CFI Blog

Financial Independence and My Who Wants to be a Millionaire Story

“I have the same experience everyone watching the show at home has: You’re shouting the answer at the TV and thinking it’s ridiculous a contestant doesn’t know.”
–Julia Collins, women’s Jeopardy winnings record holder

“Is that your final answer?”
–Cedric “The Entertainer”

As many of you know, I recently appeared on the television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I won $6,250, and pledged to give 50% of my winnings to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Financial independence allowed me to make that contribution.

There are many reasons why we want to get more money. We want to reduce the stress over having little or no money left over after we pay our bills. We want to pay for our kids’ college. We want to retire without having to worry whether or not we’ll be the bag lady or the dumpster diver living under a bridge. We want to take trips and be able to see the kids and grandkids more. We might just be sick of all of the hours we have to put into work.

For me, it was all of those (except the kids part, since we don’t have any), but it was also more. I wanted to give back. I am a veteran. While I served two tours in Bosnia, I got out of the Army before 9/11. I have friends and classmates and soldiers who went to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some didn’t come back. Some came back completely changed. This was how I could help.

I have to admit, when I first saw the tweet from my local Fort Worth television station that the game show was holding tryouts, I was motivated to go because I wanted to see if I could make it onto the show. I was decent at trivia, having been the co-founder of the West Point Quiz Bowl team, and occasionally helping win at trivia night at the Fort Worth Mellow Mushroom.

It wasn’t until after the written test, when they call out the numbers of those who passed, and my number was called, that I started to think about the impact I could potentially have.

If I won the million, I’d give half to charity. I figure about 40% would go to taxes (give or take), which would leave us with $300,000. Sure, $300,000 would affect our lives if I won it. Realistically, though, I didn’t expect to get that far. I figured I’d make somewhere around what I did – not enough to move the needle for us or for the Wounded Warrior Project, but an opportunity to give them some free publicity as well. While not as effective as a specific television ad, it was about 20 minutes of indirect exposure. I imagine that was the equivalent of a low-cost off-primetime television ad for them.

In short, I could get a little more awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project and the mission that they support if I appeared on the show. I had a different story, I figured, from the usual show applicant, if I could tie the appearance to charitable giving. Thus, the idea to give half of my winnings away came up while I was filling out the questionnaire about myself.

The expected value of what I could win wasn’t life-changing money because we were already financially independent. Thus, I had the freedom to make the choice. Of course, I shot a quick text to my wife telling her of my plan, because I’d never make such a large decision without consulting her first, and she immediately responded back with her support of it.

“It’s All Gravy”

life after retirement

Those of you who saw the first of the two episodes heard me say that when Cedric asked me if I was ready to play.

It was, after all, gravy (or, if you prefer, icing).

As we’ll see in a forthcoming article, research has shown that retirees who find a purpose are significantly happier in their retirement years than are those who do not find a purpose. When we give, whether it’s money or time, we feel more connected, strengthen our inner peace, and increase our happiness. Happier people, in general, live longer as well.

This isn’t a polemic. My causes are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

If you look at history, who are the best philanthropists?

The wealthy are.

Bill Gates is one of the best philanthropists of our time. The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Morgans were the best philanthropists of their times.

What did they have in common?

They were rich.

They were able to give enormous amounts of their wealth away to charitable causes.

Once you achieve financial independence, then, in most cases, anything else you get above and beyond what you need to safely maintain the standard of living that you want while appropriately protecting yourself is gravy.

There’s no need to continue to chase the brass ring unless it’s part of a bigger plan.

Back to the Millionaire episodes, though.

I readily admit that I suffered from loss aversion during the game. I did not want to go out on a silly question, particularly if I still had lifelines left. The money itself wasn’t that big of a deal to me, but I made it a big deal in that I didn’t want to blow what I viewed as someone else’s money (which, by the way, is one of the big psychological hiccups to money managers – see “Why Past Performance Indicates Your Future Investing Actions” for more).

Therefore, instead of playing to win (and figuring out the cheese question, saving myself a lifeline), I played not to lose.

It’s interesting to me now that the episodes have aired, I look back on my performance with a little regret. At the time I taped it, when I walked off the set and over to the accounting manager who had me fill out my W-9 form, I was very happy with how I did. I had walked away with money – more than the $1,000 that was guaranteed – and was quite pleased. Now that I’ve watched the show, there’s a little pang of regret, a feeling that I could have done a little bit better.

This is a matter of framing. When I think negatively (“I could have done better”), I need to reframe the experience. I did do well. I won some money for the Wounded Warrior Project. I gained them some more exposure and awareness. I had a good time.

Financial independence meant that I didn’t need the money to improve our situation. That allows me to have many other, positive perspectives on my experience.

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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