The Boston Phoenix October 12 - 19, 2000

[Out There]

Return of the TFBs

Quick -- unleash the hounds

by Kris Frieswick

If you ask Warren Buffett, rich kids who depend on trust funds are on a par with welfare recipients who depend on government handouts. Trust-fund babies "command the resources of society without contributing to society," the billionaire said recently at Columbia University. Their main accomplishment in life, he added, is "emerging from the right womb."

I couldn't agree more. I once had a relationship with a TFB, an heir to a hardware fortune. He was not filthy rich, but rich enough that he didn't have to work. And he didn't. To make himself feel better about this, he "worked" on his wooden yacht. He got up in the morning, said "Goodbye, I'm going to work," and messed around on his boat for a few hours. When he came home, he would announce, without a speck of irony, "Golly, I'm so tired. What a long day at work."

Money had obviously clouded this guy's ability to distinguish between work and hobby. Work is something you do so you can feed yourself and your family. It involves deadlines, or repetitive machines, or clients. To get there, you must get up every day at 6:30 a.m. to catch two buses and a train, or sit in traffic for an hour. It is something you do when you're sick, when it's raining, or when everyone you know is leaving early Friday for a long weekend out of town. Work is, well, work.

Astoundingly, he complained more than once about not having enough money. So I asked him why he didn't just get a job. He replied, "Because I don't want to."

That line has been replaying in my mind a lot lately as the new school year brings college-age TFBs gliding stylishly back into town. I can't help wondering what that kind of wealth does to a person's life. Sure, having tons of money would be cool, but I say that as someone who has never had tons of money. I would know the difference. When money is like air, how do you appreciate it? What motivates someone who has always had everything? Do you even care about being successful when you already are? How do you appreciate being on top without climbing the mountain? How can you experience the thrill of risk, and the resulting joy of achievement, if you travel with your own golden parachute? I'm sure there are TFBs whose families have ingrained in them the importance of contributing to society . . . but I'd be willing to bet that those same families kept the cash flow small enough to put a little urgency behind the message.

Part of me has always felt kind of bad for TFBs. They will never know the pure relief that comes from breaking open your piggy bank and realizing you have just enough change to buy some dinner. They'll never know the sense of satisfaction you get from depositing your paycheck just as your overdraft limit is reached.

Of course, they'll never know the pain of being denied a much-needed loan, or experience the humiliation of returning a can of soup to the grocery aisle because there isn't enough cash for soup and beer. But they'll also never know how good it feels to finally get to a point in life when you can pay all your bills as soon as they come in and still have a three-digit checking-account balance left over.

In fact, many, if not most, TFBs share a dirty little secret: they're on an allowance, just like the one you had in second grade, only much, much bigger. Think about those dynamics for just a second. "Are your chores done? Did you clean your room? Did you do your homework? Your father and I are very disappointed in your grades. I don't know, son . . . do you think you really deserve your allowance this week?" Now, imagine hearing a version of that until you are 65 years old and your parents finally die.

TFBs come in several basic flavors. There is the Euro TFB, who, by actual count, has more money than God. These folks do not look at price tags, and they live in the same condo buildings as bank presidents and sports stars. They vacation in places I can't pronounce. Then there is the Old-Money TFB, part of an insular and elusive breed rarely spotted in places where hoi polloi meet. That's because Old-Money TFBs are convinced that everyone who doesn't already have gobs of money hangs with them just to get some of theirs, a paranoid notion implanted by Mummy and Father before they could walk and that is, on the whole, accurate. In contrast, New-Money TFBs are loud, wear lots of gold, and make sure that you know who they are, even if they're not quite sure themselves. Most can trace their wealth back one full generation to a father or mother who founded a successful car dealership, semiconductor-fabrication facility, or liquor store. They may "work," but that's just 'cause Dad owns the company.

No matter what type of TFB you're dealing with, you can spot one a mile away. Their faces generally possess clear, untouched expressions (blank, really), an indicator that they have never furrowed their brows under extreme financial worry. They also lack the edginess peculiar to those of us who have ever had a job we hated, but couldn't leave. And they are bored. You do not see this boredom in people who are striving for goals that they aren't entirely sure they can meet . . . which is, for most of us, the reason we get up in the morning.

Overall, I'm glad I grew up kinda poor, cause it gives me something to measure my progress against. For TFBs, every day is just more of same. A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine saw my ex, Mr. Trust-Fund Baby. I asked what he was doing with his life, figuring that after eight years, he would have realized that he was wasting it. She shrugged. "He's doing the same as he was doing before," she said. "Nothing."

Kris Frieswick can be reached at

The Out There archive