4 true tales of instant wealth

For some people, getting rich quick is the easy part. It's knowing how to handle the windfall that's hard.

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By Emma Johnson, MSN Money

After baseball and bargain shopping, it's the American pastime: fantasizing about that big payday.

What would you do with $100 million?

It might be winning the lottery, getting an inheritance from a long-forgotten oil-baron relative or becoming the next infomercial success story, but most of us have indulged in the same daydream: imagining how untold millions could make us thinner and happier, with a fuller head of hair and perfect relationships.

But the reality of sudden riches is usually quite different, says Holly Isdale, the managing director at Bessemer Trust, a money management company for the wealthy.

"The reality of this money is so overwhelming, and the decisions you make can cost you millions of dollars or ruin your children," Isdale says. "It is the small things that can be more debilitating than the big financial decisions. Money has such a big impact on how we define ourselves that coming into a lot of it can really rock your world."

Learn to say 'no'

In an effort to better understand exactly how worlds get rocked, we spoke to four people who came into sudden wealth and learned about the darker side of big dough. Though most of us won't be selling our Internet startups for millions of dollars, these stories offer lessons about money -- and people -- that can apply in all tax brackets.

John Ferber, entrepreneur

Windfall: $60 million in 2004, at age 30

In 1998, Ferber and his brother Scott started Advertising.com, which connects online publishers with advertisers. In 2004, the Baltimore natives sold the venture to America Online in a highly publicized deal.

First big purchases: four homes, including a woodland cabin and Florida beachfront property, plus cars, cars, cars -- among them a Ford GT40, a Range Rover, a Bentley, a Lotus and a 1975 Trans Am.

Did you fantasize about spending?

Reality check: "In some ways it was fantastic, but people treat you differently. Some people were like, 'Congratulations!' But most people wanted us to invest in their companies. One of my board members told me, 'The more the company grows, the more you are going to feel alone.' . . . That was true. If I'm hanging out with my friends who are successful Internet entrepreneurs, we talk about things we buy and places we go, but if I'm hanging out with other people sometimes I feel guilty if things come out of my mouth that sound like I'm bragging. I got a lot of animosity and paranoia -- not from my closest friends but from the second tier of friends and those who worked for me.

"When I meet people, one of the first questions they ask is, 'How do you know if a girl likes you for you and not your money?' I'd be foolish to tell you I'm not more sexually attractive to girls now. You can read about me on the Internet; I drive a flashy car. My big problem at the end of the day is that you can't separate money from everything else. It is all a part of who I am."

Paying for his share of the dinner tab

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What he's doing now: Ferber has launched charity Web site MicroGiving, which connects donors to those in need; MyMojo, an advertising-supported music and mobile-content company; and USO Networks, which optimizes video search engines.

Annie Duke, professional poker player

Windfall: $2 million in 2004, at age 38

Duke had been a professional poker player for more than a decade, earning a six-figure income for several years before her high-profile win at no-limit Texas hold 'em in the World Series of Poker's Tournament of Champions.

First big purchases: "I didn't have those big, materialistic fantasies, though I do have a little bit of a shoe habit. My biggest extravagance is that all of my food is bought at Whole Foods. I put a down payment on a house in Los Angeles, and my kids go to a really good private school. I also make sure that my kids are taken care of if something should happen to me. If I needed to buy a car tomorrow, I wouldn't freak out, and people don't understand how huge it is not having that worry."

Reality check: "My winning coincided with the popularity of poker, and all of a sudden everyone knew who I was. People think I have $2 million in the bank, and it absolutely doesn't work that way. I work all the time, and I need to work to pay my bills.

"When you have money, certain people feel they are entitled to it. If you go to a restaurant they feel they shouldn't have to pay for it, or if you go shopping they get pissed off if you don't buy them what they want. Someone owed me $6,000 for years, and they had no intention of repaying it because I'm richer than they are. I'm always shocked when people behave that way.

"I have four kids, ages 5 to 12, and my biggest fear is raising spoiled rich kids. I take a lot of pride in that I got where I am on my own wits -- there is no question that I worked very hard for what I have -- but I constantly remind my kids that there are other people who work just as hard and are not as fortunate as we are. There are moments, however. My oldest daughter recently asked why we don't have a Wii game system, since they are only a couple of hundred dollars."

What she's doing now: Duke continues to compete at poker and is widely considered the top woman in the sport. She is involved in many charities, especially those related to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. She currently appears on TV's "The Celebrity Apprentice," hosted by Donald Trump.

Nancy Lieberman, pro basketball player

Windfall: $100,000 salary in 1980 (about $265,000 in today's dollars), at age 22

Raised by a single mother in Queens, N.Y., Lieberman was drafted to play for the Dallas Diamonds in the first women's professional basketball league. She played professionally until age 38, then started a coaching career.

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First big purchases: a Rolex for herself and a house for her mother.

Reality check: "At age 22, $100,000 was like winning the lottery. But I had no idea how much money goes to taxes, especially when you're in the highest tax bracket. Also, people started coming out of the woodwork with 'investment ideas.' A gentleman offered to invest $8,000 of my money in the stock market. I had no idea about the market or mutual funds, and I lost my money.

"I thought I'd learned my lesson, but then at age 29, a friend who is no longer a friend insisted that emus (birds) were the hot new commodity, since you can use their meat, feathers and skin, and sell their oil. For a $10,000 investment I got an 8-by-10 glossy photo of 'my' emu for my desk. . . . I finally wised up after losing a $25,000 investment in a friend's electric company.

"Warren Buffett has since become a friend of mine, and he told me, 'Don't ever make a financial decision based on emotions.' I was throwing money in the wind and hoping it would land somewhere. So I started taking responsibility for my finances and educating myself about investing. The biggest lesson I've learned is to have a game plan. As a coach, I would never put my team on the court without a plan for success, and the same goes for my money."

What she's doing now: Named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996, Lieberman is an ESPN commentator, a volunteer with the Special Olympics and the V Foundation for Cancer Research, and the local chairwoman of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure in Plano, Texas.

K. Harris, assistant director of a children's museum

Windfall: $1 million in 2008, at age 23

Harris (she asked that her first name not be used) learned the year before that she'd be getting an inheritance from a great-uncle.

First big purchases: With the advice of a financial planner, Harris has chosen a few things she plans to buy with the inheritance -- a Toyota Prius, new clothes and a trip to California with friends -- and she plans to pay off her college bills. Total: about $60,000.

Reality check: "When I learned about the inheritance, I made $30,000 as a director of operations at a children's museum. I come from a blue-collar family. I'm someone who has had to balance a checkbook her entire life for fear of overdrawing. I don't have to have that fear anymore, which is both a blessing and daunting. I'm concerned about making sound financial decisions, and I still want to continue my career, which I love.

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"The whole identity thing is a struggle as much as the investment questions. Of all the young, hippie college kids I went to school with, none of them drive BMWs or have expensive jewelry. All of a sudden I have enough money to join the country club and get a dog named Mitzi, but why would I, and what does that mean? I've always paid my own way -- my car, school -- and never asked my parents for anything. I never let anyone pay for me because I didn't want to feel obligated to anyone. Now my dead uncle is paying for everything -- and will be for a long time.

"I happened to date a guy who drives a BMW; he thought I should buy one, too. My mom pointed out that I'll never get a raise at work if I roll up in a BMW.

"I am the only beneficiary of the money, and I experienced a power shift with my parents. It was super-uncomfortable for me to suddenly have an advantage that my parents didn't. I feel that as a daughter I want to do the best by my parents, especially knowing they aren't as well-prepared for retirement as they could be. I ask myself: 'Do I give them some and have less for myself?' Of course, if the will dictated that, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but now that the decision is mine it becomes weird. I haven't told any of my friends about the inheritance yet, but it will be hard to hide my new car."

What she's doing now: She continues to work at the museum, where she has been promoted to assistant director, and recently got engaged to the BMW guy, who helped her pick out the Prius.

Published March 31, 2009