Answering the annoying "what do you do" question, and then some
April 10, 2013 8:09 AM   Subscribe

I recently inherited enough money that will allow me to not work again. I still want to do things - volunteer, help others, keep busy, etc. How do I explain this to others and answer questions that people ask?

I'm 32, and have spent the last couple of years dabbling in this and that, but not ever really feeling satisfied. So I don't have a job or career that I can or wish to stay in. I'm not married, and don't have kids (and do not plan to ever have kids, much as I love them on a part-time basis)

What I really like to do, and what gives me a sense of fulfillment, is doing things for people. It's always given me a sense of purpose, and I want to spend my days doing volunteering and trying to lend a hand to make things better for people. Even if it's hard, even if people don't say "thank you," it still makes me happy to try.

What I feel is holding me back, however, is a sense of self-consciousness and perhaps guilt. I know I didn't earn this money, and though I own it, I don't feel a sense of satisfaction that one would have if they earned it themselves. I'm immensely grateful for it and trying to take care of it and use/invest it wisely, but it feels a bit weird. I don't like to talk about it. Inevitable questions about "what do you do" or "how do you make a living" or "how can you do what you do" make me terribly uncomfortable. I'm young enough that it feels really stupid to say I'm "retired." I never know what to tell people, and feel like a brat to say "I inherited it."

Are there non-obnoxious ways of answering these inevitable questions? What can I tell people who are just naturally curious, when I feel self-conscious about it? E-mail at
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (53 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I can see where "I inherited it" might come across a little weird to some people. However, if that same statement came with an expression of your gratitude, I think it would actually be nice to hear. "I'm lucky that my grandmother/uncle bob/dad provided for me in a way that means I'm able to follow my passion for volunteering with children/stray dogs/veterans." To me, the awareness that this situation is not of your making and does not befall everyone makes all the difference between "trust fund baby" and "lovely fortunate person".
posted by donnagirl at 8:17 AM on April 10, 2013 [26 favorites]

Hey, more power to you, and to the ancestor who thought enough of you to entrust you with this awesome gift.

You have nothing to feel guilt over. You have everything to be thankful for.

If you want to shorthand it for someone at a cocktail party, simply say, "I run a charitable foundation that allows me to support causes that I believe in."

If people can't read between those lines...well, not your problem. If you get asked further questions, you can describe your volunteer activities, or the charities you believe in, or even better, turn it back around on the asker, and ask them about what they do.

If your friends don't understand your source of income and they become nosy, you have the choice to say, "I'm independent." Or, "I have a trust fund."

Frankly, there's nothing shameful about being independently wealthy. It's what everyone wishes for themselves. So what you didn't earn it? It doesn't mean you don't deserve it. And it sounds like you're putting it to excellent use.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:18 AM on April 10, 2013 [12 favorites]

"I used to work in X, but I'm in a situation now where I can take time off to do Y" would pretty much cover it. For further questions, just answer with a "I'd rather not discuss it."
posted by jquinby at 8:18 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Billfold is doing interviews right now with people who have trust funds, they talk a lot about the same issues you're dealing with.

If I were in your position, I'd find the best career counselor I could possibly afford, figure out something I'd really love to do, and then go back to school for it. Honestly, I'm not sure you shouldn't work. You might feel better about your situation if you worked.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2013 [14 favorites]

I have a friend that I thought was unemployed, but really he "is managing his family's investments."
posted by vespabelle at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

"I'm working with Nonprofit X, helping Y people do Z." What's relevant and important is what you're doing, not how you're paying the bills.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2013 [43 favorites]

Also, 32 is not necessarily too young to retire, depending on where you're located. If I met someone of that age and heard that they were retired, I'd assume sort of of IT or dot-com related windfall. Then I'd think 'and good on that person' for now focusing on service to other people or causes.
posted by jquinby at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

You don't have to explain yourself to others. Just talk about what you're doing, and how much you love it. If some rude person persists in asking how you support yourself a simple "Just lucky, I guess." will suffice.
posted by bleep at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

What I really like to do, and what gives me a sense of fulfillment, is doing things for people. It's always given me a sense of purpose, and I want to spend my days doing volunteering and trying to lend a hand to make things better for people. Even if it's hard, even if people don't say "thank you," it still makes me happy to try.

Perfect! Start doing that for whatever organization is what you want to work with. You may want to arrange for some kind of token salary in whatever you do such that when people ask ,"What do you do for a living?" you can honestly answer that this is your job.

There are plenty of people who aren't retired with trust funds who are in your same position and have to answer these same questions. Like you, they feel more defined by their volunteer work or the organizations they are affiliated with rather than whatever they do to pay the bills. You have a bit more good fortune because you can spend more time and effort involved in this kind of work than most people can. So you can make arrangements to make this your "career", and that's you answer when someone asks.

I sure as heck don't follow up those questions about what someone does with, "how do you afford your life with that kind of job?" If someone asked me that and I was in your position, I guess I'd dodge the question with, "Things just worked out well for me."
posted by deanc at 8:23 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you might actually want to start a foundation to run. Try to expand it like any other charitable foundation. It's plenty of work and you can focus how it helps to your liking. Consult a financial planner to see if it would be a good plan for you.

Bonus, if anyone asks too many probing questions about "what you do" you can describe your foundation's work and start hitting them up for donations.
posted by mikepop at 8:24 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Depending on how comfortable with douchebaggery - you are now a venture capitalist/ philanthro-capitalist / spend time changing the world / blogger / lucky to retire early / or honestly, you should be able to have a conversation and hang enough around cool people long enough to say: "
What I really like to do, and what gives me a sense of fulfillment, is doing things for people. It's always given me a sense of purpose, and I want to spend my days doing volunteering and trying to lend a hand to make things better for people. Even if it's hard, even if people don't say "thank you," it still makes me happy to try.'
without guilt or a sense of shame.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 8:24 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have one serious cause that you devote most of your time to? Because I pretty frequently say, "I'm a firefighter," when people ask me what I do if I don't want to talk about the job that actually makes me money (which is difficult to explain without boring people.) And yes, I am a firefighter! I spend a lot of time at the station. I just don't get paid.

So if you do, "X, Y, and Z", but not for money, I think it's fine in most social situations to say you do X, Y and Z. If people ask you specifically how you make your money, you can say, "Oh, I was very fortunate and my relatives were smart investors," or whatever.

I think this is actually a social function about master status. Your master status is some combination of what you and your society see as the most salient point of ALL of your life roles -- it could be parent, worker, member of religion, whatever. Because we live in a capitalist society, our master status tends to be whatever work we undertake for pay. (So I am a "higher education worker," for instance, instead of a sister, an aunt, a friend, a girlfriend.) Since social interactions are based on mutual cues, it's awkward when someone doesn't have a master status because then they don't know "what you are". Your master status is not a master status that meets the criteria of categorization in our society, hence the discomfort.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:25 AM on April 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

I have a friend with a trust fund who simply tells people he his mother left him a trust fund. He makes films. Nobody has ever pressed it, and I think most people are genuinely happy for him that he is able to pursue something he loves, even though it's a shitty consolation for losing a relative.
posted by justjess at 8:26 AM on April 10, 2013

When people ask what you do for a living, they are looking to know you just a tiny bit better. You are supposed to give them something they can use in that conversation -- a starting point. They are not literally asking who signs your paychecks.

"So, anonymous, what do you do?"
"I work with [the group you volunteer with] helping people with [whatever issue]."

That is a completely acceptable answer because it satisfies the need. It allows the other person to say things like "Oh I've always been interested in [issue]" or "And what area of town to you drive into?" or "Huh, I've never heard of [volunteer group]" or any number of other things, which is really the goal of their question.
posted by Houstonian at 8:29 AM on April 10, 2013 [17 favorites]

I wonder why people would ask you where you got your money, and why you'd feel any obligation to tell them much. As someone suggested above, just say what you actually do.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:29 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

To an extent, I am you. I am independently wealthy but I live as if I am not. In other words, I still work a day job. So, you can certainly do that.

But, it seems like you wish to instead live off the money and work unpaid as a philanthropist. I think that is godly.

I very much dislike the question of "what do you do?" that is used in introductory conversations. To me, the question really asks, "what kind of cog are you? what is your function?" However, that question is not going away, so we need to learn how to be long-suffering and answer it. In this case, simply say what you do such as "I run a prison ministry" or "I work at a food bank" or whatever it is that you do. That should be good enough for any cocktail party conversation.

Do not feel guilty or self-conscious about your money. There is nothing wrong with money. What is wrong is how people become attached to money. Do not become attached to it and you will have a blessed life as will those whom you feed and clothe.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:34 AM on April 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

You can answer what you are doing based on whatever you are doing at the time. There doesn't have to be one answer. If you are currently unemployed, you can say, "I'm taking time off at the moment after [whatever you did before]. I'm looking around at [whatever you are interested in next]." Generally people say, "Oh, that's great, it's good to take your time to look for something new."

If you've set up your current volunteer gig, you can say, "I work at the food bank." Or whatever.

If you are taking a longer time of not working, you can say, "I am managing my family's investments."

If someone rudely asks how you can afford to live when you have not brought up money, you can say, "I have some investments," or "I'm fortunate to have some investments."
posted by htid at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

"What do you do?" is not the same as "what do you get paid to do?" When you get asked this question, answer with all the interesting projects and organizations you're working on/with.

If someone presses for information about your financial situation, you can say something like "Well, I'm fortunate enough to be able to do this for now, and I really love helping people/working at XYZ organization/etc." That's all you have to say, and the "for now" doesn't imply that you're rolling in dough - you could be living on ramen for all they know, or you could have saved enough over the years to afford a sabbatical, or whatever.

Money, or lack thereof, isn't really anyone else's business. It's fine to be handwavey about it, or to say "goodness, that's a personal question" when someone wants to know how much you have in the bank.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:42 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

To an extent, I am you. I am independently wealthy but I live as if I am not. In other words, I still work a day job. So, you can certainly do that.

This is, sort of, me also. I also stay crazy busy because life is uncertain and I am a little nervy and who knows if this good fortune will actually last? Things change. So I still have a job, a few jobs, and the details of my bank account are no one's business. People have no particular right to know where you get your money from unless you are applying to them for a mortgage or food stamps. You may find, however, that it's useful to have some people you can talk to about money, but you can select those people and decide how much you feel comfortable sharing.

Like Houstonian says, what people want to do is talk and learn something about you. If the answer is "I am writing a novel" that is a totally decent answer even though people probably know that isn't what you're doing to pay the rent. And don't be coy, saying "Oh this and that" is basically just not answering the question which is your right but it sort of stops the conversation dead and has nothing to do with money as much as your ability to do polite chitchat. I hate polite chitchat but it's a useful learned skill so it's worth preparing to engage in it.

Unless your purpose in life was to have enough money that you don't need to work, you've still got to work towards whatever you feel your life's purpose is. Once you get a little more in the groove of living this sort of lifestyle, you will likely be able to make your peace with your good fortune. Having money doesn't mean you're smart, capable, interesting or talented, it just gives you a leg up when trying to pursue those or any other goals.
posted by jessamyn at 8:44 AM on April 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

I don't know about friends, or acquaintances, but I know how to handle the question from staff at any NPO you volunteer with. Just say "I am fortunate that I don't need to be compensated for the work I do for you/time I give to your project."

We have a couple volunteers at my very small nonprofit who are in this position. They're lucky and they are great people for using their liberty to donate time and expertise to our work. We really truly honestly appreciate their work. But seriously, telling us once up front that compensation is not an issue while you're telling us what your availability is and what project you'd like to work on is more than sufficient. We have one guy--who's doing great work for us--who takes every opportunity to remind us that he came into X dollars in Y manner and doesn't need to be paid for his work and I'm about ready to kick him in the teeth.

There is, in fact, nothing wrong with money. Nothing wrong with your having it. Nothing wrong with your not working because you don't have to. Just remember that other people are not that fortunate and the people who work for the organizations your volunteering with are getting paid less than their peers in the private sector without benefits and they don't want to keep hearing about your good fortune.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand why so many people are basically saying, "Tell them what volunteer work you do and don't mention money." But as people get to know you, they're going to ask themselves, "How come he has a decent car and nice apartment when he says he works at the food bank?"

So I like donnagirl's suggested wording. It's what a young trust fund beneficiary told me when I first met him, and decades later I still remember his clearly stated gratitude for his situation.
posted by ceiba at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2013

If the answer is "I am writing a novel" that is a totally decent answer even though people probably know that isn't what you're doing to pay the rent.

If you're working in the arts, expect people to continue pressing when you say you're a writer/artist/whatever. I have gotten the "No, what do you really do?" more times than I can count.

(Yes, it is a fundamentally really rude question.)

I like "I retired early." I think the key is to divert the question back to the asker right after: "I retired early. What do you do/have you read any good books lately/how about that local sports team?"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:02 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Option 1:

- "What do you do?"
- "I'm a philanthropist"
- "So what do you do?"
- "I work at soup kitchens, tutor underprivileged children, etc."
- "Well how do you make money?"
- "I'm independently wealthy."

Option 2:

Start a Foundation. Make yourself president. This doesn't have to be anything formal and could just exist in your own mind.

- "What do you do?"
- "I'm the president of the Helping Hand Foundation. We help out at soup kitchens and tutoring underprivileged kids."
posted by googly at 9:17 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

You could say something like "I manage an estate" or "I manage someone's personal assets" or something like that. It's a job, you take it seriously and with purpose, so it's accurate but just another way of saying it that makes it sound more like a job than it might otherwise sound. By the way though, are you excluding the possibility of having a "regular" job (or your own business) ever, and if so, why? Just because you don't need an income doesn't mean that a job or career wouldn't be very fulfilling.
posted by Dansaman at 9:18 AM on April 10, 2013

Jesus bloody Christ, you do not have conversations with people who are not your lawyer, spouse, broker or accountant about independent wealth, ever, regardless of their rudeness. You need to develop a conversational answer, one that relies upon the fact that you can work at something without being paid. Also note that you do not owe anyone absolute truth or transparency about your financial life, ever. Telling people you are independently wealthy, no matter how pushy and rude they are, is horrendously gauche and you need to not ever do that.

So: you work at whatever you're volunteering at, and you work at managing your inheritance. Any of these might provide suitable answers:

"I work in the voluntary sector as an ESL tutor and I'm writing a novel."

"I'm a Quantitative Analyst in private banking."

"I'm a Compliance Manager in fund management."

Or whatever is vague and boring. These are real jobs that do not absolutely require degrees you may not have (and so should feel plausible to you), and you do not need to point out that you are your own and your only client.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:32 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's pretty easy to set up a corporation, name yourself as president, and tell people that you run a small consulting firm. That could later be your vehicle for whatever do-gooding you wish to do.
posted by yclipse at 9:35 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

But why lie, DarlingBri? The truth, in some form, is so much more interesting.

If you think you'll use some of your inheritance for investing in people and their ideas you could truthfully say that you are a venture capitalist. Good fallback: "I'm a professional volunteer" sounds good.

You shouldn't feel guilty with the money that was handed down to you. We all earn our time here on Earth, one way or another (that sounded a bit religious but I'm not).

In the past, when I thought about earning money, it always took a backseat to my desire to be respected for what I do and make (I'm an artist/designer who makes a living in a related field). I'd rather have respect than money (as long as I have enough to live on and be somewhat middle class). And doing something respectable (with our without your money) is a wonderful pursuit.

I hope you have lots of fun doing it.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:39 AM on April 10, 2013

It might be helpful to keep in mind that you dont owe anyone an answer that satisfies them just because they asked you a question. And "What do you do" tends to mean one of a few things (i'm sure i'm missing some too)

1) What box can i put you in/Can you do anything for me
2) Is there anything we have in common that I can use to continue the conversation
3) What are you interested in

It sounds like you have a strong sense of what brings you pleasure (and are to be commended for being someone with financial resources who has an interest in seeing them do some good rather than using them to Own A Lot Of Stuff), so I'd lead with that. Or you can be mysterious. Whichever.
posted by softlord at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I knew a girl in grad school who, through a combination of inherited wealth and a few years at a crazy high-paying job, had basically retired at 30 and was just doing whatever she felt like. People were nosy about it, because people are nosy, and because she was obviously wealthy (fancy condo, car, clothes etc.) in spite of being unemployed. She always handled it really well, with basically what donnagirl said, but with even less detail - "I've been very fortunate financially, so I am taking some time to pursue personal interests." That was it. No one ever pressed her beyond that, at least that I saw - it's very polite while sending a clear "not your business" message. I don't think you need to mention the inheritance to randos (or anyone, frankly). You don't owe an explanation to anyone except the IRS.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

A guy I knew from uni, whose family owned a Swiss Bank, married a woman whose family had donated a wing of a major US museum.

They married at the age of 24, when they had both finished their studies. At their wedding a third friend overheard one of their guests asking her what she planned to do for her career.

"I'm going to be a philanthropist."

I'm now wondering if googly and I know the same person.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you need to reframe this issue. You really have two issues here: 1) Your personal discomfort with your sudden wealth. 2) How to deal with small talk that accidentally touches on that personal hot button.

To deal with the first issue, consider seeing a therapist, keeping a journal or blogging anonymously. As you get more comfortable with your situation, it will get less of a rise out of you when people say something that accidentally touches on that.

For the second issue, realize that people are looking for a means to get enough of a handle on who you are to relate on a mostly casual basis. You have made it clear you do not want people to relate to you as "a trust fund baby." So don't say anything like that. Instead, put some thought into how you want people to see you and then arrange your life so that you can give an honest answer you are comfortable with.

You could start a website and then, no matter how little you do with it, tell people you run a website. Toss a few ads on it. No one needs to know how much traffic or money is involved. In most cases, they won't even ask for the URL. Or you could do a smidgeon of freelance work or consulting. Or you could start something that would allow you to claim the title of "entrepreneur." Or take the occasional class and call yourself a college student. (I would hesitate to start a foundation and use that as my label. It tends to imply that you have big money so I don't really see that as a solution to your stated problem.)

Even if you tell people the truth, most people will be unable to really understand and relate to your current situation. A few close friends can know but there is no obligation to tell anyone else. So think about how you wish to be perceived and then come up with an honest but low maintenance cover story. Most folks aren't really going to pay that much attention, so it shouldn't be real hard to present a front. The point is to give people a label or concept for who you are that makes both of you comfortable with interacting.
posted by Michele in California at 9:59 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Say you're a blogger--that usually stops most conversation. And then, look for ways that you and your money can do good--there's actually advisors and groups for people in this situation--my husband's family borders on it, and his sisters and brothers have greatly benefited from meeting others in the same boat.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2013

I met a friend of a friend at a party a month or two ago and we were making small talk and I asked him what he did (pretty sure he asked me first) and he got super-weird for a minute, and then he said he was writing a screenplay, and I asked what kind of a screenplay, and we ended up talked about SF and L. Ron Hubbard and kids and religion and various other topics for a while and it was a really good conversation.

I am guessing that if I got to know this guy better, I would find out that he's also a stay-at-home dad and his wife is the primary breadwinner, or he sold his startup for millions, or sure, he has a trust fund. But I didn't care! I was just trying to find us something to talk about!

I think you should avoid lying (and making it sound like you do something full time when in fact you are a two-day-a-week volunteer comes perilously close, IMO) but just don't give any more information than you need to. Yes, people will figure out that you have some mysterious source of money. If they are close friends, you can go ahead and tell them about it. Also probably it will just get around - "What's the deal with Anon? How does she afford that apartment working two days a week at that inner-city preschool?" "Oh, she's got some kind of money from her uncle or something." As long as there's something about you that's more interesting than the money, interesting people won't worry about it too much.
posted by mskyle at 10:23 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you should actually start a foundation. In my state there is an organization that helps people be philanthropists. I'll bet there's on in your state. Being generous is not without consequences, not all of them as pleasant as you may anticipate. It may be useful to launch The Mapleseed Foundation or The Nelson Group, or named after anything or anyone that takes your fancy. Then you can introduce yourself and offer help as the Director of The Pine Grove Initiative, which may be easier than being just some guy who likes to help. In our litigious world, you may also benefit from a shield.

If you have the chance to get in touch with people in your situation, it might help you stay true to your self and your goals. Money changes things, and sometimes it changes people. I like you the way you are.
posted by theora55 at 10:33 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you lie most people will be able to tell and will think you grow weed or something. Just say you invest for a living. Perfectly cromulent answer.
posted by fshgrl at 10:34 AM on April 10, 2013

It might be helpful to keep in mind that you dont owe anyone an answer that satisfies them just because they asked you a question.
posted by softlord at 5:42 PM on April 10

This. I know this is a cultural difference, but here in the UK the question is regarded by many people - particularly of my generation - as a bit rude and invasive, and is often treated as such. It's nobody's damned business what you do or how you make/made your money, especially if they're strangers.

When I lived in the States I was somewhat more tolerant, being aware of the cultural difference, but my replies to this question would always be evasive and curt. Not enough to be rude, but enough to let it be known that this was not a topic available for discussion. Things like "Oh, you know, this and that. Depending on my mood/what day it is." Or else I would deliberately misinterpret the question and start talking about my hobbies and interests. If they persisted and said, "No, what do you do for a living?" I'd just say "Something dull", and then immediately start talking about the weather or some other small talk less personal and more appropriate for chatting with a stranger.

You do not have to discuss things you do not want to discuss.
posted by Decani at 10:35 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it were me I would just tell them I was a trustafarian, but I'm blunt like that.

Presumably you are doing something. Whether or not you are getting paid for it, in my mind, is kinda immaterial. So, you can tell people you are working with the elderly, or the underprivileged, or serving on a board for such and such charity. If it were me, perhaps I would be working with an organization I know that fights human trafficking, in which case, ergo, that is my job.

Another option, if there is a particular organization you are really interested in investing your time in, why not see if they can hook you up with a job, and pay you one dollar a year salary. Ergo, you have a position. On the other hand, if you would rather keep your options more open, I'd make my answer more vague and remember no one is really owed an answer about your personal life.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:52 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've won half the battle if you're aware and already conscientious about how your answers can affect other people's perception of you.

Take for example a person in my life who has earned their wealth- a business owner. At first, this was a point of respect for me. Then as I got to know them as a person, their values became obvious. They flaunt their money, trips, cars, rolexes. Make degrading comments about service people. Generally acts smug. This is the type of "money" people don't want to hear about.

I get the feeling that if you're honest that you've been given the opportunity to do what you love, no one will care if you earned the money. You're earning your good fortune by redirecting your energy to more important, rewarding endeavours and effecting more change in the world than you might toiling away for some multinational company.
posted by sunshinesky at 11:01 AM on April 10, 2013

Tell them that you are an Amway distributor. You are guaranteed that they won't want to know anything more. ;)
posted by dgran at 11:32 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I do some consulting." "I'm in real estate" (If you own at least two properties). "I freelance." "I'm an investment manager" (you are! your own!). "I'm in investments."

I'd follow up with what you do for fun, since the whole point is conversation. "I work with several non-profits, including Cuddly Kitten Center, Help Children Read Good, and this cool tech org in Low-Income Neighborhood." What do you do?

With your good friends, if they actually ask, "How can you do what you do?", I'm an advocate of being honest. Even though my parents would think it horribly tacky. I'd say, "I'm lucky enough to have some investments that help me spend more time on non-profits and volunteering." "I'm lucky enough to have some investments that let me pursue what I really care about."

I'm probably coming from a unique place because I know a lot of people like this. But it's just not a big deal. A lot of people have inherited wealth (or an early acquisition/IPO) that is helping to support them. Most of them still have a job, or freelance, or other useful pursuits that they may or may not be paid much for. People don't really inquire if you are subtle enough about it. If you keep busy they'll assume something you are doing (or passive assets like property or investments) is supporting you.

Or they'll assume you have hella credit card debt. Either way, they won't give it more than 10 seconds of passing curious thought.
posted by amaire at 11:46 AM on April 10, 2013

When I was a full-time Americorps volunteer, I would often tell people that it was sort of like a one-year fellowship to work on the project I was working on. I think you could say something like that.

If you're working close to full time on a specific project it is plausible that you could get another "grant" or "fellowship" to support your work at the end of each defined time period. The funding organization(s)/individual(s) could prefer to be anonymous.
posted by steinwald at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2013

I understand why so many people are basically saying, "Tell them what volunteer work you do and don't mention money." But as people get to know you, they're going to ask themselves, "How come he has a decent car and nice apartment when he says he works at the food bank?"

Add onto that the complication that if you are volunteering at any organization with the least bit of controversy, if you have unexplained income that you have given shifty answers about, they are going to think you are a cop. Unexplained income is one of the big red flags about someone not being who they say they are and being shady. It's also one of the things even the government looks at.

Be honest. "My aunt was always there for me. We used to go waterskiing together and talk about philosophy. When she died, she left me enough money to live my dreams." It comes packaged in a story, and people find themselves empathizing with her. Hopefully they wont' just assume you're Rich McRicherson.
posted by corb at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of people are saying you should, if you're going to actually divulge how you buy your groceries, begin with "I was fortunate enough" or similar. I say skip that. Just say "I inherited some money" or "I have some family investments." You risk sounding sanctimonious or insincere if you hem and haw too much.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:26 PM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Whenever I'm unemployed or working at a job I'm not very proud of ("I'm a cashier! So, do you enjoy pediatric medicine?"), and people ask me what I do, I say "as little as possible", or "whatever I feel like", and then start talking about what I'm doing and passionate about right now ("I'm working on this project where I"). If you call it a "project", people tend to assume you're somehow getting money from it. If they're rude enough to ask where you get your money, you can just say that money's a private topic, or my go-to when people ask me something I don't want to talk about: "I don't want talk about that", subject change.

Ps I don't know if it's weird to congratulate someone in your position- obviously it's not a great way to find yourself wealthy- but it's a gift and a blessing that most of us will never have. Enjoy it for us. Don't waste it by feeling bad.
posted by windykites at 12:46 PM on April 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are certain questions that people are not entitled to the truth about including where you get your money, whether you color your hair, had plastic surgery, whether your teeth are the ones you are born with, etc. Find an answer that you feel comfortable with and own it. If people are rude enough to ask, they are not owed the truth.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 1:15 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

If people are rude enough to ask, they are not owed the truth.

Depending on where you volunteer/work in the future, you might interact with kids, or others who ask you questions you would otherwise dodge. I'd stress Find an answer that you feel comfortable with and own it.

Also, I'd suggest you schedule your time as if you worked. Living without obligations can be nice for a while, but many people get a bit stir crazy from lack of daily structure. I know I did when I was doing well enough to not be employed and not be stressing about not having a job. It wasn't too long, but for me, a few months was enough. Everyone else I knew and socialized with had a more set schedule to their lives.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:35 PM on April 10, 2013

I will add that you do not have to be independently wealthy for this to be a tough question. It's still a tough question for me. The answers I think are meaningful for me are often social disasters to actually divulge. So are the "easy" answers about me that people think they understand. In fact I was drawn to the question in hopes of helping myself. I think I cope well in a lot of small talk situations but I still feel a big disconnect between how I see myself and how others see me. It is not exactly the same problem but it seems related, at least for my own internal process.

So here is some of what I have wrestled with over the years:

I was a homemaker for a long time. Telling people that tends to be a conversation killer. It is like announcing "I am a non-person." It gives them nothing to latch onto. ("So, how goes the vacuuming?") It helped to say "Mitary wife and homeschooling mom" instead of "homemaker." It gave them something to latch onto for conversing with me.

I worked for a few years for a big company. Telling people (locally -- cashiers, hair dressers) where I worked always got oohs and ahs but I had an entry level job and really did not identify with my job. I identified with side projects I was involved with but didn't really want to admit to those at work. And I didn't want to name my employer online. So that caused me a lot of personal friction on this point.

I have a Certificate in Geographic Information Systems. Most people have no clue what that is. My related but derailed career plan was to become an urban planner. I belonged for a time to a discussion board for that. Urban planners routinely have trouble with this question. Most people have no clue what urban planning is and it isn't easy to explain. I actually did a lot better than most at answering questions like "what is GIS?" in a way which fostered understanding and actual conversation. ("It's kind of like Simcity for the real world -- think Google Maps.")

So that's some of my backstory for why I think you need to separate the two issues. My identity is important to me. It matters a lot less to other people. They are usually just looking for some low risk ice breaker and really, really do not mean to hook into some big personal issue by asking. In fact, they probably intend the exact opposite. They probably are asking something they think is safe and unobtrusive. So give them an answer that makes you feel safe and not intruded upon but which is still honest. Dig around in the heavy issues aspect of this privately, as a separate thing.
posted by Michele in California at 1:36 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in fundraising.

We have a big-time donor who lists "philanthropist" as his profession.

(Probably not even the same person googly and muffin man know above. So this is certainly "a thing".)
posted by anastasiav at 3:17 PM on April 10, 2013

"I inherited some money recently, so for now I am able to..."

"Some" and "for now" are vague phrases. They could mean that you have enough money to buy an island and retire. Or it could just mean 2 yrs of living expenses. You have explained the fact that your bills are getting paid, but you don't sound like a trust fund baby.

The only thing people care about is what comes after the "..."

"I inherited some money recently, so for now I am able to volunteer at a clinic that provides free dental care for children. It's made me really notice everybody's teeth!" And then the conversation devolves into a discussion of Crest Whitestrips, or whatever.

I think it's good to provide some bite-sized explanation of how your bills are getting paid, because otherwise people will be naturally curious and grill you. But I think if you satisfy that curiosity, the conversation will naturally move on to topics that you actually want to talk about, like what volunteer work you are doing and why it is satisfying to you.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:23 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in the minority here, but I'd just be totally honest. "I inherited enough money to live off, and so I do [x]."

I don't think it's rude to ask, and I don't see any downside to answering. People are just trying to situate you: they want to know whether they need to be careful about what restaurants to invite you to, and that kind of thing. I don't think it's a big deal, and I don't think you need to feel awkward about it.
posted by Susan PG at 11:10 PM on April 10, 2013

i would just say that "i do a lot of volunteer work" and then tell a bit about it if you want. if someone asks about your finances you are free to say "that is kind of a personal question". also, i would recommend not telling people except for very close friends or family that you inherited a large chunk of change.
posted by wildflower at 3:24 AM on April 11, 2013

Find something you enjoy doing and tell people you do that. If you cop out and say you're in real estate or managing investments or whatever, you might be talking to someone who knows a lot more than you about that and wants to talk (and worse, might try to use you if they find out you're rich). If you name a full-time philanthropic cause, however, you will be respected as a kind, involved person, and unlike other professions, no one will attempt to one-up you because they wired the receptacles at a Habitat for Humanity house once back in college and no one will be trying to get you to invest in their record label or house-flipping company or.......
posted by resurrexit at 3:51 PM on April 12, 2013

Don't tell people you're newly rich, even if you're only relatively wealthy. Please see that scene in The Jerk where randos just start popping up needing money for this and that--friends may end up being the worst.
posted by resurrexit at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2013

« Older Friend B likes friend A's girlfriend. What to do...   |   GPS: Common knowledge? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.