Last week I visited the house of an OMG (Old Money Gal). She was dressed simply and elegantly in a Chanel suit that I know for a fact she bought at least twenty years ago. (She’d just returned from a charity lunch).
Half the old furniture in the living room was upholstered in luxurious fabrics she’d found in Italy, the other half were worn thread-bare. The old Labrador retriever that followed us in wound his familiar way around stacks of books that rose here and there from the weary rug like knee-high ruins. As we sat, so did the dog, lowering a stoic gaze upon me.
My hostess and her husband had made their own fortune during the dot.com era and cashed out prior to the bursting of the bubble. Their interests now were diverse: another business, some consulting, and a strong but discreet presence with several local charities.
Friends who’d known her before and after their windfall commented about the balance that she and her husband maintained throughout their lives. I mentioned it to her and she was quick to elaborate:
“First of all, we only get involved with things we’re passionate about. I’m not doing something just for the money. That’s crass. It creates a false high if you’re making a lot of money and a bottomless pit of despair if you lose money. If you’re doing what you love, and you make money, great. If you’re doing what you love and you lose money, or don’t make a lot, it’s not great, but it’s not the end of the world. The satisfaction of the effort washes a lot of that away.”
We were interrupted by her grandchildren who puddled in, wet from the pool. Important concerns about going to see a movie the next day were addressed. My hostess steered the gang to a matinee showing of the film, as tickets would be cheaper than going at night. Then they disappeared, chirping and laughing back into the yard.
She turned back to me and continued: “Secondly, you’ve got to pretend, to a large extent, that you only have a certain amount of money to live on each month, regardless of your net worth. I know people who’ve been successful, sold their business, and their money dominates their life: how much they’ve made, what they’ve bought, what they’re going to buy, what to do with what they’ve bought now that they don’t want it…” She threw up a hand and rolled her eyes, mildly exasperated. Telling anyone to pretend anything was the last thing I thought I’d hear from her. She was, a one of her friends put it, “the real deal, all the way around.” But still, her point resonated.
“Sure, you’ve got to watch your investments, but that’s maybe thirty minutes a month. A conversation or email with your adviser, weigh your options and make a decision, if you need to. Then you’ve got to get on with living. It’s easy to do that if you say, Okay, this is what I’m living on each month–generally. We splurge twice a year for the family, but that’s it. Otherwise, we pretend we don’t have it, stay focused on the task at hand.”
I’d heard about the splurges, stories of the family renting a villa and spending a month in the summer together, but the focus seemed to be on hey, kids, we’re spending quality time together rather than we’re renting a villa, dahling. Their cars were still old. Their house was nice, but more comfortable than anything. Their children were healthy and productive. Their life was, by all accounts, simple and fulfilling.
“When we sold the company, my husband and I each made a list of what we thought we wanted to buy in terms of things. I think I wrote down five and bought one.” She turned her wrist to me and showed me a large but plain Cartier tank watch. Black band, white face, no diamonds. Not exactly a glittering proclamation of newly-minted wealth. “Then we set up the foundation. My husband started consulting. We got involved with a couple of start-up’s. I don’t think I ever got around to the second thing on the list. I don’t even know what happened to the list.”
She then smiled. “But I’ve got a to-do list. It’s much more interesting.”