If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on — which is really remarkable in this day and age — it’s that trust fund babies are the worst.
It’s unclear if the people who mutter the words, “Ugh, trust fund babies” with a jaded sneer know exactly who they are talking about. The phrase has become a catch-all for the millennial men and women hanging out in the trendiest coffee shops all day, enjoying $10 cold brews in the trendiest parts of Brooklyn (or L.A. or wherever), while the rest of the world is slogging away at work.
But most of us trust-funders don’t relate to those stereotypes. We are ubiquitous, yet rarely flamboyant enough to make ourselves known. Surely, you’ve wondered about the young colleague whose rent doesn’t match his salary, or the creative freelancer who’s constantly jetting off to an exotic location. Yes, you guessed correctly. There is something else going on, and it might be a trust fund.
I find myself deriding the trust fund babies, though not in so many words. I criticise the people who live in high-rise, Miami-style glass condos and park their cars in the garages below when public transportation is just a few blocks away. I roll my eyes at the bottle-blonde girls in heels clutching their designer bags walking down Bedford Avenue in the middle of a weekday, on their way from Starbucks to a designer store. Come on. So I get it. We are such easy targets.
But I’m sure those girls — well, some of them — are really nice once you get to know them. And I hope once you get to know me, you’ll decide I’m not so terrible, even though I haven’t fully convinced myself of that yet.
We trust-funders can never and would never defend ourselves publicly, because as a rule we do not like to talk about money and our easy possession of it. But I would like to break that rule and humbly give it a shot.
I have a trust fund because my father died in an accident when I was a toddler. My pragmatic mother structured the wrongful death lawsuit settlement and life insurance payout in such a way so that it paid for private school, camp, and my first car. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know it was there. When I graduated from college in the throes of the recession, I had more than $300,000 in an investment account. I also receive an untaxed income of $4,000 a month and will continue to do so until I die. My mother claims she could have negotiated a higher settlement, but I’m grateful that she decided to keep it within a range where I would still be motivated to get a job.
I have a trust fund because my father died in an accident when I was a toddler.
I tell you all of this so you know that: a.) I am not hugely rich, just financially secure; and b.) My trust fund did not come free. I paid dearly for it.
Still, I know that it is not fair. Every little girl who loses her daddy should be comforted with some smartly structured “fuck off” money. And I’m deeply conflicted about how having this money has changed me for better or worse, or both.
You see, in every financial decision I make, I have two competing voices in my head. One sounds like a fun best friend saying, “This cocktail/vacation/dress is so nice! It’s beautiful, comfortable, easy, fun! You can afford it.” The other sounds like a stranger on the internet, “Don’t be such a disgusting, spoiled trust fund baby. You could help so many people with this cash, why would you spend it on something so trivial?”
This internal dialogue plays out in weird ways. I had a 3.9 GPA and excellent SAT scores in high school, but didn’t apply for one academic scholarship, instead paying full freight for four years at a private college. Obviously, not the best financial decision, but I figured any potential scholarship money should go to someone who really needs it. I spend absurd amounts for artisanal fashion, partly because I feel good spending money that supports a good cause. And also because, let’s be honest, I’m a sucker for beautiful things. (Of course, you would never catch me with a quilted Chanel purse on my shoulder. That is just too much.) I clean my own apartment, buy my organic food in bulk, and eschew Seamless. I (almost) always take the subway.
I want to be responsible, but I don’t want to be cheap. I know that your spending will grow to fit the container you give it, so I create meticulous budgets for myself — $300 a month for restaurants, $50 a month on beauty, for example. Then, almost without fail, I break those budgets — $460 a month and $100 on average, respectively. My Mint budget is a sea of red. I can never figure out exactly what my monthly spending should be. Should I base it on my earned income of $27,000 a year? That is way too low. Should I base it on my full income? That seems irresponsible. How do you say no to a vacation or a dinner with a visiting friend when you have an extra $200,000 a quick wire transfer away? It feels disingenuous to say, “That is not in my budget.” But if I didn’t ever say that, I know I could easily run through my nest egg in a year on expensive dinners, travel, fashion, and health fads.
I want to be humble, but I want to be comfortable. And a lot of time (all the time) I have a lot of mixed feelings about my trust fund. I felt guilty paying cash for my one-bedroom walk-up in Williamsburg. When I gut-renovated the place, I tried to keep it simple and comfy, rather than flashy or ornate. The plain white walls and simple trim, the reclaimed doors with rattly knobs, the normcore furniture I got at the ABC warehouse sale — it was all chosen to fulfil the competing demands of being tasteful and high-quality, yet somehow not garnering so much attention that friends and acquaintances might guess at my dirty little secret.
A lot of time (all the time) I have a lot of mixed feelings about my trust fund.
I’m painfully aware that I am partly responsible for the gentrification of this once diverse neighbourhood. That a landlord on the corner might see me walking by and be ever so slightly influenced to kick out the Latino-owned bodega and try to get a higher rent from a farm-to-table restaurant. But if you could afford to buy a cozy little apartment and renovate it to your exact specifications, would you pass by that opportunity because of your aversion to gentrification? No. Be real with me; you certainly would not.
And that is the crux of it, I think. It’s so easy to criticise, to look down on me for what I was given. But if you were handed this, what would you do differently? Would you punish yourself and give it all away? Have a ball with it? Or would you try to be somewhere in the middle, like me?
As much as I try to hide it, I’m sure people know. I’m a late-20s freelance journalist, for heaven’s sake. It’s an important, dying profession that pays shit. And yet, while none of my clothing has labels, it’s obvious I don’t shop at Forever21. I regularly take holidays to exotic locales. When friends ask me where I get my hair cut and how much it costs, I have to admit it’s $120 for a trim. I wonder if they whisper behind my back, roll their eyes, dismiss me as a fraud, a fake, a worthless societal parasite.
So, I pay penance. I have auto donations set up to four different charities. I tip lavishly. I try to buy my goods and services almost exclusively from small businesses that consider the environmental and social impact of what they do. I donate to all the Indiegogos and fundraising campaigns and charity drives friends and acquaintances send me. A couple times, I’ve paid for a friend-of-a-friend’s hospital bills when they were in desperate need. That added up to over $7,000 this past year, and I was glad to spend every penny. I get up at 7 a.m. every day and work until 8 p.m., to prove to myself that I am not lazy. I surround myself with not-rich people, so I won’t be tempted to overspend to keep up.
And yet, there is no way I will ever feel like I deserve what I have. I will always turn around to see a glimpse of my shadow life, the one where I had to struggle, where I was hungry, where, through adversity, I became a better person with more depth and compassion and strength. Those things, I know, cannot be bought.