Image: Baby with money © Creatas, Photolibrary

Just before my 16th birthday, my mom wrote a check from my account to buy me a BMW 328i, and that is where I learned to drive a stick shift.

That car had a lot of power under the hood, and I used and abused it. I almost crashed it twice, once while I was racing someone on the highway.

I didn’t realize how quickly I was coming up behind another car -- it looked like it was standing still -- until a friend riding shotgun started screaming. The car saw me and swerved out of the way just in time (thank God). The other time, I was racing another young brat in his BMW on a backcountry road. I spun out and narrowly avoided sliding into a copse of trees.

That’s what happens when you give something powerful and shiny to a 16-year-old. When I blew out the clutch on my toy, I traded it in for a luxury SUV and started driving a little more like a grown-up. So I survived high school.

Coming into my inheritance

I am a trust fund baby. Ever since I can remember, I knew that there was an investment account with my name on it with enough money to buy a home, in cash.

Every month, money drops into my checking account. It’s a solid middle class salary, untaxed, and it’s contingent on nothing. I don’t have to work for it, nor can anyone take it away from me if I behave badly. I did nothing to earn it, unless you count growing up without a dad. It stemmed from a wrongful death lawsuit. Every year, the annuity increases by 3%, and it will continue to show up, every month, until I die.

As far as trust funds go, it’s no Hilton fortune. My mom claims she could have negotiated for a much larger settlement, but she chose an amount that meant my sister and I could do what we love but still be motivated to earn money. (For the record, that was a really smart move.)

However, that was the extent of her financial education. In our household, budgets were not discussed: Money showed up, and we spent it. My mom seemed to take pleasure in cultivating two young women with a taste for fine dining and expensive clothes.

Then, when I turned 21, I was handed a ton of money. Here’s something to consider if you ever want to do the same for your kids. (When you’re done laughing, I’ll continue.) The prefrontal cortex, which helps you make responsible decisions, isn’t fully developed until you’re 25. So I wasn’t really capable of making the best decisions concerning my money. I didn’t even get a financial adviser to go along with it, just my mom’s advice to “Always pay off your credit card bill every month.” Well, that part was easy.

First, I took a summer in Europe and brought along a little guide to shopping. Whenever I was bored, I took off for a new boutique. I had enough sense to back out of the stores selling $4,000 gowns. But I racked up about $15,000 on my new card in three months. Then I paid it off by selling some stocks. No big deal. When I missed my flight home, I just bought a new ticket.

Managing my money

I researched heavily before taking over my investment account. I was petrified (and still am) of making a stupid mistake that could decimate it.

When the market tanked in 2008, a year after the documents had been signed giving me control, I took the lazy route and left my investments as they  were. An excellent decision, it turns out.

After college, I moved to New York City, land of a thousand trust fund babies. As I searched for an apartment, I pulled a rent number out of thin air, without ever looking at my supposed budget. “$1,400 seems reasonable, right, Mom?” She agreed. Finding a job took some time, but I was more bored than panicky.

In fact, I was the cliché everyone loves to hate. I spent my days eating organic eggs benedict at the local café, doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, then traipsing off to afternoon yoga. I fell in with a group of friends who, like me, had outside financial resources (read: rich parents). We spent our money on shopping, ski trips, all-night parties with $50 entry and drugs. I could blow $350 in a weekend on coke, ecstasy and alcohol.

I felt like I was being reasonable. I enjoyed dressing well, but felt good about not buying the quilted Chanel bag I coveted. I would do weird things like walk 30 minutes downtown to avoid paying subway fare, then blow $250 on a purse when I got there. I donated lavishly to charity. One time I wired $6,000 to Thailand to help out a former tour guide who was in a financial scrape.

I did finally land a job I loved, and worked hard at it. I still partied, but I had the sense to keep my partying to the weekends, showing up on time and never coked up or drunk.

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