living with money

‘I Inherited Millions and I’m Hiding It From Everyone’

Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Most young adults are unlikely to inherit any money from their family. But for the wealthiest 5 percent of American households, the average inheritance is $1.1 million, according to a 2014 report from the Federal Reserve. That’s about how much this woman, who asked to remain anonymous, inherited in her late 20s after her parents died. But unlike most heirs, she hasn’t touched the money at all — or told anyone about it. Many people who suddenly experience a large windfall worry that it’ll upend their lives and relationships. Here, she explains why she’s kept her inheritance a secret, and maybe always will.

I was raised to not flaunt money. My parents always told me it was a stupid thing to do, and we lived a very middle-class lifestyle. We weren’t really wealthy or really poor, but it seemed like we were comfortable. My parents immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong when I was a baby, because they wanted a better life for me. They were both self-employed — my dad worked in alternative medicine, and my mom ran a daycare business. And as immigrants, they definitely had a save-money mindset.

Before I inherited any money, I’d been supporting myself for years. I work in financial services, and I own a one-bedroom condo in Vancouver that I bought with some help from my parents. They really valued the security of owning a home, and they were happy for me to live close to them. My parents also paid for my education, so I had the huge advantage of not having student loans, but I also was careful about keeping those costs low. I chose a local university and lived at home while I was getting my degree. I earned my own spending money during school by teaching piano and babysitting.

When I was in my late 20s, one of my parents became ill, and I was taking care of them. It was the toughest year and a half of my life. That experience is hard for anyone of any age to go through, but I didn’t expect to go through it so young. It was a really difficult period. Both of my parents have now passed away.

My parents left me a seven-figure inheritance, in cash. I know it sounds like a lot of money, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was trying to handle end-of-life processes, so I didn’t care about the amount.  I took about two or three months off work, to execute everything — filing taxes, converting the cash into an investment portfolio. I wanted to park the money somewhere and not have to pay attention to it. After that, I just went back to work and tried to resume my normal life.

I made all of my investment decisions on my own, without an investment adviser, from research I’d done while managing my own personal portfolio. Throughout my 20s, I’d been saving and investing my own earnings from my job. By the time I inherited money, I already had six figures in my portfolio that I’d accumulated independently. Of course, I know it helped that I didn’t have student loans, and that my family had helped me buy a home — but I basically just kept doing what I was already doing, only on a larger scale.

I’ve now had this money for three years. It was a lot to handle at first, and there was a steep learning curve, but I’ve already grown the portfolio by 50 percent. I haven’t spent any of it. I just reinvest the dividends and leave it alone. I make around $75,000 a year from my day job, and that’s enough for me to support myself and go on vacation and stuff like that.

I haven’t talked to anyone about my inheritance. I’ve never told my friends, and I don’t have any other close family members. Some of my closest friends probably have an idea, the ones who knew about my parents’ businesses, but we don’t discuss it. It’s private. Everyone has different things — what I lost, many other people still have.

Even if I got this money through some other means, like winning the lottery or something, I don’t think I would treat it differently. My parents had a non-flashy, stealth-wealth lifestyle, and I’m the same way. I don’t even have a car. I don’t wear any labels. I ride a bike everywhere. I make my lunches. Nothing I do would elicit people to think, “How does she afford this?”

I don’t have plans to spend my inheritance in the future. I’m not sure if I’m going to have children, but if I do, I hope to pass it along to them. If I do not, then I will set up an endowment or foundation for causes I care about.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from this experience, and working for over ten years now, is that your job doesn’t have as much of a relationship to your net worth as many people think. Maybe you go through a divorce and your net worth gets cut in half. Or your parents help you buy a place — that’s like getting an invisible $100,000 raise, but nobody’s going to publicly announce that the way they would a promotion.

In my case, going through a sudden loss had a financial impact as well as a mental one, and I think that’s pretty common. But often people find it harder to talk about the financial side of the experience. You can never assume what anyone has, and there are a lot of factors at play.

This interviewee writes anonymously about intergenerational wealth and money management on her website. This interview has been edited and condensed.

‘I Inherited Millions and I’m Hiding It From Everyone’