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How to Think About Wealth and Guilt

feelings of guilt reduce our happiness around money
❝You can't pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.❞ -Unknown

Eric grew up in an upper-middle-class family. He attended private schools for most of his life, didn't have to worry about how to pay for college, never felt a sense of deprivation, and was given tens of thousands of dollars every year because his grandparents wanted to transfer money to later generations in a tax-advantaged way. Eric had no idea when he was growing up that he was rich by most people's standards. To him, it just felt normal. It wasn't until later in life that he realized just how much privilege he had. The idea that so much opportunity was given to him for seemingly no reason other than he was lucky to have been born into the right family made him feel undeserving. Eric feels guilty for his relatively easy ride through life.

Michelle grew up very poor. There were days in her childhood when she had to skip meals because there was no food in the house. Most of her clothes were hand-me-downs from her older siblings. When she finally got a job, she lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes the money didn't even last until the next paycheck. She married her high school sweetheart, and they both lived this way, struggling to get by. Later in life, Michelle's husband was tragically killed while he was working. As a result, Michelle received several million dollars as part of the settlement. On the surface, this seems like it would help alleviate some of her emotional stress. In reality, though, Michelle views this as blood money. Her husband had to die in order for her to get it. Michelle would give the money back tomorrow if it meant she could have her husband back. Michelle feels guilty for enjoying this money without her husband.

Sean and Candice have been working hard to implement a budget. They've done a lot of research, read several books, and downloaded all the right apps. Together, they implemented some household spending rules that would help them get ahead in the future. Sean enjoys going out to lunch with his work colleagues. Not only does this save some time in the morning not having to pack a lunch, but he gets to feel like he is part of the group. Going out to lunch is not part of their spending plan. Candice works as a nurse and sometimes comes home feeling stressed out from a long day at work. To help alleviate some of the stress, she finds herself doing some online shopping, or what she calls “retail therapy.” She knows that her online purchases are not part of their spending plan. Both Sean and Candice feel guilty for spending money in ways they know will help them in the long run.

Eric, Michelle, Sean, and Candice all feel guilty about their financial situations. These feelings of guilt weigh on them like a heavy vest. It's difficult to feel tranquility, joy, or happiness with guilt weighing them down.


One of the more common ways we tend to feel guilty around money is when we realize that we have money when others don't. There often are feelings of injustice or unfairness that come with this realization. These feelings of guilt tend to be more common among the children of financially successful people. This is because it feels more like a handout. When it feels like we didn't have to do anything to earn our standing in society, then it can feel like we got something we may not deserve.

Different people make different incomes for a wide variety of reasons. The same thing applies to wealth. If you're going to create a chart showing either how much people make or how much they have, there would be some people that have a lot and others that have a little, but most people would be in the middle. It would look like a bell curve. You have to be somewhere on this curve, and often it's through no fault of your own. This means that there will necessarily be people on the right side of the curve. If you happen to be one of those people, it's common to feel guilty about your relative position.

Gratitude is a great starting point, and somewhat of a silver bullet. Shifting your focus from guilt to gratitude is not easy, but it is worth it. As soon as you can recognize how lucky you are, you can begin to be grateful for your luck. You can be grateful for your skill. You can be grateful for the privileges that you had.

Once you feel grateful for what you have, you can go to work helping others, if that is something you value. For some, that might mean giving your time or money to organizations that help people on the left side of this distribution. Others might find more value in contributing to organizations that focus on education and training. Still, others will find a lot of value in combating income and wealth inequality. Values are personal and everybody is different. The common thread is that you have to take care of yourself first before you try to change the world.

guilt when you have money and others don't


A financial windfall is a large amount of money that changes the rules of our financial game. Windfalls include legal settlements, pension payouts, insurance proceeds, inheritance money, and least commonly, lottery winnings. Financial windfalls are difficult to manage in and of themselves, but when the source of the windfall is tied to the loss of a loved one, it's very common to feel guilty.

When somebody on the left side of the wealth or income distribution receives a financial windfall, there are several issues to deal with. One issue is that the rules very likely have changed. The recipient will likely find themselves in a new financial neighborhood, possibly outside of their original financial comfort zone. In addition, if you're used to spending all the money that you get, having a windfall sitting in an account will give the impression that there is unlimited money. It makes it harder to make your money last because of the feeling that there will always be enough money. Additionally, we may subconsciously try to get rid of the money.

When you layer feelings of guilt on top of this, it becomes nearly unbearable. Nobody would intentionally trade a loved one for a pile of cash, but this is exactly what it feels like.

Recognizing that some things are outside of our control and that our time on Earth is limited, we can start to mourn our loss. Bad things happen, and bad things happen to good people. This is expected and a normal part of life. However, when it happens to us, it's harder to accept that fact. By recognizing that bad things happening is outside of our control, we can start the process of untangling these two events, something bad happening, and receiving money. By separating these two events in our heads we can slowly start to ease the guilt that we feel about having money instead of a loved one.

guilt from losing someone to get money