Why heirs need to work, Part 4. The true story of Colin Lewis from “Labors of Love: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, Part II

Here is an abbreviated version of the final chapter of Labors of Love: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, Part IIfrom The Inheritance Project. It is an excellent example of how, with skill and attention, middle-class parents can prepare their children for an inheritance, and how their children can make use of the skills they learn from their parents. In this way, first-generation heirs can discover what it is they love to do, and create a productive, meaningful life. “Colin Lewis” is a pseudonym, but this is an accurate account of the coming of age and fruition of a man who grew up in an affluent —but not rich—family.

Colin’s father was a lawyer who grew up middle class. Colin: “I think my father set a good example of how to relate to money. He was always giving gifts and helping people. And he did these things very much on the sly. . . . He taught me how to do bookkeeping at an early age. I had to keep track of my allowance, which was maybe a dollar. . . . He showed me how to list expenditures and disbursements in a little record book. And every day, I would enter how much I’d spent on lunch at school, and how much I paid if I bought a toy. And in order to get my next week’s allowance, I would have to show him exactly how I had spent my money. That has been my habit ever since. . . . I use an accounting program now, and I’m able to say how much I spend on clothes, on gas, on whatever.

My father died when I was twenty-one. Until his death, I had no idea that I was going to inherit a lot of money. I was always told, ‘We’re living quite comfortably, but we’re not rich. And don’t call us rich, because it’s insulting.’ I was also told, ‘You are not going to have an inheritance that you can live on. You will have to earn your living like everybody else.’ . . . So I didn’t expect to get a big pot of money. I thought it would [come] thirty years down the road. After my father’s estate was settled, my brothers and I got ten thousand dollars each, and something like twenty-four hundred dollars a year in payments from a trust. My father’s estate was also paying for my graduate-school education, and I had an allowance to live on. All the principal from the estate was left for my mother’s benefit.” The family later discovered that there was more than they had expected, but still, not a huge amount.

[Details of Colin’s formal education have been deleted.]

Colin studied architecture and worked as an architect for several years. He then started his own office and did well financially. After breaking up with his girlfriend he decided to take a year off from being a wage earner. This was when Colin’s love for sailing (something he’d enjoyed as a boy) became his passion. He decided to create a program for teenagers called Young Mariners. Not only did he teach young people how to sail, he also taught them (and himself) how to build a sailboat. And, perhaps most important, he taught the young people how to live together in the confined space of a small boat—how to settle conflicts, how to get along with each other.

The program was a big success and has been operating for many years. Looking back on what he has accomplished, Colin concludes: “I think I’ve lucked out in a lot of ways because at this point I have enough money to do what I want if I’m careful. And at the same time, I don’t have so much money that I could be foolish with it. So I’m kind of nicely in the middle. I have neither too much or too little.”

What this story shows, among other things, is that it is possible for young heirs to learn—for themselves and in their own individual ways—and there are many different ways—how to use their inheritance, as well as the less material gifts that they were born with what interests them, how they can achieve their goals, create a satisfying life for themselves, and be of service to others.