I Have Become the Rich Relative I Always Wanted

After nearly nine years of living on top of a dungeon, I’m turning it into a palace. That’s right, kids: we’re finishing the basement!

And it’s going to be sick. There’s going to be a bathroom fit for a queen*, a veritable Shangri-La of a bedroom-cum-sitting-room, acres upon acres of well-organized cabinetry and shelving for storage, built-in bookshelves the likes of which Trinity College can only dream, and a laundry room—a laundry room! Try to contain your jealousy.

Doubling the livable space in my home is obviously costing Bear and I a pretty penny. But we think it’s worth it. Because it’s not just for us. We’re spending loads of money to turn our basement into an affordable apartment for someone we love.

*Only because Kitty picked out the tiles.

Needing a rich relative

When I was but a wee baby bitch, penniless and loaded down with student loans, I used to wish I had some rich relative to swoop in and solve all my money problems.

I’m not sure where I got the yearning for a rich relative. I could blame books like Little Women for putting the hope of discovering an Old Mister Laurence into my preadolescent head. (Or even an Aunt March! I’d settle for an Aunt March!) Mr. Brewer in The Babysitter’s Club was not only an engaged and loving father-figure to Kristy, but a walking plot device to ensure all the Babysitters could go on bookworthy adventures together.

Pop culture told me that a rich relative was my birthright, as a bossy yet pure-hearted tomboy. And as I got older, I saw for myself that this character was anything but fictional.

I went to an expensive private college. (It was the style at the time.) Many students came from modest middle-class backgrounds, like myself. But some came from, shall we say, means. They’d casually reveal that their car was a graduation present from an aunt, or that their student loans were “handled” by their grandfather.

One of my college friends was invited to join a chill vacation to a cousin’s cabin in Montana. Wanting to visit a western state, and enthusiastically prepared to rough it, she agreed. She was picked up at the airport by a helicopter. As the helicopter skated over clouded hilltops, pine forests, and clear blue lakes, my friend asked when they would reach the fabled cousin’s place. “Oh, this is it,” her host said, casually waving her hand over the entirety of the Bob Ross painting below them. The “cousin’s cabin” turned out to be a private hunting lodge of unparalleled luxury, situated on hundreds of acres of pristine wilderness, with full-time staff. She spent the week in a very comfortable class daze, like a romance novel heroine.

So I knew that these people were not only theoretically possible. They walked among us! And what I wanted from mine felt so much more reasonable than a palatial lodge with a private staff.

If fairy godmothers exist, where the hell is mine?!

It’s not that I felt I deserved this kind of a break from a Daddy Warbucks. But when I was struggling to make rent or relying on my credit card for groceries… a generous rich relative was a sweetly wistful dream.

For the first two decades of my life, I prided myself on making responsible choices. I worked hard, studied, got good grades, chose a good school, saved my money, and did everything I was told to put me on a solid path. Graduating with debt to sky-high unemployment, wage stagnation, and rising cost of living felt like a massive bait-and-switch.

My life would have been permanently changed by a wealthy older relative just, like… paying half my rent every month! Wiping out a chunk of my student loans! Buying me a car! IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK???

Starting adulthood with a negative net worth due to student loan debt is demoralizing, to say the least. Working hard for just $20k a year is demoralizing. So it was fun to fantasize about conveniently timed windfalls from generous benefactors.

Alas, in my youthful poverty no mysterious great uncle shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving me a modest fortune with which to end my financial stress. More’s the pity! But ultimately, I’m fine with it. Because recently, I’ve reached the galaxy-brain tier in my quest for a rich relative.

What if I skip needing a rich relative—and become the rich relative myself?

Becoming the rich relative

My husband’s cousin is about a decade younger than we are. She’s spent all of her adult life pursuing an education in psychology so that she can become a therapist. As a survivor of a deadly eating disorder in her teens, she’s made it her mission to specialize in the treatment of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. We couldn’t be more proud. And she’s getting her Ph.D. in our city!

… Our city, where rent is sky-high and square-footage pitifully minuscule. Being a student with a medical residency will leave her with very little time and energy to earn money. Paying rent at market rate in this high cost-of-living city will almost certainly be a hardship for her.

So we invited her to live with us.

We’ve periodically housed down-on-their-luck friends in our unfinished basement with strategically placed hanging bedsheets as bedroom walls. Old area rugs and curtains and Christmas lights worked valiantly to make the space homey, but uh… that shit was still a dingy unfinished basement under a 100-year-old craftsman bungalow. There aren’t enough throw pillows in the world to make concrete floors and cinderblock walls look less like the cabin from The Blair Witch Project and more like an actual bedroom.

Having resources to share

We’ve wanted to finish the basement for a while, but we always thought we couldn’t afford it. Then suddenly… we could. And what better reason to shell out basement-finishing money than a younger relative in need? So before her Ph.D. program starts in the fall, we’re transforming our basement into an apartment to house my husband’s cousin.

We’re a comfortable number of years past our indebted youth, but she’s not. We have plenty of space to share. And it’s not a financial hardship for us to provide her with an affordable home, so why not? Plus (and not for nothing), a spacious apartment in a finished basement will benefit us in the long term: we can rent it out to other folks, invite another young relative or needy friend to come live with us when Bear’s cousin moves out, or just be happy with the added property value if and when we decide to sell our home.

When my 21-year-old cousin wanted to explore the Rocky Mountains on his spring break, I gave him my car and all the gear he’d need for the week. When my nibling wanted a guitar for their birthday, I bought them a Fender. And when a friend was short $80 on her rent, I gave her the money.

I can easily afford to be generous at this stage in my life. And I can also easily remember how much that generosity would’ve meant to me when I was younger and broker.

In short, I have become the rich relative I always wanted.

What it feels like to provide

Is this whole article just a flex? A humble-brag? You bet your shapely ass it is!

More than any other financial milestone—becoming debt-free, buying a house, saving my first $100,000—being able to easily provide for others makes me feel like I’ve made it.

I remember how stressful it was to keep a running tally in my head as I shopped for groceries so I wouldn’t go over my budget. And I remember panicking when my car needed repairs because I couldn’t afford a mechanic, but I also couldn’t afford to not drive to work. It did not feel great!

Now I can easily afford to grant the sort of financial help I longed for when I was broke. And it feels real great!

I will never understand the mindset some people have that insists on passing down hardships like rites of passage. “We suffered and worked hard to pay off student loans, so everyone else should too!” just doesn’t vibe with me.

I find it far more rewarding—satisfying, even!—to know that I can spare my young loved ones the kind of hardship I went through. I don’t want my niblings and cousins to ever feel financial stress of the kind I did in my early twenties. If I can be the rich relative who makes sure they want for nothing, then that is my benchmark for wealth and financial success.

And it’s completely selfish because I just want them rich relative bragging rights. Bask in the light of my superior generosity! Stand in awe of my selflessness! If Heaven is real, then I just skipped to the front of the line at the Pearly Gates!

Is this generational wealth?

I think what I’m describing above is generational wealth. The motivation to earn more for others. The willingness to share. The satisfaction of knowing that money stuff will be just a little bit easier for the next generation. All of it sounds like the sort of American Dream that requires neither bootstraps nor bootstraps-related platitudes.

And I get it. I get why generational wealth is such a crucial privilege. Cracking the code of generational wealth is like acquiring the Hand of Midas here in the land of opportunity.

I understand this because I didn’t actually grow up without help. Of course not! My psychiatrist was absolutely thrilled the first time she asked about my upbringing. I could practically see her zone out and go into relaxation mode when I told her about my idyllic upbringing in a sylvan glade drinking mountain spring water surrounded by loving family members who provided for my every need.

Rich in love and privilege

Even if I didn’t have a rich older relative giving me a cheap place to stay while I was in school, I definitely had older relatives using their resources to lift me up.

They raised me in a stable home environment and fed me nutritious food; they drove me to and from sports practice and music lessons; they talked to me about money and economics and how the world works; they made sure I had a library card and a bike to get me there; they helped me do my homework and study for tests; they made enough money that I could focus on being a kid and a successful student instead of needing to contribute to the household earnings; they drove me to visit colleges and co-signed my student loans.

I could go on, but we’ve been over this before. All of these things contributed to my stability and success so that I could then go on to build further stability and success for the next generation.

I am both the beneficiary and purveyor of generational wealth. It builds exponentially. And I’m damn grateful for it.

23 thoughts to “I Have Become the Rich Relative I Always Wanted”

  1. This is lovely and gave me so many feels.

    I too have “periodically housed down-on-their-luck friends in our unfinished basement with strategically placed hanging bedsheets as bedroom walls.” I’d love to do what you are doing sometime down the road if the universe cooperates. As I am in my mid-sixties, I’m guessing we will continue to make do with “old area rugs and curtains and Christmas lights work[ing] valiantly to make the space homey.” But better that than waiting until everything can be perfect to do the thing.

    Isn’t it funny how those of us who have little (or had little in the past) seem to be more inclined to share?


    1. Thank you so much! And you’re right–it’s better to share even when you have little. My friend who got evicted was pretty grateful to have a safe place to live, even if he didn’t have an actual wall to his basement “bedroom.”

  2. Very nicely put. As your “grandmother” I am proud of you. We’ve done the same thing for many years. Even when we were poor charity and lending a helping hand were important parts of who we were. Now that our financial struggles are behind us in the “rear view mirror” we don’t forget about those days. We donate roughly 30% of our income to charity each year and volunteer our time towards causes that are important to us.

    Congratulations on giving someone a hand up.

    1. Thanks Grandma!!! We live for your approval, as you well know. I feel like 30% to charity is a fantastic goal for me to work towards now.

  3. Ah major snaps for the Angel reference.

    We too have housed friends in our spare bedroom, and it always felt good to be able to provide space for them to get on their feet. I’m excited both for Young Cousin as well as your future remodel—our biggest regret selling our house was not getting to enjoy all the work we put into making it “sale ready”.

    1. Our knowledge of early 2000s TV references is vast and deep! It was the only thing I thought of when our basement was… subpar.
      We considered moving into a bigger house instead of finishing the basement. But given the current real estate market, it was WAY more financially efficient to do the basement.

  4. Your childhood sounds totally “rich” to me! We could not afford to visit colleges, and the thought didn’t even cross my mind! There was no way my parents could afford to put me and my siblings in sports. Even driving us to and from activities would have been a hardship with our one old car. So many people (not you) don’t even understand that they have privileges that make a huge difference.
    I never even thought I could be a manager. I just aspired to have a full time job. I never thought anything beyond a B.A. was possible. I know my mental state is personal. One of my siblings did get her masters and is fairly high up the ladder.
    Ironically we did have a richer relative help us. Her support enabled us to see some of the U.S., experience fine dining, rent my first apartment ( she co-signed) and so much more. She also left all of us a good chunk of money that helped two of us with down payments. So in that sense I benefitted from generational wealth too. It makes a big difference!

    1. This is such a great reminder that a) wealth is so subjective, and b) recognizing one’s own privilege is a constant process, not a one-time thing. I’m the grandchild of immigrants–I think the story of my generational wealth building begins there, with the sacrifices they made so my dad could have a better life.

  5. This was fascinating to read. Kudos to you for achieving so much at such a young age, and being so generous to others less fortunate. I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and their attitude since I told them I would retire early has been anything but supportive or complimentary. It’s ok with me (in many ways I think I wouldn’t have achieved so much if I hadn’t been raised by wolves) but interesting to see the difference with more normal families. Congrats, and your husband’s cousin is very lucky to have you!

    1. Thank you so much! And I’m sorry your family is being awful about your early retirement. Are they like, “Why aren’t you working longer so you can share some of that with us??”

      1. No. They either say “the stock market is a casino, you’re just gambling and being lazy so you quit your job” (my parents & cousins) or “you’re just corrupt, all rich people are corrupt” (my siblings). Luckily I have a really supportive network of friends who are my rock! Thanks for asking 🙂

        1. Fuck, both of those responses suuuuuck. The casino comment just speaks of ignorance. Keep your chin up, my dear! We’re rooting for you!

  6. Loved the post so am very sorry to have to bring a fly to the ointment. This week the news headlines here in T.O. is the massive flood we experienced 10 years ago (thanks Climate Change!). So, my (unsolicited) advice to you is this: Step 1 of basement renovation – put in a basement backwater valve. Even if your neighbourhood is not prone to flooding now, they don’t call it ‘climate CHANGE’ for nothing.

    Are you doing the renovations yourselves or outsourcing? Will we get before and after pics?

    1. Oh LAWD! Thank you so much for letting us know. We live in a desert climate, so flooding is relatively low-risk… but it’s never NO-risk. We’ll take your advice to heart.
      We hired a crew for the big stuff and are doing the little stuff ourselves. Since the house is so old, we knew the plumbing and electrical would need to be completely overhauled down there, and I don’t fuck with that.

    2. Re: the backwater valve, I recommend one for anyone who has a basement with any plumbing (laundry or toilet) even if it’s just used for storage. I think they’re standard in new construction now days, but for those of us in old houses if you’re having plumbing work done, look into it.
      We only have a check valve on the floor drain which is a minimally invasive option for the lowest level of drain – a clog just on our own sewer connection resulted in an entire bathtub’s worth of water discharged back up that drain for 2″ of water across 50% of the basement which can fuck up all the stuff in boxes that’s stashed in the basement. Luckily bathtub water is way less gross that most sewer water! Our neighborhood does have combined sewer/stormwater drains (as many older neighborhoods so) so a big rain event could mean gross sewer water coming up out of the toilets. As our house is elevated from the road I think we’re pretty safe – the overflow water does occasionally shoot up out of the manhole covers – but if I were spending any money on finishing the basement I’d double check. Sewer/drain plumbing is one area I don’t trust my limited knowledge/skillset to not f-up.

    3. Yes! I definitely suggest taking appropriate basement flood protections for your climate and plumbing situation now, rather than after you get water in the carpet. Just my 2 cents as someone who had to deal with a flooded (thankfully unfinished) basement in the midst of a tornado warning. Long story, but apparently sump pumps should probably be looked at less than 15 years after installation….

  7. I received a small (by some standards), unexpected inheritance from an aunt about 7 years ago. It became (and still is) my emergency fund. Every day I thank Aunt Helen for helping relieve my financial stress. My parents instilled a good work ethic and money habits. I’m grateful everyday for that “inheritance.”

  8. I also love normalizing having relatives live with you! I think in American society it’s typical to give people the side eye if they live with a sibling, a relative, even a friend who is helping you out rather than paying full rent themselves. Yet having people in your home who love and care for you – and who love and care for you in return – helps deepen social connections and reduce loneliness (which in turn improves mental and physical health and strengthens the sharing economy!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *