Whether or not money buys happiness is an age-old question. But it’s something the super-rich are grappling with as never before. As the realm of the mega-wealthy grows ever larger – Forbes estimated a global population of more than 2,600 billionaires whose collective wealth equals some $14tn, as of December 2021 – so too are accompanying issues such as wealth shame and inheritance guilt. The issues are further compounded at a time of huge social inequality and when a global crisis has seen the cost of living soar.

Historically, wealthy families had priests to offer them some spiritual guidance. Today, they see a wealth therapist instead. Diana Chambers, a British-born family wealth mentor based in Switzerland – and author of Money Wisdom Unlocked – is the third generation of a family business, and inherited a substantial sum of money when she was in her early 40s. It was her own experience – of “being treated purely as a minority shareholder and not a member of the family” – that led her to try to make sense of the emotional confusion that she felt. While not a trained therapist, she sees clients for both family and individual sessions to work on past experiences and behaviours around their wealth.

As part of her practice, Chambers invites clients to write a “money autobiography”. “I ask them to look over their entire life trajectory, from pocket money to inheritance. We ask them what their experiences of money were, who made the financial decisions in their households, did their parents argue over money, how they felt when they first earned money or bought their first car, because these things shape their lives. It helps clients to get clarity and see patterns of behaviour emerge. For example, one of my clients saw how the thread of excess frugality she had inherited from her parents and grandparents was woven deeply into many aspects of her life. This insight allowed her to approach her future spending choices with greater freedom.”

Unlike traditional financial advisers, wealth therapists aren’t invested in what people do, or don’t do, with their money. “There are financial advisers and lawyers to help them with that,” says Amanda Falkson, a psychotherapist based in the City of London, who says that people want her help especially when they have just acquired wealth – such as selling a business – or via an inheritance or lifetime gift. “The job of the therapist is to help clients make choices that reflect their values and help to see things through a different prism. I ask the same questions of my clients that any therapist would ask, but keep the focus on the impact that wealth has had on them,” she says. “I look at their core values, who they wanted to be as children, what is blocking them now. Power dynamics, isolation, control, sex, marriage and identity are all themes that are wrapped around wealth, and these issues are nothing new.”

Many of the conversations, according to Falkson, boil down to two main themes: meaning and purpose. “When those are questioned, there is a direct connection with self-worth and self-belief,” she says. “This can often trigger an existential crisis. Money can disconnect people. It can make them feel set apart socially, which is why they often keep old friends around them. It’s common to see them add these friends somehow onto the payroll which, while well meant, naturally creates its own complicated dynamic.”

Talking about money, says Falkson, remains a big taboo. “People will talk about sex or childhood trauma but still be wary of talking about money,” she says. “They feel they will be judged. It’s a cultural thing. My job is to make it easier for clients to look at those issues without shame.”

Five ways to talk about wealth

By Diana Chambers

Ask yourself “What is my purpose and how will my wealth support it?” Use your answers to review your financial decisions. 

Imagine discussing your personal finances as you would with a friend. If your relationship with money is not already that easy and comfortable, determine what help you need.

Create a community, starting with one other person and building from there, to share honestly the challenges and joys of being a wealth holder.

Grappling with specific financial questions – such as how much money to pass to your children, and when – is a gift. Addressing your dilemmas will enable you to learn more about yourself and encourage conscious choices. 

You are not alone and whatever concerns you may have will already have been addressed by others, so don’t be afraid to seek advice.

“Having money is complicated,” says Belinda*, who works in finance, is in her late 40s, and runs her family’s sizeable trust. “I grew up conscious of the divide between ‘us and them’ – perhaps never more so than at this moment,” she says of her reasons for seeking therapy. “I have always felt fantastically guilty about having been born into it. I try to offset that by learning, like many of my peers, that there are many ways to use the money for good.”

Psychotherapist Joan DiFuria is co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in San Francisco, where the phrase “sudden-wealth syndrome” was coined. She has been specialising in therapy for the wealthy for more than 30 years. “We started seeing a surge of sudden wealth in the ’90s with the young tech boomers who had more money than they ever could have expected at their age,” says DiFuria. “They didn’t know what to do because they didn’t have to make money any more.” She and her business partner, Dr Stephen Goldbart, have developed a practical therapeutic model that they call “10x10”, addressing the financial, emotional, social, and health and wellness aspects of significant wealth. DiFuria agrees with Falkson that shame around money is a recurrent theme. “It is more common in those who have come into sudden wealth or have inherited,” she says. “Less so for immigrant families who have built their businesses from absolutely nothing. They are more likely to feel pride and ownership. They see themselves as ‘wealth creators’.”

Tom* is a 37-year-old British political journalist who stood to inherit a trust and a large family property portfolio when he was 18. “I knew I wasn’t ready to take on the money or the generational responsibility and asked for the whole thing to be deferred until I was 30. I needed to know who I was,” he says. “In the end I realised that I wanted none of it. It did create tensions within the family but for me, personally, the relief was enormous. When I was making these decisions, which were based on moral choices, I had never heard of such a thing as a wealth therapist. I think it would have made the whole process much easier.”

Tom’s experience reflects an emerging trend. “What we have seen in the past decade is a shift in lifestyle values,” agrees DiFuria. “Now the questions we get asked around money are more moral and less practical. We’re looking at the impact money has on friendship, family, marriage and value systems. The current generation is looking at the history of their money and saying, ‘We don’t want to be part of the one per cent.’ Our job,” she says, “is to say, ‘Whoa, wait. Let’s talk about what good you might be able to do with this – maybe you can look at reparations, maybe there is a different way.’”

It’s perhaps especially relevant at the moment in the wake of the OxyContin opioid scandal that embroiled certain members of the Sackler family, and during the war in Ukraine when the sources of wealth have become subject to greater scrutiny than ever.

“Right now there are a lot of Russian expats in a state of heightened alert,” says Chambers. “The current parental generation will need to address it emotionally. The residual impact will likely be similar to that experienced by the families of people such as the Sacklers, or descendants of slave traders.”

Chambers uses her background in business to guide her clients towards philanthropy, helped by figures such as MacKenzie Scott who, since her divorce from Jeff Bezos, has donated $3.9bn of her $49.3bn fortune to charities such as Planned Parenthood and Boys & Girls Clubs of America that support children growing up beneath the poverty line. “Once my clients have decided on their philanthropic interests, I support them to design a strategic plan.” This will identify “the areas that have the greatest impact, current philanthropic approaches, funders leading in the area, and obvious gaps that are opportunities for funders. For example, taking this approach to making a difference in the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease ultimately led to identifying the only known scientist with a protocol to reverse cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s and the opportunity to support his work.”

Likewise, DiFuria frequently sees couples wanting to work through how their wealth will affect their children: “Will it undermine their motivation and sense of self? Clients are asking much more, not ‘What do we leave to our children?’ but ‘What do we not leave?’”

When Warren Buffett pledged in 2006 that he would be giving away 99 per cent of his fortune and that his children’s inheritance would be vastly reduced, he shocked the world. But things have changed: in 2010 he joined with Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates to create the Giving Pledge: to date, 231 philanthropists from 28 countries have signed. “One of the key things we tell our clients is that money will have impact. It’s all in how you manage that impact.”

The switch in traditional gender roles can also add a layer of tension. DiFuria has counselled many more women in the past decade. “We are seeing more women who are heads of boards, who are wealth holders,” she says. “But one of the things we have found in relationships and marriage is that – whether it’s the woman or the man who has more money – they consciously or unconsciously believe they have more ‘votes’, which means more rights. What we try to help them to understand is that whether or not you are equal financially, if you aren’t equal in votes then this can lead to problems in the relationship.”

“In the end I found that wealth therapy is like any good therapy,” says Belinda. “It was a way for me to work through issues that I thought I couldn’t resolve alone. I restructured my business and my inheritors will benefit hugely because, as a generation, I think we have learned how to give back. It gave me clarity and set me on a path towards practical solutions. The only thing I regret about wealth therapy is that it took me so long to find it.”

*Some of the names have been changed in this article

Letter in response to this article:

A case for giving it away / From John Ward, Bristol, UK

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