Print this article

Talking About Wealth: Interview With Jennifer Risher

Joe Reilly

16 November 2020

Family office consultant and regular Family Wealth Report commentator Joe Reilly talks to Jennifer Risher, author of We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth.  Risher tells the story of how she adjusted to the wealth she and her husband earned from being early employees of Microsoft and Amazon in the 1990s.

Joe Reilly: What made you take the plunge and candidly share your story? You didn’t have to.
Jennifer Risher: That is true! I have been writing it for a long time, almost fourteen years. It is exciting to have it out there. It has gone through a lot of iterations. It started out as introspection, as therapy, working through this thing that happened to me and finding it so different than I might have expected.

Money is a taboo subject, but it doesn’t have to be. When you have wealth, you lose the right to complain. No one wants to be judged, no one wants to be ungrateful. It is so much easier to stay quiet.  

But I couldn’t stay quiet. I wanted to shine a light on this reality that no one discusses. I found it was difficult, and I felt like I had this thing that was not a connecting force. That is ultimately what I am trying to write about, and what I think is so unknown to the world is that money is this amazing thing, but that it actually comes between you and what all of us really want. What makes us happy is connections between people and quality relationships. Whereas money is a distancing force.  

The online reviews were so far apart. They were either five star or one star. The five stars felt validated by the story and the one stars thought the author was out of touch.

It was dramatic. I expected backlash, but I think part of that was a really hellacious headline in the NY Post. So people were reacting to that headline. It was awful. That got people really upset. I do think there are people who can’t listen to this, who can’t hear it. Money is really emotional. There is a lot of resentment and anger and no, we are not living in a system now that I feel good about. So I understand that backlash. People have also really welcomed this book, people get what I am trying to say, they relate to it in a really visceral way; they are thanking me. Then there is another group of people who realize they have not thought about these issues, that they have issues in their lives and can see a bias. There is one last bias that is not only acceptable but applauded - the bias against the rich. It’s uncomfortable to talk about money because discussing money isn't a muscle we have developed. But I hope to get us uncomfortable, to help us talk, so that we can connect and learn from each other.

What kind of money messages did you get from your parents?
I don’t think we ever really escape our childhood, those things are deeply, deeply rooted and our money story starts there. From those values and beliefs we learn as kids we either embrace or start to reject them or kind of figure out what is right for us. We had a major socioeconomic shift, which was so far out of what I experienced growing up. It was challenging. Just saying those words helps. It is hard to imagine wealth as a challenge that needs to be overcome. 

My dad grew up worried about getting enough to eat. His father had dropped out of school to work and his mom was a second grade teacher and the family didn’t have much money, and he spent a lot of his early years being worried. That really stuck with him. That feeling of never quite having enough is still with him. My mother’s parents, having lived through the depression, saw the wealthy as uncaring when they were struggling. That got passed to my mom, and it got passed to me. I also felt like they are other, obnoxious and superior.  

I think the world would be a much better place if we all became something we were prejudiced against. I became rich, and it has really taught me empathy, it has opened up my heart to people. If you have a prejudice it is unhealthy for the world and for you. 

Your journey reminded me of Strangers in Paradise by Jim Grubman, a book about how people acclimate to wealth in similar ways that immigrants acclimate to a new culture.

There were many steps on your journey, but your encounter with Ms Old Money and Ms Glamour, who we might think of as New Money, were pivotal. Ms Old Money taught you the importance of belonging, but what did you learn from Ms Glamour?
She was living her life. She was a spender and cared about how she looked and cared about where she lived, things that I grew up feeling were distasteful, but at the same time she was so comfortable. That was interesting for me. How could you be so comfortable in owning your money? Although I didn’t want to own it the way she did, there was something appealing in that comfort.  She represented that, I was sort of fascinated by her. From her I figured out why not hire a personal shopper? Why not spend the way you imagined spending when you didn’t have money. Ultimately that wasn’t me. That wasn’t what I wanted or valued, so I ended up rejecting a lot of what she stood for. I am happy to say that I have begun to own a little bit more of where I am in the world. The more I think we can own it, the more good I think we can do in the world.  You can’t start giving until you really feel like you have enough and own what you have. By feeling that gratitude, it also leads to generosity. It is important for us to step into our reality and own it and say what it means to be in this reality. And part of that is being the best person you can be, and giving back and helping people who are unfortunate.

How did you find your way with advisors?
Well, money doesn’t come with a handbook to tell you how to deal with these things. We started out by asking other people and a friend of mine gave me a name of a woman. We started with her and she wasn’t the right person for us. But from her we got to our current advisor, which worked out well for us. Our wealth advisor was also our therapist, our counselor, he was one we could talk to about money issues because we couldn’t talk to our parents or our friends. So we needed them to set up wills and trusts. And out of his group, recently, I worked with someone who helped me reach out to different charities. They have been a nice partner.  

As far as investing itself, my dad got us to think about investing when I was young. I always had an interest in it, and when I was leaving Microsoft I was investing in different things, but that eventually went away. I enjoyed keeping my checkbook balanced and doing some investing, but it no longer had much value for me because we were so fortunate, I didn’t feel like I needed more. It is no longer a fun puzzle for me, let’s let the professionals do it, let’s tell them where our risk tolerance is and let them take care of it.

How have you spoken to your children about money?
Children are interesting. We did set up trusts when they were really little, and we didn’t want to give them a ton of money, but the investments in those trusts have done quite well, so better than we might have chosen. So when our older daughter went to college, we made her know that we are fortunate and lucky and wanted to pass that sense of gratitude along to them. But we never talked about specifics. When our older daughter was going to college, we were somewhat overwhelmed. So we asked some couples we knew what they did, and would you sit down with us over dinner and talk about this with us. And we had some really wonderful conversations about how they thought about their kids.

Most people worry about their kids lacking motivation or lacking ambition and whether they are going to be spoiled or entitled. We have been very lucky and our children have been motivated in school, and we realized they are not that person you imagine. They are in their 20s now and so do they want to know how much they have in their trusts? We got together on a Zoom call and talked to them about how we were proud of them, and we trusted them, and if they wanted to know, we would be happy to tell them what they had in their trusts. The answer was not immediate. Both of them said, well, we know we have a lot but if we know how much it will be more of a responsibility. It took them some time, but we eventually told them the numbers and we gave them an assignment of at least spending a half hour on the phone together talking about it. And we did an exercise that Keith Whitaker from Wise Counsel had mentioned of each generation writing down three messages and asking three questions. So they are talking to each other, and they are talking to us. And my husband and I will do the same, to keep communication going between all of us.  

The major theme of the book is how talking about these issues not only helps you adjust, but may actually be a path to a larger understanding and connection in society.

There is so much suffering in this country right now. People are going without housing, healthcare, without food, there is an education crisis. This is not a society I want to live in. Our silence allows the status quo to persist. Our silence doesn’t get us to examine our relationship with money. We can stick in our bubble unaware and not holding ourselves accountable when there is a large and influential segment of our population that is not talking to each other, and feels isolated and estranged, they are probably not at their most empathetic and generous. I’m really hoping that my book becomes a catalyst for conversation. We need to talk to each other to connect and learn from each other.  

Normally when I have a problem, I turn to friends. Should our sixteen year old have a curfew? I ask everyone I know, and that is how I do my research. The same doesn’t happen with money, but it should. We should be talking to each other to take the power away from money and put money in its place as a tool and not something that is bigger than we are.

I guess it is really important for anyone like me who has more money than they had growing up or more money than those in their extended family or their friends, to talk to each other. We should share our stories because it is isolating, and it may sound far reaching, but I think talking can help us fight income inequality as well. Because right now we are not talking to each other at all, and if we are not examining our own relationship with money, how can we be making changes and hold ourselves accountable and really understand our privilege, and really understand other people? The gap is so big right now that we don’t see each other accurately. We all have a relationship with money, and we all have emotions that we avoid. If we are not talking to people closest to us, it just makes money this strange theoretical thing, and it is really a piece of all of our lives, it doesn’t matter how much you have in your bank account. I think we learn from each other’s stories and I hope that by sharing my story it will help other people understand their own.