Large sums of money

The Passive Voice today posted an article about Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer who discovered the hard way handing all your money over to someone and saying "You take care of me" is a really bad idea.

Anyway, Cornwell realized there was a problem because she only had $13 million in the bank despite having earned at least $10 million a year for the past four years. The jury rectified the situation by awarding her $51 million.

And yeah, all that is a lot of money--I don't argue that--and there were a couple of comments suggesting that all those large sums are just kind of a blur to people.

Which is a common reaction when figures in the millions are bandied about. Most people (especially writers) think of those kinds of sums as mind-bogglingly huge. And when everything gets lumped together in the "mind-bogglingly huge" department, it all seems like it's kind of the same.

But it's not.

Why not? Well, again we get into the difference between annual income and short-term earnings, which is important for writers to be aware of because our incomes tend to swing up and down dramatically.

Cornwell had four VERY good years. But in this business, four really good years can be followed by four or fourteen or forty really crappy years. Cornwell's income could take a dive for lots of reasons: Maybe people get burned out on Bones-type stories; maybe Cornwell gets sick and can't write.

I think most people without a lot of financial experience think that when you get a windfall, you should go ahead and live off it. Which is another way of saying, spend it. But the problem with spending a windfall is that people tend to spend it all and run out of money, especially if they are younger and have a long life ahead of them. (See: Every bankrupt Hollywood star, ever.)

So I would argue that writers need to look at short-term or one-time earnings as something that they can turn into a source of regular income that will see them through the dry spells and enable them to retire.

The problem is, a large one-time chunk of money provides a surprisingly small annual income, which is why most retirees eventually spend through their savings, even though they receive supplemental income from the government.

A million dollars? Invested relatively conservatively, that generates an income between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. Does that sound like MILLIONAIRE!!!! money to you?

Cornwell's $13 million? Between $260,000-$390,000 a year. Much nicer, yeah. About what the average specialist physician makes. The average specialist. Not, you know, Dr. Oz or Andrew Weil or even a top doctor at a large hospital. Well, at least it's better than being a general practicioner.

If you add in the $51 million the jury awarded her, her annual income finally starts to top $1 million a year--hooray, we're finally in bling territory! Now she can afford that private helicopter and that $40,000-per-month Manhattan apartment! Except for the fact her financial advisors probably spent the money, so I'm not sure how she's going to get it back, and then she'll have to give a big chunk of it to her lawyers...yeah.

I hope Cornwell realizes that, even in Manhattan, there are cheaper apartments.