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This week I was in Milano and allowed myself a few minutes to marvel at the showpieces in the Vertu Boutique in via Monte Napoleone, where single mobile phones sell for several thousands units of any currency. This was after I attended a great conference sponsored by the UNHCR on the state of Italian philanthropy with high net worth individuals. The event, held at Kairos Julius Baer SIM and attended by 20-30 people, begun with a fantastic presentation by Professor Stefano Zamagni, an expert in the field, and was followed by a detailed and illuminating survey of today’s lay of the land by Giovanna Li Perni of UNHCR’s Rome office. You can find a copy of the main booklet here: UNHCR Presentation Jan 2015 FILANTROPIA HNWIS ITALIA.

These two situations prompted me to revisit an old question: is there actually an amount of wealth for any individual or family group which can be considered “excessive” or just “too much”? This is meant not in the filo-Marxist sense but more in the sense of having so much money that one would not know what to do with it. It is not an idle question, especially in the context of what Professor Zamagni described as the “American” or “Anglo-Saxon” philosophical underpinning of philanthropy: to give back part of your good fortune to the community and individuals that helped you become rich. For some time now my answer has been an unequivocal yes, and while the actual wealth threshold will vary with circumstances its determination is actually easier to achieve than we may think.

In the past, when I would meet with investment management prospects and clients for the first time, I would ask what their liabilities were. More often than not, the answer was they did not have any. Once I explained what I meant by the term – not just bank or other types of debt, but what are the “reasonable expectations” of what their money should provide for in future years: living expenses, protection against emergencies, home purchases, building art collections, amassing boats by the boat load, and so on – the conversation inevitably ended with annoyed looks and a feeling of unwarranted intrusion on my part. The truth, I realized, was they did not know, and sometimes did not care to know; more money is good enough.

I am not picking on anyone here, especially since my professional activity is involved in helping high net worth individuals achieve their goals. But I do think that a general principle can be stated: if you don’t know why you want money, if you can’t come up with a “liability schedule”, then you probably have too much of it and would do well to give some of it away. Certainly don’t spend – even a microscopic part of it – on a Vertu phone, which is technologically obsolete even before you pull out your credit card.

Photo source: vipluxuryphones.cn