The Spectrum of Wealth

Chris Rock joked that Bill Gates would jump out the window if he woke up with Oprah’s money. Like most comedy, it’s funny because it contains a nugget of truth.

Last month a group published a study arguing Americans need $2,467 in emergency savings to avoid falling into a poverty trap, where poor begets poor. If you find that number curiously low, congratulations, you have higher spending expectations than most Americans.

Past a certain income the most difficult financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving. And today’s level of global wealth has moved it a town over. Median household income adjusted for inflation is now more than double what it was in the 1950s. Match.com founder Gary Kremen once compared his success to his Silicon Valley neighbors: “You’re nobody here at $10 million.” Adjusted for inflation John D. Rockefeller’s net worth peaked in 1913 at $23.4 billion, which is several billion less than Bernard Arnault’s net worth has risen by in the last ten months.

There is no objective level of wealth, because people compare themselves to other people’s money while adjusting to their own. It’s always been that way and will always be that way.

What would a spectrum of wealth look like if you described it with words, not numbers?

Maybe something like this:

  1. Complete reliance on the kindness of strangers for sustenance. Deep poverty.

  2. Your income is above average but you are overcome with envy and a feeling of inadequacy towards those who earn more. Psychological deep poverty.

  3. You have a large income and net worth that was acquired in a way that brings active disdain from people who would otherwise want to like you. Socially bankrupt.

  4. Your lifestyle expectations consistently grow faster than your income and assets. Adaptive poverty.

  5. You have so much money you can do nothing, and doing nothing leads to boredom at best, self destruction more often. Ironic poverty.

  6. You have a large income and net worth you are satisfied with, but your career and assets are fragile (often leveraged) and will disappear when the world shifts only a little leaving you yearning for the money you used to have and became accustomed to. Pent-up poverty.

  7. Your entire personality is built upon the appearance of being wealthy, attracting a predatory social group that will abandon you without remorse the moment the money stops.

  8. You have a large income and net worth that was made in a job you hate that requires such long hours that it derails your social and family life. Financial wealth, life poverty.

  9. You have a job you love surrounded by people you enjoy but one that doesn’t pay well and leaves you vulnerable and stressed about your finances. Financial poverty, life wealth.

  10. You have enough money to stay comfortable and a good group of friends but you didn’t earn the money yourself, creating a lack of pride and ability to appreciate the value of a dollar that makes you feel poorer than someone with less money that was earned from hard, meaningful work.

  11. You can afford a little bit more than the people you interact with daily and it makes you feel superior to them. Technical wealth but actually insecurity that’s likely to backfire into social poverty.

  12. You can afford a little more than the people you interact with daily but you still live the same material lifestyle as they do, which creates social cohesion among your friends that’s valuable. You have a high savings rate that puts a gap between your mood and most financial hassle.

  13. You like your job so much it doesn’t feel like work and it pays more than you ever expected to make.

  14. You could stop earning a paycheck tomorrow and your lifestyle could remain the same for the indefinite future.

  15. You can go to bed and wake up when you want to. You have time to exercise, eat well, learn, think slowly, and clear your calendar when you want it to be clear. Health wealth.

  16. You can, and want to, use your wealth to help other people. And you want to help them because you care about them, not because it will make you look good or make them beholden to you.

  17. You genuinely feel no benefit from the social signal of wealth, because everyone you want to love you would still love you if you weren’t wealthy. So everything you spend money on is for its utility, rather than glitz.

  18. The people you love the most will have to work hard in life, but your wealth provides them a safety net that will help them avoid undue hardship.

  19. You are respected and admired by people you want to respect and admire you regardless of your financial circumstances. Psychologically speaking, you’re now on the Forbes list of billionaires.

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