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Understanding Sudden Wealth Syndrome and How to Avoid It

What is Sudden Wealth Syndrome?

“Sudden wealth syndrome” is a term used to describe the adjustment issues, stress, confusion, and often money mismanagement that can accompany coming into sudden wealth or a large windfall.

Some examples of a windfall situation that might lead to sudden wealth syndrome are coming into a large inheritance, an IPO or acquisition event of your company, a major sale (for example of a property), or a big raise or up-front salary for a new job.

A good example of a group of people experiencing what looks like sudden wealth syndrome are professional athletes: the minimum starting salary for an NFL player is roughly $660,000.

According to a report by Sports Illustrated, by the time former NFL players have been retired for two years, 78% of them have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress; within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

It is arguably more critical to understand basic personal finance for those with a lot of money. Many of their challenges are inherently different than for most, but the approach to a sound financial future remains relatively the same.

5 Tips for Avoiding Sudden Wealth Syndrome

Here are some tips for those who receive high upfront salaries over relatively short time periods who want to avoid the effects of sudden wealth syndrome, and instead set a foundation for a lifetime of financial security.

1. Educate Yourself

It’s hard to be successful at anything in life without understanding what you are doing and why. Personal finance can be overwhelming, and many people don’t know where to start. You could start by taking a Personal Finance 101 online course from a trusted source. Start with the basics like budgeting and saving, then move on to investing basics such as understand the dynamics of risk vs return and proper diversification. Gaining financial literacy will also help you better assess your true risk tolerance and what the appropriate amount of risk is that you should be taking in your portfolio.

Getting a full picture of your finances will help you establish a baseline for setting a budget, creating a debt pay down schedule, and scheduling contributions to retirement accounts. You should understand not only how much money you have in your bank account, but also your net worth, which is a complete picture of all your assets and all your debts. Personal Capital’s free financial dashboard allows you to calculate your net worth in just a few easy steps.

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2. Create a Financial Plan (With Help)

For those who receive large sums of money upfront or over a short period of time and need to make it last, it’s a good idea to create a financial plan using financial planning software or online tools. Financial planning tools like Personal Capital‘s can help you identify your goals, run intense calculations to project your odds of success, and help you stay on track to meet those goals.

You may need your portfolio to support you in future years when you have periods without income so you will want to stress test your portfolio. Software or tools can help you assess how realistic the goals are and you can even run scenarios for multiple plans to compare projections.

Beyond just retirement, your goals may also include giving to charity or supporting family or friends. This can be a good way to map out if this is feasible and how much “giving” your portfolio can truly support.

3. Maintain Discipline

You usually don’t become a professional at something without discipline — and that takes focus. There will be distractions by your surroundings and plenty of misguided influences you will just have to ignore. It may not feel “cool” at the time to be planning for your future when you see others living in extravagance, but your future self will be both proud and grateful.

Let’s keep it real though, discipline does not mean deprivation — buying nice things and spending money is okay!

Gauge your own personal spending utility by identifying what gives you the most and least satisfaction regarding discretionary spending and work backward to prioritize. Then take a balanced approach to see where you can allocate toward saving instead of spending now.

There will be plenty of temptations when it comes to fame and sudden wealth, but prioritize your needs to avoid FOMO and keep your eye on the prize.

4. Seek Guidance From Trusted Professionals

Assembling a team of trusted professionals who have your best interest ahead of their own can add significant value. Consider consulting and hiring financial, tax, estate, and legal professionals.

Make sure your financial advisor is a fiduciary and is knowledgeable in their field who can serve as your team captain to help appoint other professionals as well. Your team can help you increase your wealth by maximizing your after-tax, risk adjusted return through a holistic approach.

Not all professionals are equal, so make sure to fully understand the associated fees, how the person is compensated, any conflict of interest, and perform a complete due diligence by vetting their background before moving forward with anyone.

Learn more about Personal Capital’s wealth management services.

5. Avoid Complex Investments That You Don’t Understand

Finally, the last bit of advice I have is to make sure you truly understand the risk and return dynamics of an investment, as well as the costs and the investment’s structure before proceeding. If you have large sums of money to allocate, there is a high likelihood people will present you with opportunities that are presented as what seem like guarantees.

If you see anything promising high returns with little to no risk, run the other direction. This dynamic does not exist without fraud.

If you need help assessing an opportunity, seek the help of your team of professionals. However, it is a good rule of thumb that if you don’t understand the investment, you are better off allocating to more transparent, liquid options you understand.

That is not to say there aren’t good opportunities in the private investment space, but these investments are best suited for sophisticated investors.

If you want to become a more advanced investor, refer to step 1 — education is key!

The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

Any reference to the advisory services refers to Personal Capital Advisors Corporation, a subsidiary of Personal Capital. Personal Capital Advisors Corporation is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training nor does it imply endorsement by the SEC.

Lacey Cobb serves as the Director of Advice Solutions at Personal Capital. She has 10 years of financial industry experience, with a background in portfolio management, trading, research, investment analysis, and financial planning. Prior to Personal Capital, she was the Head of Trading and Research at Polaris Greystone Financial Group, where she managed the portfolio management team and served on the investment committee. She started there as a financial planner and helped grow AUM from $250 million to $1.5 billion. Before that, she worked for State Street as a fund accountant. Lacey graduated from the University of California, Davis, and holds both the Chartered Financial Analyst® designation and Certified Financial Planner™ designation.
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This year, my top financial priority is:

Building my emergency fund
Paying off high-interest debt
Budgeting better
Saving for a short-term goal, like a vacation or new car
Increasing my investment contributions
Maintaining status quo - I’ve got this under control

Make moves toward your money goals with Personal Capital’s free financial tools.