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A week before my 17th birthday, I was summoned by my father for a serious talk.
A decade earlier, my mother had been involved in a medical malpractice suit shortly before she passed away. As my father explained, $250,000 from her lawsuit was waiting for me in a trust fund, and once I turned 18 it was mine — to do whatever I wanted with it.
How I Spent the Cash
Over the next year, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement whenever I thought about the money. I was a middle-class kid in the northwestern suburbs of Illinois, and this was more cash than my brain could comprehend. I felt like anything I wanted would be mine for the taking.
When I finally turned 18, my father not-so-subtly nudged me out on my own. But not before asking me for a $10,000 loan.
I was caught off guard, but felt like $10,000 out of $250,000 wasn’t that significant, so I handed him a check … and off I went, a teenager with hundreds of thousands of dollars — and no clue how to spend it responsibly.
I had planned on attending community college while I figured out exactly what I wanted to do, but instead I enrolled at Purdue University in Indiana — a last-minute decision that seemed a lot more appealing than junior college. I’d had a bug to get out of my hometown, and now I had the chance to do it. The out-of-state tuition cost me roughly $15,000 a semester, which I paid upfront — in full.
After a year, I wasn’t loving the experience and felt drawn to return home. So I spent about $30,000 to move back and transferred to Northern Illinois University, which cost about $8,000 per semester. Again, I paid my tuition upfront and didn't think twice about it.
It was around this time that I made my first investment. After all, I wanted to make a few smart choices with the cash. My cousin and I decided to buy a one-bedroom apartment together in Chicago and rent it out. We purchased it pre-construction for just $187,000 — an investment that would fortunately pay off later. I put down $50,000, which also covered my cousin's share, with the agreement that he'd pay me back over time.
Otherwise, the next four years were punctuated by fun, carefree partying, while I earned a degree in industrial technology. I was young and had fully adopted a live-in-the-moment attitude. I wouldn’t think twice about spending $30,000 on a custom motorcycle or dropping $2,000 on a bar tab.
Before I knew it, partying became my top priority. I can honestly say my trust fund served primarily to bankroll my bad habits — and it wasn’t long before that balance started to dwindle.
My Money Wake-Up Call
Thankfully, this whole running-out-of-money process was gradual, which gave me some time to start thinking about the future.
By senior year, I was struggling to pay my tuition. I still had about $30,000 left in my trust fund — and I was trying to make it last as long as possible.
Not wanting to drop out, I reached out to my father for help. I received an icy reaction, but after reminding him of the $10,000 I’d given him a few years earlier, he handed over the cash. Even with the money, I still had to take out about $10,000 in student loans to cover the rest of my costs.
Despite this setback, I graduated college in 2003 and began working as a financial aid adviser for an online college. My salary wasn’t much, but I was bringing in enough to rent an apartment and pay my bills.
It was around this point — when I was just 24 — that my fun money finally ran out. Since I had an alternate income, I was able to sustain my lifestyle. But the thought of no longer having an unlimited supply of disposable cash really hit hard: For the first time in my adult life, I was forced to save and budget for non-essential spending. Nights out on the town, traveling, buying whatever I wanted — those days of impulse buying were long gone.
As depressing as this was for me, it was also unexpectedly motivating. I knew that sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to improve my situation. So my first order of business to regain some financial security was to put the condo I’d bought with my cousin in Chicago up for sale — which yielded about $350,000.
Living Without an Inheritance
I used half the money from the sale to buy a townhouse, and I took a new job as an operations supervisor and gradually progressed in my career. Soon after, I met a great girl named Emma*, sold the townhouse, bought a single-family home, got married and began a new chapter. Now that I was sharing my life with someone, the need to budget and save became an even bigger priority. Without the cushion of the trust fund, I began to master the art of self-control and living with less.
Today, Emma and I have four kids — my stepchildren and our two together — and I have a great job as an operations manager at a heavy manufacturing company. I currently have $20,000 in savings and another $100,000 in my 401(k). I have no debt to speak of, and my credit score is above 800.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my wild inheritance ride is how important it is to be a good parent. If my children ever come into a chunk of cash the way I did, you can bet we’ll be sitting down and making a plan for it.
*Names have been changed