If You Suddenly Had a Million Dollars, How Would It Change Your Life?

The dream of becoming a ‘millionaire’ is not new. I have vivid memories of watching the TV series The Millionaire when I was very young. The super hit (it was right up there with I Love Lucy!) starred the biggest names in television at the time and explored the ways that sudden, unexpected wealth could change people’s lives—for better or for worse. In each episode, John Beresford Tipton, Jr. directed his executive secretary, Michael Anthony, to deliver a 1 million dollar check (the money was after-tax, and the top tax rate at that time was 91%). And note that $1 million is worth more than $10 million in today’s dollars! The recipient could not tell anyone except their spouse of the gift, but there were no other restrictions. Each episode was a morality play, and we watched what each person chose to do with the windfall. The lesson learned, of course, was that money itself isn’t the key to happiness. How it is used, and why, is what matters. It begs the question: If you suddenly had an extra million dollars—or $10,000,000—how would it change your life? What choices would you make that are different from what you choose today? 

It’s a thought-provoking and powerful way to explore your values and set your goals, regardless of how much or how little money you have today. In my experience working with clients, I’ve seen that the ‘why’ of money is different for everyone. Even ‘financial security’ doesn’t have a consistent definition. For myself, financial security means freedom from money stress and a level of comfort for my adult children and their families. I want them to be debt-free, own their homes, and have enough assets to make important decisions about their lives without having to worry about money. For you, it may mean being able to afford a home in a particular community, or being completely free of debt, or having the freedom to retire at a certain age. One thing that is universal about financial security is that it opens up your options to dream big. 

When I kick off the planning process with clients, I love the guided exploration of their core financial values and goals. If a client’s goal is to remodel her kitchen, my next question might be, “Let’s say your dream kitchen was complete… what’s important about that to you?” If she replies that it would allow her to entertain her family and friends more easily (and probably more stylishly!), I ask, “And what’s important about that to you?” Eventually, we’re able to get to the heart of what she values most—not just financially, but at a much deeper, more meaningful level. That’s where the real fun begins, when we’re able to start building a long-term plan based on her core values and the people and causes that matter most to her.  

One of my favorite financial books is Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John C. Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group. Bogle says that one of his greatest missions is to “restore common sense to the investment world” and to shift what he sees as a “destructive obsession with financial success.” His book supports that goal by helping readers explore what it means to have “enough.” Enough money. Enough success. Enough of everything in life. His insights look through the lens of money and ask questions that can help you understand how you can use your assets to become a better version of yourself: 

  • What are the true treasures in your life?
  • What values do you want to emulate in your business and personal life?
  • What is your role in society—and how can money support that role?
  • What is ‘enough’ for you?

When The Millionaire was on TV during the Golden Age of Television, it was a hopeful time in America. The victory of World War II was still a recent memory, the Army-McCarthy hearings had finally come to an end, the Interstate Highway System Act had passed, and there was a strong sense of community and collectivism. When John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he was the youngest president in history (and a Catholic, to boot!). Even after his assassination, Lyndon Johnson was able to keep the country’s optimism alive as we strived to build “The Great Society,” where no one had to starve or be poor as long as we all worked together for the greater good. People had reason to be optimistic (at least for those people who ‘mattered,’ but that’s another topic for another time). The economy was growing. More often than not, people trained for a job that they held for decades—or even their entire career—where they earned enough to own a home, raise a family, and even send their kids to college. At 65, they could stop working and live on a company-sponsored pension that supported a comfortable retirement. And Social Security had virtually ended poverty for seniors, retirees, widows, and orphans. 

Today, so much has changed. For better or worse, we Baby Boomers ushered in an era of individualism and entrepreneurship. According to a January 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person changes jobs 12 times throughout their career, often spending less than five years at a single company. Pensions have been replaced almost entirely by individual retirement plans like 401(k)s, putting the responsibility of building a ‘pension’ in the hands of the individual. The result: we are forced to focus more on money. We are forced, at least at some level, to become obsessed with financial success. 

The challenge today is to find a better approach to money that focuses not on money itself, but on how we use our wealth to support our values and (in Bogle’s words) the greatest treasures in our lives. So what is your greatest treasure? How do you want to use money to become a better version of yourself? I’d love to hear your answers.

Related: Women and Money: How Times Have Changed!