On Mortality and Wealth

I’ve already talked about the link between work and wealth but what about the ties between death and wealth?

A buddy in New York used to tell me that the right way to manage your money is to have just enough to cover your bills until the day you die, and then bounce the check to the funeral home. He was kidding, I think. That poor funeral director! But there’s real wisdom in his joke.

One Definition of Wealthy

One of my ways of defining ‘being wealthy’ is similar to my buddy’s joke. I think we should measure whether we have enough money to cover our lifestyle costs up until the day we die. If you can, then you’re wealthy.

In my definition, taken to the extreme, we can see how we are all ‘wealthy’ at least a few minutes before we die, since we no longer need to spend money to maintain our lifestyle. “I’ll never have to work for the rest of my life!” the dying person could think, and that is true. So, you’re wealthy!

Less absurdly, if you knew you had just a year to live, and no particular concern for your heirs, would you have enough saved to cover your lifestyle costs? If you own your own time, to spend exactly as you like – again, I think that makes you wealthy, by one sort of definition.

(Note that my definition of wealthy never considers heirs, because in my experience children really don’t deserve the money.)

Ideally, of course, we arrive at that level of ‘wealthy’ before the moment of death or a year of terminal illness. We get there, ideally, with many more years of our lifestyle costs covered. This is generally the goal of most of us as we approach retirement – that we can own our own time without having to work to earn more money.

A fewer number of fortunates manage to acquire enough, quickly enough, to allow them to maintain their lifestyle even after retiring at a young enough age. This conforms more to our typical societal view of a ‘wealthy’ person, who can choose to quit working relatively early.

Where’s the luxury?

In my idiosyncratic definition of ‘being wealthy,’ you may have noticed that there’s not a single Maybach mentioned. I’m not considering dinner with my girl on a G5 as an “update.” There’s no drinking Mai Tais, sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets giving me high fives.

Nicki Minaj and her ‘UpDate’

In fact, since covering my costs until death is the goal, all of those expensive luxuries put my chance of being wealthy at risk. Realistically, if I buy a second home, then I need to make or have that much more money to cover my costs. When I upgrade my car, I’ve got to either have that in the bank or take on higher monthly debt costs. That may mean I have to work harder, or longer, just to cover my lifestyle costs.


So ironically, all the ‘stuff’ that helps make me look wealthy in reality raises the difficulty of actually being wealthy. You may in fact be ‘wealthier’ than a person making five times what you make, or boasting ten times your bank account. If that other person still needs to work nights and weekends to pay for the trip to Bhutan and the four-car garage – and you don’t – then who’s wealthy now?

Did the chorus for “Luckenbach Texas” by Waylon Jennings just pop into your head as you read this paragraph?

Being Mortal

I’ve been thinking about death after recently finishing Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. which I highly recommend, by the way.

Gawande’s lesson – that “more” is not necessarily “better” when it comes to medical interventions at the end of life – has its analog in lifestyle costs and my definition of being wealthy. If we have enough, and we have control over how we spend our precious time until death, then we’re better off than the more costly way of living.

Death and Meaning

In a deeper sense, of course, meditating on death may be the key to feeling content with one’s level of material possessions. Being in the presence of a sick or dying person can point us closer to the relative importance of time, possessions, money, experiences, feelings of contentment, and relationships.

Considering our mortality, how much would I pay to experience the sunset at low tide with my daughters? While we still enjoy good health and pain-free bodies, a quiet dinner with my wife has immeasurable value. Could a king’s ransom buy this if we’d lost it? In these fleeting moments of insight, I feel extraordinarily wealthy.
A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News


Please see related posts:

Work and Wealth

What is Wealthy?

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Book Review: Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters In The End, by Atul Gawunde

I have a theory: The definition of ‘being wealthy’ links in some way to thinking about, and being cognizant of, death.


Death of course gives me the willies. I actually get vertigo if I think about it in bed just before falling asleep. I suddenly feel wide awake and unsettled. The whole thing feels super unfair to me. Like, I get to stress and struggle and work and procreate and nurture and then struggle some more – and then after fifty or maybe even ninety years my time here runs out? No exceptions? Even if I promise to be really, really good? Fuck that.

Occasionally, I rise about my selfish thoughts into moments of higher consciousness. Sometimes this happens if I’ve been to really good funeral. When surviving friends and family tell good stories about a well-lived life. That’s when thinking about death helps sharpen my ideas about how I should live. My choices about how to spend precious time that I can’t get back. The bank of time that empties out every day. The irrelevance of so much and the relevance of other stuff. The fierce urgency of now.

Sometimes in those moments I get insight into what it means to be wealthy. The earning of money and the having of money, compared to one’s limited time remaining. How much money do you need to purchase back control over your own time?


Or if death was imminent, how much money would I be willing to pay for another year of sunrises, Dairy Queen dipped cones, and snuggles with my girls? Of course I’d turn over all the money I had. And if I am lucky enough to have years and years of that ahead of me? Well then, I’m as wealthy as a king.

Money and Medicine

Gawande does not concern himself – except tangentially – with the financial consequences of end-of-life medical interventions, although we know these are an extraordinary and growing public expenditure problem.[1] He concerns himself instead with the human consequences of end-of-life medical interventions.

We know medically how to keep the human body alive. We can treat the symptoms of old age. We can often push back against former death sentences like cancer. We patch up and retool failing body systems far longer than we ever could just a generation before.

What we don’t know – and what Gawande wants us to think about – is when to say “when.” In our rush to fix failing organ systems, do we fail to ask the key questions of a dying person like “What are your goals?” and “what are your fears?”

Gawande finds that, when given a chance, some choose to spend their remaining time alive differently. We all die eventually, but we don’t live the same way, during our dying time. A few weeks in hospice care without extraordinary medical interventions (reduced pain, reduced disorientation, increased dignity) may beat months of throwing all of our latest technology at our dying body.

From what I gather, most of us (in conjunction with our families and doctors) have a hard time parsing these choices. We are a long way from asking the right questions. We forget the odds of achieving a high-quality life through additional medical procedures.

Gawande is such a good writer that he makes a hard topic into a compelling read, but this isn’t easy reading by any means. I have never read such a series of explicit descriptions of what happens to us – what will happen to all of us – if we are fortunate enough to die slowly. Gawande tells the stories of his patients, and then most poignantly, his own dying father. We learn just how excruciatingly difficult it is to NOT always choose the next medical intervention.

Back to Being Wealthy

Being wealthy has something to do with owning one’s time. I think it has something to do with understanding the relative value of a high quality life. It certainly has something to do with being able to afford high-quality medical treatment, although that probably has only mattered in the last one hundred years or so. At the end of life, the high-cost medical treatments may matter less and less, as we seek a return to the highest-quality life possible, with our remaining time.



[1] The old 80/20 problem again. Something like 75% of medical expenditures are made in the last year of someone’s life. Multiply that by an entire society, with the burden shared between private and public expenditure, and we’ve got soaring healthcare costs on trend to swallow up all of our money.


Please see related post:

What is Wealthy?


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