My mother recently passed away and left me a lot of money. This is complicated for a number of reasons. My mother was a difficult person, but she was still my mother, and she loved me as best she could. She was also really sick when she died, so her death feels like a relief in some ways. But grief aside, I’m not sure how to deal with this money and how it’s affecting my relationships and my life.
I know this is a lucky problem to have, but it’s also a very lonely one. I am my mother’s only child (she divorced my father when I was 2, and he’s still alive), and all my friends and family know she was wealthy — she had a lot of family money and definitely didn’t hide it. I also have a number of half-siblings on my dad’s side who could really use the money more than me, along with friends who are struggling with student loans and all the normal stuff that I will never have to worry about. It’s all very awkward, and I feel self-conscious about it.
My mother’s financial adviser has helped me decide what to do with the money (for now, it’s just going in an investment account; I’m 26 and in grad school, so it’s not like I need to buy a house or anything). My question is, how do I wrap my head around this, emotionally? How do I deal with the fact that everyone knows I have a lot of money now? Her obituary was widely circulated and mentioned her philanthropy and family background, so I’m pretty sure that even my boss and co-workers know. I feel like I have this “rich girl” tattoo on my face. What I really want is just a hug and my regular life back, but I worry that this has changed the way people perceive me and I’ll never be able to get past it.
I’m really sorry about your mother. It sounds like you’re struggling with how the money she left you is affecting your close relationships at a time when you need them most. That’s a lot of loss and instability to contend with. However, you might be making this process a little harder on yourself than it needs to be.
To be clear, I’m not dismissing any of your feelings about this inheritance and how it has thrown you for a loop. Your reactions are completely valid. Money inextricably shapes our personal identities and how we evaluate our place in friend groups, family dynamics, and society more generally. A sudden change in your financial situation can shake your sense of self to the core, not because it changes anything about who you fundamentally are, but because it changes what you can do. That’s an important distinction. The point is that you have more agency than you might think.
You also aren’t alone in this experience, says Matt Lundquist, the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy. “I’ve had a number of patients wrestle with questions around inheritance, especially when it’s the result of a difficult relationship,” he says. “They’re asking themselves: Do I deserve this money? Is it tainted somehow? Will other people judge me for it?”
He points out that your relationship with your mother appears to have shaped your view of money and what it means to have it (cast in a rather unflattering light, it seems). Now that you’re the recipient of her wealth, will other people view you in the same way they did her? This is known as “projective identification,” says Lundquist: “You’ve got your own feelings about wealth that may be bound up in your feelings about your mother, and you’re imagining that other people share those opinions.”
Allow me to clear that up for you: You are a different person from your mother. And your awareness of that, while it’s swirling around in some painful self-reflection right now, is what will ultimately guide you to make decisions that are totally your own and aligned with your values. For that reason, I think it’s smart that you aren’t leaping into anything with this money right now. Keeping it invested and consulting a trustworthy adviser are good moves.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of things you can do to feel more secure in yourself and your relationships. The first is to use some of your new funds to get a good therapist. You are mourning the loss of one of the most important people in your life. In moments like this, you are only as strong as your support system.
The second is to lean on your loved ones. Will some people see you differently now that they know you’re wealthy? Maybe a little bit. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be mindful of how your financial situation is different from theirs. But it’s not your job to “prove” to them that you haven’t changed. I promise that most people aren’t thinking that much about your money anyway. They probably just want to be there for you as you grieve the loss of a parent. And the more you trust them, the more I think you’ll find a lack of evidence for your fears that they can’t relate to you anymore.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about how you’ll set some boundaries around your money in the future. “It sounds like you have some anticipatory anxiety around other people asking you for money, or feeling like they deserve it more than you do,” says Megan McCoy, a financial therapist and professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “Creating and holding boundaries around this money does not mean that you are greedy or selfish.”
Instead, McCoy says that gaining a sense of ownership and authority over this money will make you better equipped to be generous with it. She encourages you to separate your financial goals into three different buckets: (1) your own comforts (maybe you want to own a house, travel regularly, etc.), (2) supporting your family in a way that’s fair and sustainable, and (3) giving to causes that you believe in. “But you can’t do any of those things if you don’t feel like you have a right to the money at all,” she points out.
Ultimately, money is a powerful tool that can be harmful in the wrong hands, especially when it’s used to manipulate people. I think you’re feeling a certain pressure and responsibility to use it in the “right” way, which is healthy. But you have the rest of your life to figure it out. Go easy on yourself in the meantime, especially right now.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.