More Than Money
Issue #27

Lifestyles of the Rich and Simple

Table of Contents

“"COMING OUT" as Wealthy - What happens when others find out you're rich?”

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I was told by many friends not to "come out" in a major Newsweek piece about philanthropy in Silicon Valley. They predicted that I would be besieged with requests for grants and regret giving up my privacy. The result of going public: I received a huge number of laudatory notes from all over the world, reconnected with some long-lost friends, and, oh yes, there were a mere few requests for funding. It was a very positive experience, despite the worries of many concerned friends and family. Most importantly, becoming a role model did have a positive impact on others, which was the major objective of giving up lots of valuable time to be interviewed and photographed.


BESIDES THE EXCELLENT reasons already mentioned for "coming out," others include:

  • Living honestly in the world has its own advantages, both emotionally and morally.
  • Coming out is an excellent mechanism for sorting the wheat from the chaff, in terms of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.
  • It's a reality check-we find out we're not nearly so deep in the closet as we think we are. It's a humbling and excellent experience for the wealthy to realize we're not controlling the environment.
  • Bad experiences. Although infrequent, they do happen-and they're leveling. It provides the opportunity to build empathy, understanding, and compassion for all people who are targets of prejudice.
  • It annoys the right wing. It's fun to watch them foam at the mouth about "limousine liberals."
  • Money is power. The wielding of power should be done in the open, not in secret.


I HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING all my life with the question of how public to be about wealth. I am a second- generation inheritor (my grandfather created our family's wealth) and my father's views on wealth colored my own. The legacy he passed along to us children was a discomfort with the subject and feelings of shame and obligation. On the positive side, we were raised to believe that ostentation was a bad thing (I still agree with that); that we should all work, despite the fact that we could afford not to; and that we should become active philanthropists. On the down side, we were taught to apologize for our wealth, to worry about how others thought of us and our wealth, and to fear that many would take advantage of us if they knew of our wealth.

Now, at age 34, I am finally coming to terms with my wealth, recognizing that it has helped to shape who I am. I am now purchasing things that reflect my net worth (such as a large Park Avenue apartment and a luxury car) because I can have them, and I no longer worry about what others might think of me. I also recently pledged half a million dollars to my former boarding school for a scholarship. The school is thrilled because I am the youngest board member and they believe my gift will inspire others to give. They asked if they could issue a press release and publish an article about my donation in their bulletin. At first I was concerned because I did not want it to seem as if I made the gift for the publicity; I didn't want to be viewed as "showy." However, I came to realize that the school wanted to use me as an example and the attention generated by my gift would likely bring more funding to the school.


I TALK OPENLY ABOUT MY financial situation with:

  • those who know me
  • anyone who asks (and they do- because when asked what I do, I say I'm currently on unpaid leave from teaching and exploring who I am without it. The next question is nearly always, "How do you not need to work, if you don't mind me asking?")
  • women who seem to be in a similar situation
  • the men I date, since it will impact them if they choose to build a relationship with me, much as my having an illness or a child still at home would.

I think of myself as pretty much "out." I'm sure, for instance, that most of the parents at the school where I taught knew, and my neighbors certainly do. But I'm not given to just bringing it up for no apparent reason . . . or to "model" anything.


IT'S TAKEN ME A WHILE to feel comfortable with our unexpected wealth (stock options that we saved and that have increased in value). We don't talk about our wealth directly. We sometimes just say that it is incredible to have this opportunity. Some things that I do (and probably I would do them even if I didn't have wealth) are:

  • I pay people fairly, responsibly, and above the table.
  • We put our names on donations that we give. We have made several matching grants and have had total strangers come up to us and say thank you. (It feels good.) My husband has said we need to stand up and be counted, so we are.

One last thing: I took a class at our local church. It is an alternative church based on many religious philosophies. I was in a small-group discussion and when we were talking about abundance, I "came out" about our wealth to the group. The group was extremely supportive and my coming out didn't change either the relationships or the tone of the group. I was quite nervous talking about it, so I added some humor to the situation. I said, "This is what a millionaire looks like." The others in the group just said, "It's okay," and that they were pleased to be with someone who had so much integrity and willingness to give back. They were very glad that we were using our money responsibly to help others. Now when I see those people, they treat me just like regular folk, which I really am.


BEING WEALTHY IS BOTH worshipped and denigrated in our society. Coming out exposes one to adulation and envy, as well as to the snide comments. You have to be prepared for either reaction from friends and acquaintances. It is only a third reaction that feels good-the pleasant support of people who understand and accept whatever you have done in disclosing wealth. Those reactions are less common, but can make it worthwhile.


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