders into a career. Concurrently, one figures out that one had Money growing up, that one still has money, small M. Then, sadly, one realizes that there is not Enough.

Obviously, remembering this time requires distancing pronouns. By One, I mean Me.

And by Enough, I mean enough that you can make most decisions without regard to finances. In my youth, I behaved as though that were the case. By midlife, two children into the game, I figured out it wasn’t true. Which brought about,

Era the Third. Sumo Wrestling With Money-san.

Unfortunately, I figured out that I did not have Enough in the middle of a marriage. Any further details would divulge information that isn’t mine alone. Let me say that while nobody did anything very wrong with my inheritance, it turned out that my ex-husband and I held different opinions about just what it should mean and how it should be used.

I also figured all this out while living in Silicon Valley, the land of I Woke Up With 5 Billion Dollars This Morning, Gee I’ll Buy A Land Cruiser And A Mansion Right Now. Oh how I felt each fortune made, each new millionaire. Most likely my sense of deprivation was part and parcel of the emotional undercurrent that I’m not supposed to mention. I will never know whether a different region would have changed my attitude toward money, and so my life.

We might profitably wonder, is it all about the concept of Enough and Abundance? Those are emotional states, as much as material. I imagine that any 100 people with the same net worth hold at least 68 different emotional realities about their position. Research indicates that once a certain level of material security has been met, all else is psychology, attitude, and intent. I believe it.

So here I am, at 56. Now how does it feel? How do I feel?

Era the Fourth. Sitting Down Next To Money With A Glass Of White Wine.

Things have changed. I’d like to say I’ve reached Enlightenment and become the Buddha. Such is not the case. I have, however, found happiness, due in part to the equanimity of middle age.

Yet more credit goes to Significant Other. He is wonderful in many ways, not the least that he makes my well-being one of his top priorities. However, he has resources. Tricky, right? Makes me sound like a gold-digger, right? I of all people know that even when you love for free, money costs.

Mr. Significant and I don’t swan about in Mercedes and designer duds. (Well, OK, a designer dud on my part, here and there.) I still live in my little ranch house, and drive a 6-year old fully paid off Toyota Rav4.  But I can splurge if I want to, and no one will frown, cast aspersions on my morals, or call me wasteful. They might even feel happy in the gift. This feels like unconditional love, which I believe is what we all seek.

I give him presents too.

I will never know if without money I would be so close to my family, feel as glad to be alive, and love as I do. But it’s a specious question. We are who we are and we do as we can and will. We are not Penelope, and can’t unpick our stories past the fringes to the weft.

The Promised Attempt At Summation

I believe the best parts of a family fortune are

  • surprise
  • abundance
  • beauty.

That’s what to focus on, in the fading. Had I known earlier what was coming, I would either have engineered my life for material abundance, or structured my expectations around the abundance available for free. Oceans, redtail hawks in the sky, toddlers talking.

In the end, our fading family fortune mostly leaves me mad that I didn’t understand my situation earlier. I might not have acted differently. But as a thoughtful person, I would like to have had the choice.

I have been fortunate, and I use the word advisedly, to have happiness find me even so.

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  • This is one of the most eloquent descriptions I have *ever* read on the topic of That Which Shan’t Be Discussed. (One’s means.) More than anything it makes me realize how fluid a personal definition of Enough is, and how grateful I am to be in a place where I have More-Than-Enough. (And you know I am not talking about That Which Shan’t Be Spoken.)

    Hugs to you,

    10:57 am
    Mary anne said...

    Yup, what TPP said!

  • So thoughtful, I loved reading this.

  • You’ve allowed us a peek inside what for me is rather foreign territory.
    I feel very much like an outsider when it comes to a family fortune but oddly I share many of your feeling of comfort and luxury…family being very much at the core of my existence.
    Perhaps it’s all relative…
    work, purpose, happiness and the joy of living in the moment are true gifts.
    I feel very rich reading this post today Lisa!

    ( I still maintain that you could write a book on this topic)

  • One issue you didn’t explore in detail was the interplay of “enough” and career choice/decisions. A friend who grew up in similar circumstances told me he struggled with finding balance when work is a choice (although there is a cultural imperative to do something), not an economic necessity. How long to stay in an unsatisfying job vs. the very real fact that all jobs have their downsides. Is it different for a woman?

    4:52 pm
    Lisa said...

    Here’s what can happen. The search for self becomes paramount. The problem is, self doesn’t like to get found in the search but in the doing.

  • Surprise, abundance, beauty. That does sound like wealth. To be able to make decisions unhampered by financial considerations must be a wonderful feeling. It would be annoying to lose that freedom. On the other hand, as you demonstrate here on your blog, you still retain the essence of your experience. Thanks for sharing that experience with us.

  • Such a thoughtful piece. And it’s not just a fascinating look into a life different from my own — there are nuggets of wisdom here that are valuable to all of us pondering our own material and emotional assets. Thank you.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful post. You describe my life and circumstances exactly, with great eloquence, and more grace than I can muster (I am more in the third era, yet the fourth age). I am grateful to you for putting it in perspective , here on my birthday. I have regret and anger, yet grateful for an abundance of love with my family.
    Ps-My mother would have greatly appreciated the “swanning about” expression
    PPs- Number one son says he plans to restore the family fortune. I will make him read your post.

  • My father taught us to live below our means. A valuable lesson later in life.

  • Lisa, thank you for this thoughtful, honest post. I had no idea.

  • Something I’ve wondered about: How money affects dating. I mean, how do people with money approach dating or finding a significant other? Are there certain clues you (or whoever) looks for to find someone else with money? Or clues for what to avoid, ie, potential “gold-diggers”? I’m so curious. In case you ever want to write a post on that topic for your nosy readers ;)

    4:39 am
    Judy said...

    I too would love to hear Lisa’s solution to this. My two cents worth is that if I was remotely interested in someone I’d have them privately investigated. I’d want to know if there were any habits or obsessions that would be deal-breakers for me. Also, these days there are pre-nups tho’ I don’t know much about them or how they are crafted.

    5:05 pm
    Lisa said...

    I had no idea, when I was in the dating world, so I am useless here:).

  • One of my most favorite stories as we approach the holidays happens to be The Gift of the Magi~
    If you have not read it, it does make a wonderful gift. I cry each time I read it and ironically my very own Mother gave it to me.

  • great post! linen sheets, absolute luxury.

  • Interesting post. I would not exactly say that I was brought up with a family fortune however my father worked hard and we had a privileged lifestyle. My current husband comes from a very different background and it is interesting how different our philosophy regarding wealth is. In some ways I think we balance well.

  • Hello Lisa, The Treasure Hunt/National Trust blog recently posted photos of details at Felbrigg Hall as evidence that “God is in the details”. The small details that you have selected as indicative of various periods of your life similarly have provided a special illumination of the whole, perhaps better than a broad, sweeping explanation could have.
    –Road to Parnassus

  • Every time I read one of your pieces, I marvel at the eloquence with which you write, thinking to myself that it can’t get any better and yet I am always left with food for thought and a smile on my face when you continue to top yourself! Excellent post as always, hope you don’t mind if I share!

    5:05 pm
    Lisa said...

    No, of course not. I am honored.

  • Thank you so much. Now I understand how my grandmother and mother must have felt when the family fortune became not enough. It is not to be spoken of, but I certainly felt the repercussions as a child.

    5:05 pm
    Lisa said...

    Ah. So much in those words.

  • Thank you; I’m heartened by your nuanced and personal post, and moved by the depth of your experience. DocP and others: there are many anecdotes that address inherited wealth in “The Legacy of Inherited Wealth: Interviews with Heirs” by Barbara Blouin.

    Though you wish you would have prepared yourself differently, you received an education and launched a career, which is more than I can say for some of the heirs I have known.

  • What amazes me with this (and perhaps it shouldn’t) is how similar your first phase with money is to my life, albiet coming from very different circumstances. Then the contrast in the second phase: I don’t have Money or money, and I’m not yet at the point of children but have a very secure sense of having Enough.

    It makes me wonder how much is money itself, or lack thereof, actually the the cause of certain experiences, expectations and view points compared to how we’re raised and how we develop our own personal values.

  • Beautifully written and very poignant for me to read. I read it this morning, but needed the day to sort of process what you said. I have to be careful in my comment, because like you, I don’t want to divulge too much personal information, but the distinction between “enough” and “abundance”, is an ongoing struggle for both my husband and for me. Enough, is not what we’re used to, but that’s where we find ourselves now. Somehow when you’re used to abundance, enough doesn’t seem like enough. So, it’s a battle between what’s the emotional component, and what’s the reality. Does this make sense?

  • Pretty good sumation of my life, as well. It’s a hard balance between knowing the life I had as a child and knowing that I will never have that much again. But there are many things from my growing up life that i retain in the fibre of my being.

  • I don’t think i was raised with the same level of privilege you had, although many years after the fact I realized that I had far more privilege than many of the folks I’ve encountered as an adult. in my 20s i seemed bent on destroying every advantage I ever had handed to me. And ever since I’ve worked hard to restore it.

    I know from watching wealthier friends of my daughters that many young adults from privileged backgrounds do a similar thing to themselves. It seems to me that they are searching for something “real”, something they know they’ve earned themselves.

    I love how you have written about this.

    12:31 pm
    QuiteEnough said...

    Thanks for bringing this up. I, too, had a very privileged childhood (although certainly did not come from Money, and am not a WASP), and spent much of my teens and twenties trying to deny/hide/reject that privilege. I am now much more grateful for the privileges (an excellent education, privacy, summers spent lounging, etc.) that I had, and also glad that I learned (from grandparents, not necessarily from parents) how to live very frugally.

  • I have to ask–why did you not understand your circumstances earlier? Was it willful avoidance? Or, was something withheld from you?

    I love your explanation of the best parts of family fortune.

    I’ve known families that had fortunes (Texas oil) and so many of them dissolved into tragedy, loss, unhappiness. (Some didn’t.) I see you as one of the fortunate ones.

    5:08 pm
    Lisa said...

    Neither willful avoidance, nor information withheld. Just an attitude transmitted that did not lead me to do the analysis, and predictions made that were incorrect. Nobody’s fault. Just how it happened. My family gave me so much else, however, including the non-material, that I can’t complain.

  • fascinating and a very different experience from my own.
    After being so very tired of being poor for too long, I listened to cassette tapes by Deepak Chopra on the topic of abundance. I listened to them over and over with a goal of brain-washing myself to think more positively.
    Now, 15 years later, I find myself with enough and it is such a joy.
    In fact, sometimes I feel so happy to have grown up with limited resources because I get such so much pleasure from things that are probably not considered expensive to anyone with money (but to me – it is a big deal!)
    Now having said all that, I do believe my mother’s family had money (if they had Money, it was her grandparents, and thus had since dwindled) but she never talked about it and definitely raised me with high expectations when it comes to things like style, silver and linen for meals, grammar, taste, even pronunciation. I live in a region with a distinct accent, but I have none. Anyway, just babbling away here. I truly appreciate your honesty and unique ability to articulate difficult ideas. You write beautifully.

  • “We are who we are and we do as we can and will. We are not Penelope, and can’t unpick our stories past the fringes to the weft.”

    Your candid thoughts in this and other posts shows a fine mettle, and I appreciate your willingness to write about your experience. It’s doubtful that finding comfort in shared experiences is worth the trouble and discomfort of those experiences, but this morning I appreciate your reminder that one can face hardship and still make choices that add up to a pretty good life. Thank you.

  • Echoing other commenters, I must admire your honesty, attentive observation, and eloquent writing. More than that, and I’d end up writing an essay here as I find the post provokes a mixed, almost turbulent, response. So many of the attributes you credit privilege for, I see in my background as well and yet we had none of that heritage. I’m off to think grateful thoughts about my mom & dad. . .

  • Thank you again for taking a complex, often emotional topic and distilling it to its essence. We all have lenses through which we see the world and make decisions. While I find it helpful to be conscious of mine, I would say that at our almost identical ages, a sense of “if I knew then what I know now” or “if I only knew what was coming” is the omni-present partner of the acquired wisdom that really counts and is compensation for the annoying parts of aging. My mother used to say that people are remarkable as if we knew what was coming we would be sure we couldn’t handle “it”, yet somehow we usually do.

    I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

  • When I “structure my expectations around the abundance available for free…Oceans, red-tail hawks in the sky, toddlers talking…” (beautifully said!) I find I have built a house of brick that no amount of huffing and puffing from the big, bad vicissitudes of life can shatter or shake.

  • For me a glimpse into a world I’ve only known from a distance. I wonder: where are your children in all this?

    5:07 pm
    Lisa said...

    They are places I am very proud of:).

  • Family fortunes, no matter how large or small, sometimes need cultivation. Absent life-shortening poor health, ones’ 50s seem to be a good time to reposition so that 20 years down the road you aren’t caught short.

    While it would be nice to leave ones’ children a monetary legacy, if have spared your children worry over whether they’ll need to pony up cash to keep you out of the poorhouse then you’ve done well enough.

    12:51 pm
    Susan said...

    So true Rose Ag. I have a close friend whose parents did not plan for their elderly years –at all. My friend is helping in every way she can, but not willing to put her own finances for retirement at risk out of love for her own children. I think she has her priorities straight.

    One other thought–abundance vs. enough is an important way to look at our worlds. Curiously, during abundant times, I have been very slow to realize that abundance could be ours. I’m hoping that this will stand us in good stead as we move back to “enough”. I’ve already started to streamline my life.

  • I often read this blog because I love your writing, fashion sense, and the community of commentators who respond. This post, however, has been among the most thought provoking things I have read in some time. Beautifully written as always but more than that: sensitively written on a difficult topic for any of us who have experienced some ups and downs in life, i.e., had some years to experience life. I applaud your wisdom. This blog and its community (and associated blogs) reassure me that intelligent life remains on this planet. Thank you!

  • Beautifully written, as all of your posts are.

  • This is one of the most honest and true things I have ever read about money: “Had I known earlier what was coming, I would either have engineered my life for material abundance, or structured my expectations around the abundance available for free.” Thank you.

  • Your openness in sharing your life with us is admired. I wonder to what extent your travels affected your life? It is also something that comes with our age, the sorting out of our life’s experiences, organizing them into their rightful places, with which we frame the remaining years. I find myself trying to tie all the loose ends together in an attempt to use it to launch meaningful endeavors for the future. So much of our life is how we perceive it, as well. Thank you so much for sharing your life with us. xo

  • Very good post & equally good comments . Coming from a rather poor background in post war UK , there was no material abundance . However ,the work ethic was important & we were encouraged to value the world around us . Having been careful – don’t get me going on the designer world – I would rather collect shells on the beach than choose Hermes scarves , we are now pretty comfy , but still no abundance . There are some I know who hark back to their abundant years & will never appreciate what they have . Not you though .

    5:06 pm
    Lisa said...


  • I’m curious about what happened to your family fortune – mostly before it ever reached you and why it was depleted. Did too many generations of your family live with “abundance,” so that your generation was left with just “enough?” My view is that each generation is responsible for protecting and growing the principal for the next – not just to keep our children and grandchildren comfortable, but more importantly, to keep them strong and less vulnerable.

    5:06 pm
    Lisa said...

    Unfortunately, that information doesn’t belong to me. I can tell you what happened to mine – I treated it like it was magic, and therefore it dwindled.

  • I’ve had to read and re-read this a few times. First, let me say that that you are one of the bravest people I know to put this all out there. My family went from middle class to upper-middle class to (at least on my mother’s side and so our side) lower-middle class after my parents divorced. My feelings about money are very complicated, except that I knew I always wanted to be able to take care of myself financially.

  • Very cool. I always wondered what it would feel like to grow up Growing up understanding that you were, in some way, privileged. I know that it has its baggage, but it’s certainly a gift to grow up this way, too.

  • My husband and each sibling got $$ (trust funds) at age 21. As he was the oldest, his was the smallest, as the others had more years for the funds to accrue. He still has the car and the watch he bought when he got his money, and his siblings have MFAs, memories of trips and I guess some photos. I think his was the better deal, actually.

  • The way I try and see it is that we’re all likely to have seasons in our lives that are more or less financially abundant. I lived on very little money as a student and had expectations to match. Luxury was a new cheap top once a season. Going to a full time income felt incredibly abundant but our expectations and commitments grew…

    Now I’ve moved country leaving most of my stuff behind and taking large pay cut and I’ve tried to adjust my expectations down again and re-focus on really enjoying free stuff like looking at autumn leaves.

    Having children would no doubt cause even more scrimping, but it’d be for a season and things would no doubt slowly increase.

    One comment about having some kind of money in your background is the joy of having a safety net. When my mum was alive, I knew that if things went terribly wrong, she’d be there for me. I wouldn’t end up homeless etc. Nowdays, I’m sad and rather more scared to think that it’s just me keeping myself going. I need to be a bit more careful and thoughtful.

  • Excellent essay! As always, thank you for all you are willing to share with us. Such a valuable gift. :)

    I grew up in a household of modest means and through marriage have been introduced to what I’d consider money (small m). I was also fortunate enough to be born with the genes for math and fiscal stewardship, so for now we tentatively sit down next to money with our Mich ultras, no cable and one shared vehicle. I’ve discovered that when carefully curated, “enough” in life can somehow feel more abundant than having actual, classic “abundance”, if that makes any sense. Choosing mindfully, along with voluntarily having less, amplifies and clarifies the things that remain. It’s one of the best lifehacks I’ve learned. :)

    5:21 pm
    Lisa said...

    I think you are exactly right.

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