Get Rich Quick

How much is enough?

The billboard looms over the interstate, its giant numbers a daily trigger for fantasy. As I write this, Powerball is at $200 million.

Driving to work, I do the math. If I win, that means I net $100 million after taxes, right? Or maybe it's less, depending on how the payout is structured. Say it's $75 million. Would that be enough?

Enough for what? To buy an island somewhere? To give everyone I love a million each? That's after the tithe, which I need to do immediately, lest I drop dead on the Lexus lot.

One in five lottery winners ends up broke in three years. I read this statistic and shake my head. The people who lose it all are careless and gullible. They make bad investments. They fall for every sob story. They spend like drunken sailors. The money goes to their heads, like a drug. In the end, they live under bridges or jump off them.

Not me, I think smugly. I calculate the probable interest on my imaginary winnings, insuring the security of future generations. I'm no financial wizard, but I know the first rule of wealth management: Thou Shalt Not Invade Thy Principal.

I also know that fancy Latin saying that is so often misquoted. Radix malorum cupiditas est. Greed is the root of evil. Not money itself, you understand. It's cupiditas, that disordered passion, that gets you every time.

So, back to my plans. Pay off the mortgages and cars and student loans. Set up trust funds for the grandchildren. Take the family on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, to the south of France. Or Tuscany. Rent a villa for a month or two. Then, when we get home, find an architect to design the summer cottage and start shopping for a sailboat. Now that I think about it, a cottage may not be big enough. Maybe a roomy, rambling house with separate guest quarters on the property. Nothing extravagant, just a few choice acres stretching down to the ocean.

I guess I'll have to hire someone to field the urgent requests for money that bombard lottery winners. I've heard that supplicants sometimes come right up and ring your doorbell, so we may have to move. Is anonymity expensive? I'm watching my pennies here.

Then there's my foundation. It could be the perfect career for the next phase of my life: creative philanthropy. Finding and vetting worthy causes, making carefully considered grants, evaluating the return on investment—what could be more interesting? Of course, I'll have to employ people to help me organize and run it. Program officers. Researchers. Business managers. Wait. This is starting to sound complicated. And pricey.

I'm suddenly reminded of a television show from my childhood, back when a million dollars was a lot of money. It was called The Millionaire, and featured fabulously wealthy J. Beresford Tipton as the eccentric benefactor who gave a cool mil, tax-free, to a stranger every week. He wanted to know the effect of a sudden, giant windfall on human behavior, and he chose his subjects from every walk of life.

Like the statistical lottery winners, they found the riches were a mixed blessing. Week after week, we watched marriages break up, careers end, and productive lives run aground. It wasn't the money, exactly. It was what the money meant to different people: freedom, or entitlement, or instant gratification. Cupiditas, the endless craving for more, flickered before us on the black and white screen.

The new millionaires who prospered were the ones who, by chance or choice, gave most of the dough away.

Once, years ago, we sat around the dinner table with friends and discussed what we'd do with a huge lottery win. Most of us agreed we would provide lavishly for our families before considering the next step. But one man, who had spent decades working in Africa, brought us all up short with his plan. I've provided for my children by giving them an education so that they could make their own way in life, he said. If I won, I would give it all to end malaria.

I think of the summer house and the sailboat and the villa in Tuscany. I think of what millions could buy, and what millions could change. I pass the billboard and look away quickly. Easy come, easy go.