John Y’s Musings from the Middle: I Once Was a Millionaire

I was once a millionaire.

Not for long. But for about a year. And I only recently found out about it. Even though it happened some 40 years ago, I find myself reflecting a lot recently on that year—“My Big Year.” And asking myself, what went wrong and what can I learn from it?

In 1971 my father sold his controlling interest in Kentucky Fried Chicken. He made a good deal of money and, as the story goes,

created a $1M trust for each of his three children, my two sisters (Sissy and Sandy) and me.

Which was a surprise hearing about all these years later since my father reminded us regularly growing up that he didn’t believe in giving his children money because it would take away their motivation. But this one time, he apparently did. (In my teens I once suggested he test his theory by doing a pilot project with me as the one child who gets money–and my two sisters as the control groups— and see how I do. “If I fail,” I reasoned, “you can continue with your current policy and be reassured by recent supporting data that you are doing the right thing.” But all I got was a laugh.)

Anyway, I was 8 years old at the time and totally oblivious to the fact that I was a millionaire. At least I was “on paper,” as a lot of millionaires seem to be fond of saying. I’m not sure what that means but I like the sound of it and so I’m repeating it here. 

The irony is that same FY (fiscal year) my income was only $65, albeit a 25$ increase over the previous year’s income.. I had gotten wind my father had a business windfall and decided one night to leverage his recent good business fortune as an opportunity to get an increase in my weekly allowance. I walked into his bathroom where he was brushing his teeth while standing in his boxers. He told me something about how his mom had taught him to brush vertically rather than horizontally and he agreed that was the better, brushing motion for good dental hygiene. But that’s not what I was there to talk about. And so I got right to the point, “Dad, is it true that after selling KY Fried Chicken you are a millionaire?”

My father paused, caught off guard, and as he wiped away the white toothpaste foam that had oozed out of the corner of his mouth (something I noted must happen to vertical brushers and something I should avoid), he cocked his head tentatively and said, “Hmmm, you know Johnny, we might be…” And then he reminded me that it was not nice to talk about money issues but wanted to know why I asked.

“Well, Dad, I’m currently getting a dollar a week allowance. And I was wondering if now might be a good time to increase it to, say, $1.35 or even just a $1.25. (I really would have been ecstatic with a 25% increase but had learned that in negotiations if you ask for more than you really want, you are more likely to get it.)
My father paused and acted like he was running the numbers in his head. If the extra .25 to.35 cents a week was “doable” under the new budget. He reluctantly yet confidently said he felt that was a reasonable request but that we should only bump it up to $1.25 for now. And see how it goes.

I was thrilled. And felt like I had out maneuvered my father, who was known as a good negotiator, with my savvy tactic about really wanting $1.35 while hoping to get $1.25 –max! And then getting it. I was on an adrenaline high and already looking for my next negotiation.

And the whole time…without even knowing it, I was sitting on a cool mil (in a trust in some bank somewhere). And not even able to enjoy complaining about all the taxes I was having to pay.
Looking back, what would I have done had I known? Who knows? Probably blown most or all of it. I can easily see myself trying to buy all the girls in my third grade class all the chocolate milk they could drink in hopes of getting them to chase me harder at recess.

Or I could see myself using all the money to buy baseball cards which l passionately collected that same year.

Or gambling it away a quarter a game playing pool with my neighborhood friends.

I would not have invested it well. When I had saved my $65 at the end of FY ’71 (52 weeks times $1.25) my mother took me to Louisville National Bank to open my first savings account. I spilled out the one dollar bills onto the desk of the branch manager. Within minutes he told me I would get something like 3 or 4% interest in a savings account.

“What?!” I exclaimed. “That’s only about $2—a year!” I collected my money, thanked the nice branch manager, and told him I felt I could do better keeping it in my room and using it to play pool with my friends—where I could certainly do better than $2 a year.

The next year, 1972, was a very bad year for me–financially. It was my Black Friday. Except it lasted an entire year.  My father had decided to invest in a restaurant chain called Lums that was famous for selling beer steamed hot dogs—and he also decided to use the money from my sister’s and my trust to “make it work for us.” That’s a way to talk about money that you don’t want to put in a bank where it will only earn 3 or 4% annually. But it doesn’t always work out. Apparently all that trust money was lost on Lums. And I was as broke at age 9 as I had been at age 7. And have never been able to eat a beer steamed hot dog since.

That’s right, as big a year as 1971 was for me, 1972 was just as awful. In fact, it was devastating. Most kids in 3rd grade gripe out having to learn geography or a foreign language or getting braces. Pleeez!  Try losing a million dollars and then come cry on my shoulder about homework and the difficulty of eating an apple with braces on.

It’s just as well I didn’t know about it. I could have fallen into a major depression or lept out the third grade first floor window- -or worse. And this was before Prozac was on the scene to help us cope with life’s cruel twists of fate.  Third grade was tough enough for me as it was without knowing. And, yes, I did get braces that year.

I eventually muddled through and moved on to fourth grade. And adjusted to my financial realities off bottoming out the previous year about as well as could be expected. Not knowing about any of it seemed to help a lot.

But nowadays when I am worrying about getting bills paid, anticipating the next college tuition bill in the mail, or planning for the next vacation we can’t quite afford but taking anyway because the memories will be worth it, I can remind myself of that year—now 41 years ago—when I was briefly, on paper, a real life millionaire. And didn’t even know it. And then I think to myself, “Who knows? Maybe this year I am a millionaire in some other way—figuratively speaking, of course—and just don’t know it yet.”

In fact, I’m pretty sure I am.

And frankly, I suspect we all are.

And maybe one day we’ll even learn what it is that we should have been so grateful for in 2012. But for now not knowing the details will have to do.


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