Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When I'm Old and Rich

For some reason recently I've been getting into a lot of conversations about what-ifs with my kids. Weirdly, though, it's not just them, because once the ball is rolling, other people always want to participate. The two most popular what-ifs among grownups are what will you do with yourself when you're old and retired? and what would you do if you suddenly came into a lot of money?

 I think a lot of my friends are starting to experience the aging parents syndrome, and they are discovering there are as many ways of growing old as there are individual people in the world. A lot of people our parents' age had a job that they plugged away at for years and years, and looked forward to retiring so that they could have leisure time. They had good retirement funds and houses that they bought and paid for, back when that was still possible: the American dream. They dreamed of the day they would retire, secure in the knowledge that after sixty-five, they would be free. Most of them imagined they would finally do with themselves what they really wanted to do all along.

But the thing that's fascinating is how many of them really didn't envision what those activities would be. There are so many ways to "do" leisure, and a lot of people simply don't put time into anything but work and not-work. They don't have something they love, something they pursue with passion outside their work or family selves, and when they retire they suddenly find themselves at loose ends. There are lots of people who, having put in their time, simply end up not doing anything. I mean, they walk the dog, chat with their neighbors, watch movies and tv, read the newspapers, and go to the grocery store, doctor, whatever. But they're done contributing; they have no particular hobbies, and they are perfectly happy just to exist, to consume, to live a purposeless, pleasant existence. I think that, in the distopian universes where old people are euthanized, these people would unfortunately be the first to go, because from a societal standpoint they are no longer adding to the status quo, even if they did their bit earlier. They are just... coasting along until it's time to die.

Then there are the ones that become suddenly aware of the time they have left, who take long walks and look at the world around them; they babysit their grandchildren, they go to weekly games of cribbage and book clubs, volunteer at the local school, try zip lines, learn to use Photoshop. At the opposite end are the ones who can't seem to sit still, and are always organizing other people. Their lives are never dull, and neither are the lives of the people around them. They run youth clubs, drama groups; they sit on school boards and interfere with their neighbors' lives. They are a constant presence, and often great fun to have around.

Or how about the gardeners? The contemplative ones, who just want a bit of quiet, but who always work on something to make it better, always out enjoying the day and seeing to the endless, silent, simple work of whatever needs doing. I have always imagined myself a gardener, a keeper of bees and chickens and possibly goats, a maker of cheese. A knitter, maybe, and a writer, of course: always a writer.

Unfortunately, there are people who didn't organize themselves so nicely in their younger lives. Through bad management or late divorce or simply through not having a good income and being dependent on social security, they are at the mercy of their income. They spend all their time clipping coupons or, in some cases, trying to shore up the holes in their bleeding finances, and there's no time nor money for all the fun stuff. This is who I don't want to be, and it's a crap shoot, so it's scary. What if your retirement is in stocks, and the crash hits?

Which brings me to the question of becoming rich.

"I don't know what I'd do with all that money." I hear this comment a lot from a surprising number of people, usually when the subject of the state lottery comes up. I think they look at that $46 million dollar mark, or whatever it is, and think (rightly, perhaps) "it's just too much to take care of." Or perhaps they don't want to end up running around having pictures taken of them like Tamara Ecclestone, or whoever the disgustingly-wealthy-person-du-jour is.

 In any case, I always tell them, "I know exactly what I'd do with all that money." And I do. I could spend that $46 million in a couple of years. And I wouldn't be buying yachts with it, either. Of course, when I say that, people always look at me strangely and then sort of shut up, as if I've been rude, or perhaps as if I'm showing distressing signs of avarice; but honestly, there are so many things I would love to spend some money on!

 So here, for the benefit of you people who have won the lottery, I have decided to write both some suggestions for what to do with you money, if faced with enforced leisure, and what to do with yourself, in the process. Or... let me rephrase that: these are ten things *I* would do, if I had the opportunity.

#1 (Boring but useful suggestion: get a good accountant. You can pay this person well, but make sure they're good, and make sure they're honest. It's astonishing how many people who win the lottery end up broke and embezzled from (or had someone dance a financial jig around them and then move on).) Okay, now on to the real list.

#1A. Get an art/music/writing/voice/skydiving/etc tutor. Do this even if you have no interest in art/music/writing/voice/etc. Sometimes, we don't know that we like some activity, or even have a proclivity for it, unless we do it for awhile. Learn to play a bluegrass fiddle, or make faux finishes. Learn to paint excruciatingly detailed photorealistic paintings. Think about something you've admired, and try it. If you like Van Gogh, go buy a s**tload of paint and start laying it on, and get someone to show you the ropes of composition and color. It's extraordinary how many doors creativity can open!

#2. Give a bunch of money to the schools in your area -- the poorer the district, the better. Earmark what you want the funds to go to: technology, art, music... all the things those schools can't afford to pay for anymore (in California this is a statewide problem, since we are 50th in education among the states, but there are always poor schools that need help).

#3. Set up an endowment for something you've noticed is lacking and you care about. In my case, I would start a Barn Society, dedicated to fixing up all the old barns in California which are being left to fall down because the farmers can't afford to pay the permit fees to resuscitate them. Or I would buy the huge ranches I see going up for sale and put them in a trust, to preserve the beautiful coastline where I live.

#4. Give to a worthy cause, or many worthy causes. Amnesty International, for example. Charity is possibly the most obvious of these ideas. Do it anonymously, so they don't send you junk mail!

#5. Pay off all your debts. Pay off all your family's debts: your siblings, your parents, your children. Give each one of them whatever the maximum gift allowance is. Start college funds for every child in the family.

#6. Set up a travel fund for you and your family, so that every year you can take a modest vacation in some interesting place. Not huge fancy hotels, not expensive tours, just medium-sized. But it will alleviate the impossibility of those airfares, the ones that put you in debt for the rest of the year.

#7. Set up an educational fund. If you care about educating children about the environment, earmark it for that. If you feel that people don't understand the fiscal side of their voting choices, make a fund that will educate the masses. Raise awareness, help make us all smarter, and the world will be a better place.

#8. Create an endowment that preserves something. Gypsy songs. Chair caning. Tatting designs.

#9. Make your house beautiful. I don't mean make it worth more, by turning it into a McMansion, or tiling all the floors in expensive materials; I mean, really think about what would make you happy. Making your garden into a jungle, for example, full of rare, scented herbs and overhanging fruit. Or repainting it in amazing, rich colors. Or redoing the bathroom so it's like an old-fashioned Japanese bath. Or just getting a new stove. See more about the house, below.

#10. Lastly, set some of the money aside for things like retirement and house-cleaners. Take $1 million and put it somewhere so that you have a cushion when you are old and want to retire, and then put a bit more into a fund which will send you the interest every month so that you can not work so hard. If that means babysitting and laundry help, so be it. It may mean continuing to get tax help after the money's gone and you just have your regular income again.

At this point, a few things NOT to do are probably also in order.

First off, keep the things you get for yourself modest. If you plan to spend pretty much all the money as fast as you can and then move on, like I do, buying yourself a huge house is a mistake. Partly because most huge houses are not designed to be lived in comfortably; they were built by developers who got designers to make the things as flashy as possible, but they never imagined happy people living there in love and stability. Those houses are mostly created to show off how rich the owners are. Also, the taxes will kill you -- for as long as you live there. The same holds true for fancy cars and yachts -- they cost a pile to keep up, and need someone to put time and energy into them even when they're working fine. If you have to get out of your tract house, or buy a new car, find something modest that you love, that you can imagine growing old in or with, something that makes you comfortable and cozy and happy -- and then do it!

In other words, hanging onto your wealth (and your idea of wealthiness) means you will spend most of your time managing your money, as well as all the things your money bought. Is that what will bring you the most happiness in life? If not, take a little bit of it and walk away from the rest. Turn it into endowments that run themselves, and then be happy you could help people.

Lastly, don't make new friends who like a luxurious lifestyle -- or if you do, don't buy them stuff, throw parties, invite house-guests, etc. Keep your life private, or you'll be the next Hugh Hefner -- until they all move on to the next sucker.

Unless, of course, that's what you've always dreamed of.

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