- Jennifer Risher is an author who previously worked as a recruiter and product manager at Microsoft. The following an excerpt from her new book, “We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth.“
- In it, she shares her rapid journey to wealth in her early 30’s during the dot-com boom, and how abundance impacted her and others in similar circumstances.
- When income inequality is pervasive and our economic system is in shambles, her introspective look demystifies the ultra-wealthy and uncovers the effects of money on identity, relationships, and belonging.
- With nearly 40 million Americans living in poverty, she recognizes the profound privileges of being wealthy and believes there needs to be systemic changes to redistribute wealth across food, housing, healthcare, and education.
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The wealthy are more diverse and ordinary than most people see or believe. Eight out of 10 of us grew up middle-class or poor, only one in 10 inherited money, and most aren’t living in Hollywood or working on Wall Street. We are hidden in plain sight, doing our grocery shopping, driving kids in carpool, and taking the subway to the office. We want to make a difference at our jobs and spend quality time with family and friends — and our numbers are growing.
Even with the dot-com crash in 2001 and the housing crisis and recession of 2008, wealth at the top of the economic ladder has continued to explode.
At the end of 2016, not counting primary residence, 11 million US households were worth $1 million, with over a million worth $5 million or more. When I reached out to people whose circumstances were like my own and asked to interview them for this book, most told me they never discussed money but were interested in talking as long as they could remain anonymous.
In the pages that follow, you will meet Mary, who earns a high salary and has inherited wealth.
“I’ll always work. I’ll never have enough. I get a lot out of my job,” she said. Then, after a few minutes, she added, “I’m not sure my self-esteem is up to not having a job. My identity depends on my position and success.”
You will meet Laurie, who feels judged by her siblings because of the success of her husband’s business. “Maybe it’s my issue, but I get stressed about birthday gifts,” she said. “My sisters seem to expect something big. I never know what to do. Their expectations make me feel as though a nice new shirt isn’t good enough.”
You’ll hear from Betsy, who worked in finance, taught her children the importance of staying within a budget, yet has been dismayed by how much they overspend, going out to eat and having food delivered.
“It’s a problem. I’m not sure what to do,” she said. “My husband and I try to set limits, but the limits are artificial — and our kids know it.”
When her oldest moved back home for a month, and ended up staying for six, Betsy wasn’t happy with the situation. She and her husband could afford to rent him an apartment but wanted him to learn to live within his own means.
“I’ve started charging him rent,” Betsy said. “It’s backfiring. He owes me money. But he knows the situation is contrived. What am I going to do? Kick him out?”
You’ll meet Nicole, a corporate real estate developer who has children in high school and college, but still pays for a full-time nanny.
“She’s been with us for 21 years,” Nicole said. “I don’t need her anymore, but I can’t bring myself to cut down her hours. She needs the job.”
You’ll meet others as well, but mostly you will get to know me.
After growing up with middle-class values, saving my pennies, and being wary of the rich, I was embarrassed to join their ranks. My identity and place in the world were at stake. It took many years to get comfortable. Over the last decades, I’ve had a friend ask for $25,000, and another tell me she almost didn’t invite our family to join hers to see a Cirque du Soleil show, concerned we’d only want seats they couldn’t afford. I’ve worried about our children lacking motivation, discovered philanthropy isn’t as straightforward as just writing a check, and grappled with the meaning of “enough” — not life or death issues, but real when living with them day to day.
Now in my fifties, I am profoundly grateful for the abundance in my life.
Money has afforded me incredible freedom and allowed for extravagance and generosity. Our family has lived abroad and traveled the world, shared with relatives and friends, and donated amounts large and small. But there is a huge and growing problem in our country. It doesn’t feel right that some people have more money than they can spend in a lifetime while nearly 40 million Americans are living in poverty. I should pay more taxes. Minimum wage should be higher. I’d like to see the government prioritize human well-being over financial gain and put a system in place that helps redistribute the wealth at the top to ensure food, education, healthcare, and housing for all.
I’m not an economist or a politician.
I’m not some poor little rich girl either. Nor is my story a prescriptive account of how to do “rich” right. I don’t have all the answers. I began writing because wealth surprised me. I wanted to reveal money for what it is and what it’s not. I continued writing because everyone’s voice adds to our country’s conversation and hearing other people’s stories helps us understand our own. In the end, I hope this book becomes a catalyst for conversation. Talking about money and how it makes us feel could help demystify wealth.
We have a lot to learn from one another. More importantly, by talking, we could break down divides and confirm we are all 99% the same.
This excerpt is from “We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth” by Jennifer Risher (Red Hen Press 2020). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Jennifer Risher was born in Seattle, Washington, grew up in Oregon, and graduated from Connecticut College. She joined Microsoft in 1991 where she worked as a recruiter and then as a product manager. She and her husband, David, have two daughters and live in San Francisco, where David is CEO of Worldreader, a nonprofit he cofounded with a mission to create a world where everyone is a reader. On May 5, 2020, Jennifer and David launched #HalfMyDAF to inspire more charitable giving. “We Need to Talk” is Jennifer’s first book. Learn more at http://jenniferrisher.com/
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