What "Downton Abbey" Taught Me About My Inheritance

My childhood was fraught with envy for the kids on TV, specifically those of a certain set: East Coast, well-moneyed, WASPs with trust funds. When I enrolled in college at Sarah Lawrence, I got a front row seat. While there were many at the school who relied on financial aid and came from middle class background, the school also draws a lot of rich kids. Instead of living on summer savings, I had friends whose allowance came from their trust fund. I envied them and their ability to spend $800 at a restaurant (mostly on cheese plates— college was a weird time). If I had an inheritance, I thought, I would be free. I could buy designer handbags and live that private jet life.

I had one friend in particular who will probably always be the richest person I've seen up close. He was also the most perennially broke. In a life so bedecked with money, he had never learned how to budget. In the history of our friendship, I spotted him for train tickets and cab fare because he was always short on money to get home.

"I wouldn't spend like that if I had his money," I told myself. I got pretty darn close, though.

Last year, my grandfather passed away. He left a sum of money for each of his eleven grandchildren. My grandfather had nowhere near the money that my friend's family had.

My grandfather worked very hard (with the help of government programs like the G.I. Bill), and as a result, he was very successful. He chose to share his success with a rather expansive family — five children, eleven grandchildren (Irish Catholic, if you were wondering).

I had known this money was coming, and yet, for years I felt weird about it. I felt weird about it for a few different reasons. I had dreamed of this money— but I had dreamed of the lavish lifestyles of my college friends. At the same time, it felt like there was something dirty about this money. After all, the American Dream is to make your own money, not to inherit it from someone else. Don't get me wrong, this nest egg is of the "house down payment" variety rather than the "I never have to work again" kind. I am aware of the intense privilege of having any money gifted to me. It's a privilege that is afforded to few. Because of this, I was unsure how to handle it.

I was surprised to find financial advice from an unlikely source: Season One of Downton Abbey. The Granthams are at a crossroads. The estate has been entailed, and without a male heir, their oldest daughter, Mary, is in an uncertain position. Making matters more complicated, Lady Grantham's money has been tied up in the estate. The women of the family urge Lord Grantham to try to separate the money from the estate, and he is reluctant (it turns out that it won't work anyway). In one scene, Lord Grantham explain to Lady Mary that he would be more enthusiastic about separating the money and letting the estate fall apart if he had made the fortune or built the house himself. Alas, he did not. "I am a custodian of this wealth, not the owner," Lord Grantham.

Here, a fictional character— and British, to boot! — Was able to to verbalize a truth that is often ignored in the way that we talk about and understand money in America.

Because inheriting is so antithetically American, we often neglect this conversation. Inheritance is only discussed in terms of the inheritance tax, which admittedly only applies to a small subset of people. When money is passed down, it is often received and spent.

Taking the Lord Grantham approach seems "unfun," imagining yourself as the custodian of wealth cuts into the images of Instagram time on a yacht. Yet, if we view ourselves as the custodians of cash, it can inspire us to invest better (or to invest at all).

Regarding my inheritance, it has made me resolved to pass down the money — not one cent shy of what I was given. My job is to safeguard the sum, to put it in a place where it can grow, where the interest and the growth might be of use to me. One day, I will pass down the money to the next custodian.

Again, I am aware of the intense privilege of having to consider what to do with money that I did not earn by myself, but I think that where money is concerned, there are opportunities to learn from privilege. I have taken the same principles that apply to inheritance, and I am working on implementing them towards my earned income.

If I treat myself as the custodian of my income, my sole job is to preserve it, to care for it, and to encourage it to grow. When I end up with a little extra cash at the end of the month, I am inclined to tuck it away. Saved and invested, this money can accrue, and hopefully I will be able to live quite comfortably in retirement.

Even if my investments grow beyond my wildest dreams, I won't be living that Downton life. That estate is a real money pit.