I was recently asked this question – what's the most important financial lesson someone should learn? And it got me thinking. You would think it would be difficult to choose just one lesson, but an immediate answer came to mind:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
This quote has been attributed to many ancient sources. Regardless of its origin, it represents wisdom that applies in all times. I find it particularly relevant when I think about the legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren because it stresses the importance of adopting wise principles for living.
Let’s look at this in terms of a legacy plan. Suppose I planned on leaving a legacy of $1 billion. Most people would think that number to be quite generous and more than sufficient for several generations to live a comfortable life. This might be true if they knew what they were doing with this money, if they had guidelines to follow, and if they had wisdom to guide them. (For related reading, see: Live a Rich Retirement or Leave a Legacy?)
Someone with $1 billion of investable assets can access the top advisors in the country. They lack nothing in terms of proper planning and strategies, products, and portfolios. But what they need are principles. Principles help people define who we are and what we are all about. They help us remain true to ourselves, and they empower us to make everything we do—including the utilization of $1 billion—an expression of the best in ourselves.
Without a principled approach to life, that $1 billion could potentially be no better than a “quick meal,” in terms of what it provides and the good it does. But with proper principles in place, it could “feed generations” by enabling them each to do good works and make the most of that wealth.
How to Make the Most of a Legacy
The question now is, what principles would I pass on to my family to help them make the most of this $1 billion legacy? Here is what I would tell them: Think big, reach high and remain vigilant.
Our family fortune has been amassed by little people thinking big. Go back just a few generations, and you will find that none of us were here in America. We were all just ordinary men and women among the masses overseas, in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. We faced terrible persecution in those places and we fled to the shores of America in desperate need of a new start.
No one came to America with a huge bankroll. None of us came from royalty, and no one was embraced by the upper-crust of society. We took advantage of everything America had to offer—most of all, the opportunity to dream big. America has long been a beacon of opportunity. We each believed that and, after giving it 110% effort, the dream became a reality. (For related reading, see: Is the American Dream Dead?)
Even after reaching this point of success, it’s essential to keep pursuing new heights and to live each day as if it were the last and to never forget our humble beginnings. We know all too well that if not but for the grace of God our family could quickly face the unfortunate. We are no less human than anyone else, and so no less exposed to troubles coming our way.
While we may have the means to stay as self-sufficient as possible and weather storms longer than most, those who have much also have much to lose. If and when tragedy strikes, it will be of much comfort to know that those to whom we showed good will may now in turn show good will to us. Treat every dollar as if it is a loan from God—because it is.
This brings me to the most basic principle of all. This money is not yours and it was never mine to give you. Sure, it has been transferred from an account with my name to one with your name. But this is all in name only. Our wealth actually belongs to God. Everything we humans produce belongs to God. Everything we create to make our life better is made from something He provided, and so it exists according to His laws.
So what do we know about His laws? Really, they are pretty simple. Things are born, they live and they die. The currency we print today won’t be here in 100 years. Same with the car, the jet plane and the office building. Everything is temporary. But we can give it an eternal meaning and a transcendent purpose. The item may not last forever, but what it is used for could.
The real reason why I have $1 billion to give is that I never considered this fortune to be mine to keep. I have simply been the steward of every dollar, from the first to the last. God has been nice enough to let me use His planet to do great things—to grow personally, to help people, to bring people together.
Estate planning, investment strategies, market savvy, and smart business decisions have all been useful tools, but it is essential to realize that they are not ends in and of themselves; they have all been employed in service of a higher purpose: to enable me to do my Good Work—and to enable you to do it, too.
God has loaned me this fortune, you might say, so that I can pass it on to you and so you can then pass it on to your children and grandchildren. Let’s not let Him down. What about you? What is one financial lesson you hold dear? (For more from this author, see: How to Buy Life Insurance With an Alcohol History.)