Balancing the Benefit and the Burden of Wealth

Posted June 8, 2018 6:25 p.m. EDT

So much for that old saw that money can’t buy happiness. A new survey of people who have built significant wealth on their own found that money has actually bought them a lot of happiness.

The majority of those surveyed — 300 people with assets of $1 million to $20 million — said they equated wealth first and foremost with peace of mind. Happiness came in second, with more than half the respondents citing it.

But life with money is not all Champagne and caviar. The respondents said that their wealth made them feel satisfied and grateful, but it also gave them a greater sense of responsibility. Many cherished the way their wealth had allowed them to spend time with their families, but some regretted losing the family time they had sacrificed in the pursuit of financial freedom.

Such inherent tension between freedom and obligation ran, to varying degrees, through all age groups in the survey, which was conducted by CoreData Research in February and March.

Affluent Americans ages 25 to 65 were asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward wealth. Respondents were categorized by age, wealth level and whether they were business owners or employees. The more the responses were parsed by category, the more complications arose. About half of all respondents said the sacrifices they had made to accumulate such wealth meant they had spent less time with friends and family.

That regret rose to nearly two-thirds for people at the higher end of the wealth range in the study. More than half of business owners felt it, too, outpacing people who had accumulated their wealth by working for someone else.

“It’s the guilt over the time it took away from the family,” said David Murphy, head of wealth advisory at Boston Private, a wealth management firm that commissioned the study. “There’s a lot of emotion built into growing the business and the time it takes to do that. The employees also become part of the extended family.”

The results of the survey, titled “The Why of Wealth,” hint at what the more sophisticated advisers already know: The days of focusing solely on investment returns are on the wane.

That goal is still important, but the most affluent want help with the more complicated aspects of wealth. They are also the demographic that wealth managers seek, often at the expense of people still building their wealth. This may explain why Boston Private paid for the study.

I talked to some people who fit in this wealth cohort. What I found is something that won’t surprise anyone who struggles to pay their bills: More money is better than less. But that financial comfort does not make the feelings around wealth any less difficult.

Jane Daly, who was passionate about public transportation during her days growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, turned a public sector transit career into a lucrative private sector venture when she and two partners started Alternate Concepts, which operates and maintains transportation systems.

“Wealth wasn’t my goal,” said Daly, 62. “I wanted the company to be successful because we had a lot of families depending on us. But I’m grateful my career ended in such a way that the wealth gave me the freedom I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

That freedom allows her to support and run an educational nonprofit called the Rising Stars Foundation in Puerto Rico.

Others I talked to also said they felt an obligation to be a force for change.

“For me, at an early age, wealth was about being able to create the change you wish to see in the world,” said Elizabeth Galbut Perelman, 29, a co-founder of SoGal Ventures, which has invested in more than 50 companies in the last two years. Galbut Perelman said her mother had to give up her career as a doctor when she temporarily lost her sight while performing surgery. It was a complication of multiple sclerosis.

That motivated her to focus on how wealth can be harnessed to fund women-owned companies that are looking to create change. She has invested in companies like EverlyWell, which provides affordable at-home lab testing, and Winky Lux, a cosmetics purveyor in New York.

“Being an employee of a big company wasn’t going to generate the wealth and flexibility that I desired,” she said of her time at Deloitte, where she worked after college. “I wanted to figure out how to solve some problems and do it to the best of my ability.”

For some younger millionaires, wealth does not equate to yachts and homes. “Independence is the first word that comes to mind, and freedom goes hand in hand with it,” said Marc Hustvedt, 38, chief executive of Above Average, a digital entertainment company, who has also created and sold companies. “In my childhood, it might have meant the trappings of wealth — houses, cars, status. Now as I’m older, with more business experience, I understand it as income stream.”

As boring as income stream sounds, it’s what allows independence.

“The whole guiding principle was, I liked to be independent,” said Tom Aley, an entrepreneur who had three young children when he quit a high-paying job at Reed Elsevier Ventures to start a company called Generate. “I could do more things. I didn’t have to be beholden to anyone.”

He even managed to persuade one of his brothers to join him at Generate in 2004. Four years later, they sold the company to Dow Jones.

This is where wealth can bring freedom. Hustvedt said his flexible schedule allowed him to spend time with two children and still run a company. He said there were other social issues he would like to tackle, like the growing wealth gap, but he felt he had little time to address them.

Time is a similar lament for Galbut Perelman. “You’re sacrificing time with your friends, time with your loved ones, time with your own health,” she said. “If I’m working at my business 16 hours a day, how do I have a sense of wellness and also take care of my employees? Business owners aren’t getting that support in their community.”

For Aley, though, having more freedom now, at age 52, is worth any sacrifices he made earlier in his career. He now has better control of his time and how he spends it.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t always work out, but for me, it’s invaluable,” he said. “It also means I can go to lunch with my wife and it doesn’t have to be confined to a Saturday, and I can see my kids’ games.” The Boston Private survey found that business owners in particular felt the burdens of wealth more intensely than people who grew wealthy working at companies. These entrepreneurs said they felt pressure from other people’s expectations as well as judgments about their wealth.

But some people I talked to also mentioned the gratification they felt, even if it was tinged with regret.

Daly said she was pleased with how her wealth had allowed her to give back to a group of children in Puerto Rico, where her company managed a rail system. But how she thought about wealth and financial independence earlier in her career left her with one regret: She had neglected her personal life.

“I turned down a couple of proposals,” she said. “I didn’t have a family.”

Still, she remains fulfilled by nonprofit work with children that would not be possible without the money she made in business.

“I have more children than anyone I know,” she said. “There is so much joy in what I’m doing now.”