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The obligations of wealth

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Nati Harnik/AP/File

(Read caption) In this May 6, 2007 file photo, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, left, and billionaire investor Warren Buffett are seen during the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb. Gates and Buffett are launching a campaign to get other American billionaires to give at least half their wealth to charity.

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Connie writes in (I edited her question a bit to protect privacy):

I recently married a business owner who had a net worth of around $10 million before we got married. He has lived in the same medium-sized town all of his life and has kept many of the same friends since his school years. Lately, though, he has noticed that a lot of them seem resentful of him. I asked a few of my friends about this and they said that the feeling in the community was that he was being wasteful and ungiving with his money. I don’t feel that’s the case at all. He gives substantially to our church and to several charities. It is hurting him to watch some of his friendships fall apart because of this greed. Do you have any thoughts about this?

I certainly do.

First of all, I think there is some inherent distrust of the rich in the mainstream of American society. People assume that if you have accumulated money, then you are either using it in some unworthy way or you’re a miser, both of which are negative stereotypes. Many wealthy people solve this by either being extremely public with their giving (Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, people who donate to universities to get their name on the door), being extremely quiet about their wealth (John Madden, for example), or just not caring what other people think (every ostentatious display of wealth you can imagine).

A big part of that is that for many people, having $10 million is an enviable position to be in. There is, flat out, going to be a lot of envy of your position. People imagine all of the things they could do with that kind of wealth – both selfish and charitable – and they feel some sort of resentment towards others who don’t do the same (even if, often, it’s not what they would actually do with their wealth). “This person doesn’t share my values,” they think, or they feel simple jealousy.

Obviously, at some point, your husband has done something to not conceal his wealth. Maybe you live in a very high-end house. Maybe you drive expensive cars. Whatever it was, it made clear to your friends that you had significant money. Because of that, what you’re now seeing is a mixture of envy and jealousy and opinions on what your husband is doing.

Yes, it’s not nice. But at the same time, it’s human nature. No one is immune to jealousy or envy. Your husband’s success has made him a target for this.

Another thing to consider: has money changed your husband from the kind of person that he used to be? It could very well be that the wealth in his life has altered his values, his political beliefs, his ways of interacting with people, and so on. I’m not saying that they have, I’m merely saying that it’s something to think about. A good source to look at here is old friends that have been there for the long haul – ask them what they think.

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So what can he do from here? He has several options.

He can just ignore it and go on with his life. This falls into the “just not caring what other people think” category. He can continue to do exactly what he’s doing now and decide that the friends who are falling into the jealousy trap aren’t contributing positively to his life (because, honestly, if they’re making him feel guilty about the things he’s worked hard for in his life, they’re not being good friends at the moment).

He can make a very public display of charitable giving. He could give a chunk of his wealth to some sort of civic charity, like sponsoring a building for the Boys and Girls Club or something like that, and do it in a public way. Alternately, he could just make an effort to just donate as he’s donating now, but make it more public. This will smoothe some matters, but this still won’t make everyone happy – there will be people jealous of the reception he gets for his giving, too.

He can temper his public displays of wealth a bit. Whatever he’s done to make people think that he’s rich, he can just pull back on a bit. If it’s the car, get a less flashy car next time. If it’s the house… well, there’s probably not much he can do there. He can dress a bit more in time with how everyone else dresses if clothing is the problem. If you’re wearing a large ring, you can save it for special occasions. (I don’t know what triggered the response, so I’m guessing in the dark here.)

He can focus on actually shoring up the individual friendships that matter to him. Instead of fretting about this privately, he can instead focus on the friends that are actually closest to them. Have him sit down with them and talk through this stuff. It can sometimes be hard for males to do this kind of thing, but if it’s deeply bothering him, he should do it.

He can re-evaluate what he values and how he treats others. This works best if you come to the conclusion that, yes, wealth has changed you in some not-so-positive ways. Introspection and a serious focus on improving yourself can go a long way.

If I were you, I’d probably use some combination of these tactics. I don’t think he should bend over his life for these folks, but I think there’s something to be said for not making ostentatious presentations of your wealth. Similarly, I think there’s real value in always shoring up the relationships that deeply matter to you – and sometimes accepting that other relationships have moved on.

For those of you who don’t have a lot of money, put yourself in this man’s shoes for a moment. Yes, it would be wonderful to be financially secure for life, but what would you do if that security meant that many of the people you’ve had relationships with most of your life no longer were close to you? What price does wealth have? What’s the best way forward? I don’t think the answer is exactly the same for everyone, but spending a moment in someone else’s shoes can make for some surprising insight.

Add/view comments on this post.

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