Sudden Wealth Syndrome is real
In the 1990s, Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist at the MMC Institute in San Francisco, studied the impacts of sudden wealth on entrepreneurs during Silicon Valley’s gold rush. As a result of their surging net worths and radically changed lifestyles, Goldbart’s subjects exhibited signs of paranoia, excessive guilt and insomnia, while also expressing fear of losing control.
To describe the various stress-related disorders infecting the newly rich, Goldbart coined the term Sudden Wealth Syndrome, or SWS. But it’s not reserved for tech billionaires. It can afflict anyone whose life is suddenly altered by a dramatic increase in wealth, says Stanley Tepner, portfolio manager and first vice president at CIBC Wood Gundy in Toronto.
“The most common [examples] tend to be either a divorce settlement or an inheritance, but you also have insurance settlements and sales of businesses and properties,” Tepner says.
Tepner’s been interested in the negative connotations of financial windfalls for two decades. He says there are three areas where the suddenly rich tend to be blindsided by their newfound burdens.
1. What to do with the money
Ironically, a sudden infusion of cash can get in the way of sound financial planning. People can have radically different reactions. Some will throw money at every investment that grabs their attention. Others may be paralyzed by the opportunities new wealth opens up for them.
Just because someone is now wealthy does not mean they know anything about managing money, Tepner explains, or that they’re wealthy enough to withstand a string of poor investment decisions.
A woman who’s just sold a successful towing company, for example, may have known everything about building her business. But having to now manage money, rather than people and equipment, can put her completely out of her element.
“Some are too careful,” Tepner says. “Some, on the other hand, are too flippant … and don’t realize this may be the only meaningful, dramatic increase in net worth they’ll experience in their lifetime.”
A life-changing windfall cannot take the place of a detailed personal financial plan, which should take four factors into account: your earnings, your financial needs, your goals and your risk tolerance.
2. How to manage your emotions
Coming into a lot of money can trigger many emotions, from the heart-stopping joy of a lottery win to the mixture of sadness, guilt and gratitude that can accompany an inheritance. When those emotions fuzz someone’s financial logic, Tepner says problems can arise.
He gives the example of a client who put all the money from a considerable inheritance into GICs that earned next to nothing in interest, rather than placing it in investments that could potentially generate healthier returns. The client didn’t want to risk a penny of what her now-departed parents had worked all their lives to accumulate.
While the client saw her approach as a form of tribute to her mother and father, Tepner says, “It’s almost like a second tombstone” that prevented her from turning their life savings into something more.
Other situations, like a death or divorce, can see a family’s money manager removed from the picture, forcing a less experienced partner into a financial decision-maker role for which they’re not prepared.
“A lot can go wrong there in terms of investing,” Tepner says. “The risk is whether you can manage your own emotions well enough to handle that money in the best possible way for yourself.”
3. How wealth affects your relationships
We’re all familiar with the cliche of a newly wealthy person’s friends suddenly looking for handouts. As much as that sounds like a TV trope, Tepner says it’s real, adding the corrosive effect on personal relationships can be the most upsetting aspect of sudden wealth.
It’s also the most difficult one to prepare for: Having your lifelong friends treat you differently because of your suddenly bountiful bank account. While you’ll probably be comfortable picking up the cheque when you first come into money, it will likely get old if you’re still expected to do that years later.
“Count on being barraged by the phone calls, emails, mail and door knocking of perfect strangers who have their own designs for the new money,” Tepner says. “We hear a lot about ‘the distant cousin who needs help.’”
Tepner’s advice, whether it’s dealing with opportunistic hangers-on or deciding how best to invest your newfound wealth, is to not make sudden decisions.
Don’t splurge on the biggest yacht at the boat show or make a down payment on a $3 million house. Take the time to deal with the flood of emotions you’re bound to feel and then move forward, carefully and with a road map in place.