We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth

  • By Jennifer Risher
  • Xeno Books
  • 280 pp.

Striking it rich doesn’t — or shouldn’t, at least — fundamentally change who you are.

Jennifer Risher was raised by parents who valued frugality and taught her that even speaking about money was distasteful. Her mother’s voice — insisting that the wealthy were “those people, aloof and superior” — is a refrain in her head.

“Being cautious with money,” she writes in We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth, “had given me a sense of purpose, solidifying my place in our family and the world as a responsible person.”

So, when Risher and her husband, David, benefited tremendously from the 1990s dot-com boom, she felt poorly equipped to manage the windfall. The sudden surge in wealth not only had a huge impact on her family, but it also rocked her sense of who she thought she was.

Before delving into her own experience, however, Risher introduces the topic of wealth by depicting the expectations, gratitude, and worries that come with striking it rich. But hers is not a voyeuristic take on the affluent like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” MTV’s “Cribs,” or the “Real Housewives” franchise, nor is it a “how to get rich” book.

Instead, Risher’s aim is to start an honest conversation about a taboo topic — to “demystify wealth.” She’s cognizant that hers is just one of many perspectives, and she hopes others will add their viewpoints to the larger conversation.

Risher’s story begins when she is a twentysomething working for Microsoft, where she meets and falls in love with her future husband. They’re both earning relatively modest paychecks, but after a few years find the stock options that came with the job have grown exponentially, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. At first, Risher writes, this didn’t signify wealth to the young employees:

“Intelligence, hard work, and a passion for technology were currency at Microsoft. While it was clear that options were a benefit, they were viewed as a bunch of numbers on paper, completely unrelated to everyday life. But in time, options began making us rich.”

It takes a long time for Risher to figure out how to spend the money. She’d grown up absorbing the same pop-culture depictions of wealth as everyone else — ostentatious mansions, fancy cars, exotic vacations — but at every turn is surprised by moneyed individuals who don’t live up to the image.

In her chapter entitled, “Houses,” she recalls attending a co-worker’s party held at his new home, designed as a modern French château in an exclusive, gated community. Jennifer and David were surprised to walk in and find the place a far cry from what they expected:

“He showed us into the kitchen, past gleaming granite countertops and an eight-burner stove, and through an expansive family room. We continued toward the back and onto a sprawling wooden deck, our footsteps echoing off the hardwood floors and cream-colored walls. Except for a college futon, some pillows, and a few empty Domino’s pizza boxes on the floor, the house was empty.”

I read Risher’s memoir in about a day, fascinated by the jaw-dropping dilemmas and questions she faces that most of us won’t ever have to consider. “Spoiling” her kids, for example, takes on new meaning when she and David decide not to take private jets to Hawaii and “only” fly first class instead. And, of course, there’s plenty that money can’t buy. As prosperous as she and her family are, they aren’t spared great pain, which she writes about in moving detail.

The “Contemplation and Conversation” questions at the end of each chapter were an odd addition. Instead of helping me engage with the material, they took me out of the narrative. I wonder if these book-club-type queries would be better placed as a collection at the very end.

And while I’m glad she’s using her experience to uncover some of the mysteries surrounding wealth and privilege, Risher’s story left me wanting to learn from perspectives other than white, middle-class, and cisgender. I appreciated her invitation for more people to join this ongoing conversation.

Ultimately, I suspect most readers will reach the same conclusion to the question, “Does money change life for the better?” Although it may make many things easier, your quality of life hinges on your sense of self before the windfall. No matter how rich you are, you’re still you.

Sarahlyn Bruck is a community college writing professor and the author of two contemporary novels, Designer You and the forthcoming Daytime Drama. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

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