Flashy displays of wealth do not impress me.
That’s probably because, as a financial planner in New York City, I get to see behind the curtain of people’s finances all the time.
After nearly 10 years working with some of the brightest people in this city — from social workers to lawyers to Wall Street pros — I’ve realised almost everyone gets the same thing wrong about money:
Stuff doesn’t equal wealth. Money does. And it’s not the same thing.
I’ve worked with teachers who have bigger savings accounts than doctors who earn five times as much per year. High salaries can lead to wealth, but not if you burn through every last penny buying luxury cars or filling the closet with designer clothes.
Still, in most corners of the US, we define wealth by how much people spend. It’s easy to do. We typically can’t see our friends’ bank accounts or retirement accounts. But we can see the jewellery they wear or the vacations they take.
When asked how they define wealth, almost half of Americans used measures of spending — on both experiences and things — to answer the question, according to the Schwab Modern Wealth Survey. Only 27% said ‘having a lot of money’ makes someone wealthy.
Yet, the same survey found that to be viewed as wealthy, you need to have a net worth of at least $US2.4 million. In the US, fewer than 1% of the population — 1.84 million people according to the most recent IRS data — have a net worth that exceeds $US2 million. But chances are you’ve seen far more than 1% of your social circle spend on expensive things. I know I have.
But buying stuff doesn’t make someone wealthy. Many of my clients who have beautiful homes or send their kids to the best schools are struggling to keep up with their expenses. Even high earners can live paycheck-to-paycheck.
The pressure to spend in New York City is particularly egregious. Small talk here often begins with: ‘Where do you live?’ or ‘What do you do?’ Both are questions that seem to get at another question: ‘How much money do you have?’
Whether or not someone else is wealthy — or financially independent — doesn’t matter. But it starts to matter if it impacts how you think about your own financial situation, or if other people’s spending habits begin to influence your own choices. If I had a dollar for every time I met someone who buys nice things — yet doesn’t max out their retirement accounts — I’d probably have enough for a trip to St Bart’s.
At the end of the day, anyone has the capacity to build up a sizeable net worth. You don’t have to earn a ton of money (though it does help). It boils down to one simple — and not very flashy — truth:
You have to have money in the bank. And to do that, you have to spend less than you earn.
Those who do that are the ones who are truly impressive, if you ask me.