What is Real Wealth?

December is a month of Holidays and Celebrations. Most likely, you will reflect back to the previous months and weigh whether it was a good year…so-so…or dismal. Usually that measurement is based on money–did it increase? Because it is December, I would like to challenge you to probe deeper, asking yourself, “What is real wealth?”

The Past Changes the Future
My own answer to that question started with a phone call in November of 1981. Back then, my family had “it” all. A beautiful home in an exclusive section of Northern California, two Mercedes, investments, kids in private schools, a vacation condo at Lake Tahoe, a prosperous business, respected in our community and unlimited friends. Life couldn’t be better. . .or so we thought. That phone call was from one of the banks I worked with. It changed our lives–radically.

In the old days, I use to raise money for various ventures–often in the millions. One of my favorite projects was the restoration of an old laundry. Its new life would be that of a small European type hotel with 17 guestrooms. The financial projections looked terrific. All the partners would get tax deductions, annual cash flow and a handsome profit when the project was projected to sell in five years. What more could we want?

The day after the November phone call, I had a “Be here with your most recent net worth statement” meeting with the bank that had underwritten the construction loan. A series of other meetings followed. I discovered that my partner of two years had taken on another partner. Unfortunately, she didn’t advise me of the relationship and I was too naive and trusting to discern all the warning signals. My partner, and friend, was deeply involved in drugs. I had unknowingly paid for them.

After an audit, we determined that over $450,000 was missing from a construction loan that I had personally guaranteed. Gulp. The loan officer (at what was quickly becoming my unfavorite bank) wanted to know how I was going to pay off the discrepancy-could I write a check to cover it? The only answer he wanted to hear was, “Of course.” I was stunned. And angry. My husband walked around in a cloud, not fully comprehending what “paying off the loan” meant to us.

A family “powwow” was called. Everything was laid out for all to see and hear. Our three teens had no idea how much their life style would change in the coming months. They were told that there was a very high probability that we would lose everything –the house, the resort condo, private schools, no more expensive vacations. And they were told, “We did not want any guff from any of you. No demands–we our fighting for our lives.”

Where did the fight take us?–down an incredible journey. In the end, we lost everything that was material. The home, the condo, both cars, jewelry, antiques, artwork, the business, private schooling, investments, savings–everything. The material tally totaled over $1,000,000! Our comfortable net worth was now in the red. We even lost many of our “friends.” In the middle of it all, my health took a nosedive, landing me in the hospital for three surgeries, including cancer. I felt that my life was a mess.

Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? Well, none of that was as bad as Labor Day of 1983. In the wee hours of the morning, a lone policeman stood in our living room and told us that our 19-year-old son was dead. An accident, a drowning. The ache I experienced was unbearable. Now, I felt like I had lost everything–I didn’t think I would survive.

Getting Back on Track
Unbelievably, being broke, and hurting, brought balance into my life. My son’s death quickly revealed what was important and what wasn’t. Family was. Health was. Friends were (true ones). Faith was. Having a lot of money and being a candidate for consumer of the year wasn’t at the top of the list.

Too many times, we only measure who we are by what we have–the things and toys in the house, whom we associate with, what our status is, what car we drive, where we vacation, the market value of our homes and the amount of money we make. Am I advocating losing it all to get in balance? Absolutely not. . .you can reduce the learning curve.

My Millennium gift to you is to encourage you to look in the mirror and ask what is really important to you. Is it money? Your job? Your reputation? Your family? Your friends? Your health? What? You don’t have to lose it all to find what it is. The real shortcut–when you are truthful with your self, the important stuff surfaces to the top. That’s where your energy should go, not to issues, events, or things that are bottom dwellers. Looking in the mirror is a good way to start the new Millennium.