I work with a lot of people who come from families that have been middle class for so many generations that poverty is a concept to them, not a memory. Few would describe themselves as wealthy. Most would see themselves as comfortable. All of them are working hard to keep what they have and get more. When I ask them why, it’s seen as an eccentric question. Sometimes they tell me it’s for their kids. Some use it as a way to keep score “He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins”. Most do it because… well… it’s what you do.
My parents were both working people. They made enough money to raise two kids, run a car and buy their own house. They believed in the mantra “Out of Debt, Out of Danger”. They knew that debt could drag them into poverty and that once there, they would never escape. At the end of their lives they felt they had paid their way.
At fifty-five, I earn what my parents would have thought of as a large amount of money. I have no debt and no dependents. I’ve got ten years or so until retirement and I have only my wife and myself to look after.
This means I find myself asking a question that my parents would never have framed for themselves and which doesn’t seem to occur to my colleagues: “How much money do I need?”
It turns out not to be such an easy question to answer.
It’s not too hard to work out that the minimum level of wealth that will keep me from being too poor to have a place to live, food to eat and enough left over to service my need for books and films and the occasional meal out. True, I have to make some assumptions about inflation and how long I might live after I retire, but I’m confident that I can come up with a ballpark number.
But is this minimum enough? And if it isn’t, what do I need the additional money for?
If I can, I’d like to move up from “not being poor” to having “drop dead money”. This is a phrase I picked up from an interview with Maeve Binchy. She said she liked having enough money so that she only had to work on things she wanted to work on. If someone tried to pressure her to do something else, she could afford to tell them to drop dead. This is an idea that strongly appeals to me. Which tells me that I value money as a source of independence more than I value its ability to get me access to specific goodies.
So let’s assume I can generate drop dead money before I drop dead myself, do I need any more than that?
Thinking about this got me to the lottery winner scenario.
I don’t gamble. I never buy lottery tickets. It’s not that I have a moral objection. It’s more that I don’t like the idea of hoping for something that I can do nothing about. It makes me feel inadequate.
But let’s imagine that I did buy a ticket and won tens of millions of dollars, what would I do with it and how would my life change?
I’d stop working as a Management Consultant. I mostly enjoy what I do but I don’t value it and I wouldn’t miss it.
I don’t see myself going on an immediate spending spree. I don’t need more clothes, especially if I can stop wearing suits. I’d continue to buy the books and videos that I buy today but I don’t think I need more. I’m not passionate about cars and I like the one I have well enough. There might be a tech toy or two that I would buy but nothing that would make a dent in the interest off that kind of money.
I would like to give my wife the opportunity to build a house to her own specifications without being constrained by cost.
I can’t see myself enjoying a life of leisure. I would get bored. I’d have to DO something with the time that money would make available to me.
If I was being self-indulgent, I’d like to run a not-for-profit epublishing house that focused on short fiction and genre novels by writers who caught my eye. I’d like to encourage and reward writing talent and create a bridge to all the hungry-for-the-good-stuff readers out there.
After that, I think I’d have to start finding ways to give the money away. There’s no shortage of good causes or good people who are willing to make life better if they’re given the money to do so.
So, if that’s what I’d do with the lottery win, what does it tell me about how much money I need?
I think mostly it means that, once the financial safety-net is in place, I would trade money for time, that I don’t have any “must buys”, that I’m not doing enough for others, and that maybe I should put a plan in place to make the house and the epublishing thing possible.