Children and Wealth

By Pam Henderson

When asked about how much wealth he was going to pass onto his children, billionaire Warren Buffet told Fortune magazine in 1986, “I want to give them enough that they would feel they can do anything, but not so much that they can do nothing.”

Here in our little community where 1 in 4 children live in poverty, it’s hard for most of us to imagine that having so much money could be disabling enough to make one able to do nothing. Rather, it seems at the surface that having money would solve all of the problems. It could buy food, medicine, education, clothing and heat – all of the luxuries that belong to those who don’t live in poverty. But, of all of the things that money can buy, it can’t buy happiness.

Over the weekend, my family and I strolled through the Gold Coast as we made our way to Michigan Avenue from a parking garage. Parked along the curb, one in front of the other, were a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Range Rover and Porsche. The $355,000 Aston Martin was tucked safely inside the dealership. We could look, but couldn’t touch. We posed for photographs while sitting inside a sporty, Batman-esque Tesla.

In a nearby watch shop and visible from the sidewalk, a woman in a fur coat was sipping champagne in a fluted glass and shopping for a watch that was secured in a display case. We wondered what kind of watch you have to be shopping for to be indulged by the sales clerk with a glass of champagne.

The neighborhood was marked with expensive cars, pricey restaurants, boutique-style shopping and just a general sense of opulence. Even the dogs’ collars and leashes looked they cost more than my house.

For a moment, we got a glimpse of how “the other side” lives. I was quick to point out to our girls once again, as they looked starry-eyed at the Hermes and Barney stores, that money doesn’t buy happiness.

I can tell you with certainty that money doesn’t buy happiness. I’m speaking from professional, and not personal, experience. In my previous life as a trust officer, I had the privilege of managing trusts and estates valued at millions and millions of dollars. Some of it was “old” money created from entrepreneur families a hundred years ago and passed on through the generations; other money was from investment savvy or the sheer luck that purchased Microsoft at $4.00/share decades earlier. But my favorites were always those whose hard work and perseverance as a factory worker, secretary or educator paid off. They built hundreds of thousands of dollars by living thriftily and saving for a “rainy day”. They were the millionaires that you never would have guessed were millionaires.

In the latter group, were Robert and Helen, who passed on many years ago. Robert was a proud war veteran. Helen was from a family of Hungarian immigrants. They made their home in the west side of South Bend where they raised a son and daughter. Like their neighbors, he worked in a factory while she was a homemaker. They enjoyed a simple life of playing cards, watching the Cubs on television and visiting with friends.

Time went on and the years started to catch up with the neighborhood. The early families whose children were raised with their own were moving out as their children grew up. When sold, those houses became rentals managed by disinterested landlords. Crime crept closer and closer to their section of town. They no longer knew their neighbors, and couldn’t enjoy their front porch because the threat of a stray bullet was never far. They remained in their tiny house on the west side, because as Robert said, “It’s my house.” He kept a shotgun propped against the back door. When I visited them, I had to call ahead with a 15-minute warning so Robert could be watching out for me to exit my car.

When Robert and Helen became instant multi-millionaires with a lottery win, they had an opportunity to change their lives. They could have moved to the finest house in South Bend, traveled the world and drenched themselves in diamonds and rubies. Yet, their only indulgence was a weekly expenditure of $5.00 on a bag of walnuts for the squirrels. They kept the tiny house in the rough neighbor with the shotgun propped against the door.

Only their children knew of their winnings, because they didn’t people to treat them differently or to be there expecting a hand-out. Robert and Helen were saving the money for their son and daughter, who ironically became wealthy in their own right – one was an Emmy-award winning television studio engineer and the other was a department head at a highly-acclaimed private university.

Robert and Helen continued to join their friends in penny ante games of poker. They always went “dutch” when dining out with another couple. They still preferred goulash over lobster.

Through the course of their final years, Robert and Helen never strayed into a lavish lifestyle. They never wished for something more. Robert’s final wish was to attend a reunion with his aircraft carrier buddies. They knew the secret – that money doesn’t buy happiness.

It’s a lesson that almost doesn’t seem logical. How could money not buy happiness? Tell a child that “money doesn’t buy happiness” and you’re likely to hear, “But, I’d sure like to try.” Truly, money only buys things. Things grow out of style. They get rusty, or lost or shoved to the back of the closet. The satisfaction of doing a job well, extending a kindness to a stranger or achieving a goal that you thought was unattainable have incalculable worth, and can energize you, and your child, to achieve even more. Or as Warren Buffet would say, “…to feel like you could do anything”. Perhaps, even to feel like you could end poverty in our community.