Let the Elephants Go

Charles Schafer

HAVE YOU HEARD THE parable of the white elephant? In southeast Asia, possessing a white elephant was symbolic of power and prestige. It was a good omen to find one in the wild, signifying peace and prosperity for the kingdom. They were considered sacred and could not be used in war or for labor. To receive a white elephant from the king was a great honor. Who would turn down such a special and unique gift?

Problem is, a white elephant could be a great burden. Feeding and housing an elephant that doesn’t produce anything can be costly. Even though it was seen as a great honor to be rewarded with one, a white elephant was also an ongoing financial curse.

My family tried to give me a white elephant.

My extended family owns a property in Upstate New York, along the St. Lawrence River. It was bought by my great grandfather in 1910, and was the family’s vacation home when my mother was growing up. Now that she’s retired, my mother likes to spend most of her summers there. We call it the river house, it’s absolutely gorgeous and I love to visit once a year.

But because it’s been in the family for so long, the place needs constant repairs. The appliances are decades old, there’s no air conditioning and, in any case, I don’t think the electrical panel could handle it. The house needs painting, floor replacement, and linseed oil applications on the wood paneling. There are costs associated with maintaining the old boathouse and the crumbling wooden dock, which—thanks to climate change—now needs to be raised once again or, alternatively, torn down and rebuilt.

My extended family has a small boat, but only some of us use it. In fact, the family has grown so large that we can’t all fit in the boat, so now we often rent a larger one. During the winter, we pay to store the small boat and for someone to check on the house when the river freezes over. Every year, we make repairs and improvements. But what the place really needs is an expensive makeover that my parents, aunts and uncles can’t afford.

For years, my mother has asked if one day I wanted to take over my parents’ share of the river house. She’d nudge me to say “yes” with beautiful pictures of the river. But I kept telling her it would become my white elephant, more of a financial burden than a gift.

I live in Philadelphia, so it takes six-plus hours to drive there, and I only go once a year and stay for perhaps a week. Even if I decided to take ownership of the place, thus keeping the house in the family and preserving that part of our history, I wouldn’t use it more than I do now. There are many other things I’d rather be spending my money on. I don’t want to worry year after year about repairing something that broke 340 miles away and which I hardly ever use.

Even if I did use the river house more, that would be where most of my money would go. My wife and I wouldn’t have the wherewithal or time to vacation elsewhere, and we wouldn’t be able to do the things we currently love doing. Right now, my young daughters are more into visiting playgrounds, restaurants and theme parks than observing natural beauty.

I’m hardly the only one who’s faced this sort of dilemma. Other white elephants include family heirlooms, rental properties and complex financial accounts passed down to the next generation. It might sound better to have these things than not have them. But in the end, it’s best if the beneficiaries actually want and understand these things. If the only reason they decide to accept such gifts is to make their family happy, these items will steal part of their freedom, financially and otherwise.

My advice: Don’t foist white elephants onto future generations.

Let them decide what they want to keep, not what you want them to have. You may have very different goals and desires than they do. Let them guide your decisions, so you reduce the complexity in their life, rather than adding to it.

My mother has come to understand that my brothers and I couldn’t afford the amount of work that the river house needs. She understands we’d be making big sacrifices to maintain this old house—a house we don’t love as much as she does. It’s been hard for her to accept this, but it’s the truth.

The good news is, we plan to continue visiting the river, even after we eventually sell the house. But this time, we’ll do so because we want to, and not because there’s something to repair. And, yes, we’ll be renting.

Charlie Schafer is an aerospace engineer with an interest in personal finance and investing. His other hobbies include reading widely and homebrewing beer. Charlie lives with his wife and two children in South Philadelphia. Check out his earlier articles.

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