Pennies from heaven: what’s it like to become suddenly rich?

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We’ve all daydreamed about an unexpected windfall that would change our luck. But what’s it really like to suddenly come into money? Michael Segalov meets five people who did

We’re in the money: what changes to your life would you make if you had a sudden cash inflow? Illustration: Leon Edler/The Observer

Desiree Home: lottery winner, £1,000,000

Our routine was always the same. Wayne, my husband, would pop into the post office on his way to work to get our lottery tickets, and he’d get up early the morning after the draw and check the numbers. He’d forgotten to check the Tuesday night Euromillions till the Thursday.

Anyway, he checked the main draw, no match. Then he checked the lucky dip millionaire raffle. The letters matched. The numbers matched. He didn’t believe it. He knew I’d bite his head off if he woke me up that early only to find he’d got it wrong. So he went to work with the ticket in his pocket. A few hours later he called me.

He said: “Des, are you sitting down? I’ve got something to tell you.” Oh my God, I thought, what has happened? We’d been through a lot in the few years before then. We’d worked hard to build a life together: the house, three kids and now seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Then everything started to crumble. I was diagnosed with cancer and got dropped by the company I worked for. Wayne’s contracts dried up and suddenly neither of us was earning and I was starting treatment. A complication left me in intensive care, bailiffs were at the door and my health had deteriorated.

We had to sell the house quickly. Some friends rescued us by lending us enough money to stay for a few months so we could sell our house ourselves. Once that was done, our debts repaid, we could just about afford to buy a mobile home. Slowly I got used to it, the park was quiet and at least we had a roof over our heads. Wayne found some work, I child-minded while starting to recover. That’s why I panicked when he called me.

And then he told me we’d won £500,000. I told him to stop being an idiot, that it really wasn’t funny. At 9am he called Camelot, and a couple of hours later they confirmed it. Then Wayne called me again. “Right,” he said, “We’ve definitely won. And it’s actually £1m.”

After that, the first thing I bought was a soft-close toilet seat. The one in the mobile home made a loud bang when it shut. “£20?’ I thought. ‘Yes, we’ll have that.’ Since then we’ve given some money to the kids. I’d always dreamed of going to the Maldives and we’ve been every February since the win, to snorkel with the turtles.

When I first moved to the park I was miserable, but I’d grown to love it. Whenever I walked past this beautiful riverside pump house on the edge of the grounds I thought how much I’d love to live there. It’s home now, and Mum lives opposite us. We still do the lottery. Because, our win was on the lucky dip, remember. Our numbers still haven’t come up.

‘I had to learn how to write cheques with so many words and numbers.’ Illustration: Leon Edler/The Observer

Mike McCormack: literary prize winner, €100,000

As a writer, you can think of a career as a thing of gradual ascent. Yet my first book was very well reviewed and received, and after that things started declining. Critics still enjoyed my work, but experimental twists meant they were getting fewer and fewer readers. I parted company with my publisher aged 40, after my third book. I published a book of short stories, but it may as well have disappeared off a cliff. From then for five or six years I couldn’t even give away my work.

It was hugely frustrating and frightening at the same time. It keeps you awake at night: how the fuck did I get to this place where nobody wants to know my work, nobody will reply to it, nobody will take a chance on it?

Then I wrote a novel, Solar Bones, about a middle-class, middle-aged engineer in County Mayo. Only a small Irish publisher would take it. I can’t say I shared their confidence. The reviews started to come in; they were good. In 2016 it won the Goldsmiths Prize (£10,000) and people were buying it. The following year it was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award – that’s €100,000 and the largest literary prize in the world for a single novel in English.

I knew which week to expect a call if I’d won. Monday came, nothing. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, too. I was at a bus stop in Galway at 4pm on the Friday when Lisa, my publisher, rang to tell me I’d won, but I couldn’t get my head round it. She told me to put the phone down and call back when I was ready. The bus home took 40 minutes. I sat down outside the house and rang her.

The money has allowed me to do things I’d never have imagined. It’s now conceivable that I might be able to buy a house. There’s more money in that prize than in all the previous 25 years of writing – four or five times actually. I had been teaching in four institutions. Now I just teach in one, the English department at NUI Galway.

The summer I won we went on holiday, glamping down by Kilkenny, which was cool and expensive. And now we can indulge our little boy more, too. It was only a few years ago we were shaking our coats to see if there was money in them. The prize has taken the financial worry out of my life. My primary purpose is still writing; this prize is €100,000 – after tax it’s not like winning the lottery. We still live in the same rented house and have the same routine, but it’s all a little more comfortable.

I’ve found winning means more to other people than to me, although I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m amazed by how people’s perception changed. Winning an award didn’t make me a better writer, I guarantee it, but it seems to have done in the eyes of many others. Sure, you can stick your chest out and think you’re a great fellow, but you wouldn’t want to get caught in that pose.

Simon Dennis: inheritance recipient, £300,000+

When Mum died of breast cancer I was only eight. It was difficult for us. Life insurance paid for childminders and a housekeeper as Dad was working full-time. It also helped pay for me to go to university. In January 2000, after I had graduated, I got a call from the police. A solemn voice explained that an officer was going to come and meet me. It turned out a friend of my dad’s hadn’t heard from him for a while, unexpectedly – I was away, my brother, too – so he called 999. They eventually broke the door down and found him on the floor.

It took a few months for the scale of what that meant for me to become apparent. Not only because it takes time for grief and mourning to really take hold, but I also just hadn’t really considered quite how much it meant my brother and I would inherit. I didn’t even know that they had paid off the mortgage. I mean if Dad had been unwell we might have sat down and had that conversation, but it was all so sudden… It never even crossed my mind.

A solicitor called and explained everything. We decided pretty quickly that we’d sell the house as neither of us wanted it. Its value, on top of the estate and the remainder from Mum left my brother and I with something north of £300,000 each. He was 19, I was 21.

I thought about disappearing for a while, but settled on buying a house and some time. I’d finished studying, but still lived in student digs and was going to have to move sooner or later. I found a place, friends moved in and paid me mates’ rates. I also bought a pool table, which felt symbolic – my house would be a cool guy’s house.

It struck me early on that I no longer had a base or a family home and I wanted to make one. Most of my mates had jobs in London and tiny flats with no room for guests, and for weekends and holidays would stay with their families in the home counties. That wasn’t necessarily somewhere I felt comfortable. This was a way of building my own place, where we could hang out and eat together and play drinking games.

I didn’t do much the first few months, then I got a job at the local pub part-time, which I enjoyed. I got a nice TV and a second-hand car, and lent money to friends so they could do the same. It was my way of showing that I appreciated everything they’d done.

I’ve been in and out of universities since then, and now I’m looking for alternatives. I still don’t really know what my brother did with his share of the money. He had a place near his college when it happened – I know he bought himself a computer. We’ve really just lost touch since then. We’d speak over the subsequent years when a solicitor rang with some news about the will or further information, otherwise we drifted. My theory is that there are always one or two people who hold a family together. Neither of us was that person, so that’s just how it is. Even before Dad died I’d been thinking a lot about how friends were my extended family. I suppose that explains how I handled everything.

‘The first thing I wanted to do was get on the property ladder. People thought I was so boring.’ Illustration: Leon Edler/The Observer

Nong Nam: game show winner, £250,000

I was 19 when I applied to be on Deal or No Deal. I only did it for a laugh – to be honest at that age I didn’t think much of it. I’d never considered signing up for a TV show before. But while on other programmes you need a specific skill-set or good general knowledge, this was all about luck so I wanted to try it. I went through the audition and then didn’t hear anything. I almost forgot about it, until I got the call inviting me on two years later.

When I made it to the studio I was excited, but didn’t have high expectations. I decided £5,000 or £10,000 would be amazing. I don’t want to make out that I suffered as a child, but we struggled. We were a single-parent family and Mum worked so hard to provide for me. Ten grand would have been life changing.

Then it was my turn to play. You pick a ball at random, which had a number on and that would be your box. I’m quite a spiritual person. I closed my eyes and wished for an amazing box, and to have a great game. I picked number four – it’s my lucky number now.

And then it was the final round. I got offered £68,000 to walk away – more money than I could ever have dreamed of. One box had a fiver in it, the other £250,000. Something in my gut was telling me to carry on; a voice inside my head whispering, “Nong, you’ve got this.” Maybe it was a guardian angel, but I decided to risk it.

I said: “No deal.” The room went quiet. I shut my eyes as Noel Edmonds opened my box. There was a bang, confetti, I screamed and started to cry. It’s the worst image of me, snot everywhere.

It didn’t feel real for the next few months. I signed a contract to say I’d keep silent until the show was aired, plus the money took a while to arrive in my account. The night the show was on, Mum and I watched it together. Our friends had a viewing party, but I really didn’t want the attention. For a while people would come up to me in Swindon and say they’d seen me on TV, and a few people got in touch online cheekily asking for a fiver or a tenner.

The first thing I wanted to do was get on the property ladder. People thought I was so boring. I knew how much it would mean to Mum to not have to worry about my financial future. Then I took my friends to a nice hotel for a night out in Bristol, and I put the rest into savings, after a few treats for myself – not before I treated Mum, though. That was the thing I was most excited to do. She’d always dreamed of having a Mercedes. I got her one: it was my way of showing her that we’d really done it, that she deserved it.

Margaret Abbotts: unexpected heir, £300,000

I was born in London in 1938, and my father left my mother 10 months later. There was a diphtheria scare, and I became unwell. The bombing started in the 1940s, and soon we were sleeping on the platform at Highbury and Islington tube station. In 1943, I caught polio – the doctors said it was from the soldiers passing through the station. I was hospitalised for years, moving from ward to ward as the raids continued. We got by, but it was tough.

I finally started school aged 10, and from my late teens onwards I worked as a secretary in all sorts of places. I married and had four kids, we divorced while they were in primary school and, much like my dad, my husband refused to pay for anything.

I needed more cash, so when I saw an advert in the Evening Standard for the BBC World Service I thought why not apply for it? I went for an interview and they hired me, and before long I was working in the newsroom dealing with Europe, Africa and Asia. I’d always wanted to travel, ever since I was a little girl, but it never happened. Hearing stories from around the world reminded me of how much there was that I was desperate to see.

And then one day in 2007 I received a letter from probate genealogists. I knew them as heir hunters, Finders International. I nearly chucked it in the bin assuming it was a scam. Then I noticed a name I’d seen before written there: Mary Major.

My mother had told me when I was a child about a daughter my father had had before they’d met, my half-sister, who was 19 years older. We’d never met, no phone call or contact whatsoever. This letter explained that I was her next of kin and she’d not made a will. Therefore, it said, I was entitled to everything. I called the number at the bottom of the page. He gave me a figure: £300,000.

I told the children and they couldn’t believe it. I went to see my bank manager and he asked me where I shopped, so I told him Lidl. “You can shop in Marks & Spencer now, Margaret,” he said, which made me smile. I invested some, and gave a bit to the children. It was all so new to me, having money. I had to learn how to write cheques with so many words and numbers. I paid off my mortgage and started travelling, on cruises and tours. I’ve been to Sri Lanka and along the Panama Canal, to the United States and the Caribbean and Costa Rica.

I’m not so well now, and the money is paying for my care to keep me going. I’m getting a wet room put in soon, because I can’t get in the bath. But I’m hoping I’ll be well enough to keep exploring again soon. There’s a river cruise along the Rhine that I’ve got my eye on.

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