That’s Rich

Richard Quinn

I FEEL WEALTHY. I spent the morning in an upscale shopping mall where, as you stroll along, you can see Bentleys on display. Even the store clerks are a bit snooty. Once I was shopping for a gift and the clerk asked if I could afford the handbag I was considering. I guess, on that occasion, I didn’t look wealthy enough.

When I go shopping with my wife, I don’t feel wealthy. Instead, all I see are items we shouldn’t buy. Shopping seems to have a different meaning for my wife and me. I go to buy something. I walk in the store, head for the item, buy it and rapidly leave.

When my wife goes shopping, she walks into the store and immediately stops at the first display she sees. She came to buy mascara. Why is she looking at shoes? Between the entrance and the cosmetic counter, there are any number of stops. “Just looking,” she claims. I wish.

The meandering doesn’t stop. We end up on every floor in the store. How is buying something on sale, which you don’t need, saving money? Whenever I hear the word “shopping,” I enter my cheapskate mode. But guess what? The urge to buy more than just the necessities is strong in everyone. It’s why many people can’t afford to save. It’s why the $20 co-pay at the doctor’s office is often described as “unaffordable.”

This morning, I passed two people on the street asking for money. I felt too wealthy, even guilty. How you feel about money and your wealth, especially what you have or don’t have, is important. It affects how you feel about yourself and about others, and how you manage your money and your life.

Tomorrow, I may not feel wealthy if the stock market takes a dive. I need to follow my own advice, and stop looking at each investment and at my 401(k) so often. “Stop telling me how much money you lost today,” my wife cries. “You didn’t lose anything.”

When I was working, I got to hang around wealthy people, the kind who order a custom yacht and belong to several country clubs. I didn’t feel wealthy then. At times, I felt rather like a failure. When I was younger, I hoped I would never get a hole-in-one on the golf course, because I couldn’t afford a round of drinks. Spending time with some of these folks also taught me money isn’t everything. Really wealthy people have money, but also class and dignity. I always viewed being wealthy as being financially secure, even in the face of emergencies, and not so much about having lots of stuff. Being wealthy meant the ability to purchase stuff, but resisting in favor of higher priorities.

When I’m sitting on the deck at my vacation home, I feel almost wealthy. Then I drive to a waterfront section of town with mega-mansions and I feel poor. Given that I just mentioned owning a vacation home, even using the word “poor” is highly inappropriate. But it points out how our feelings about money hinge on how we stand relative to others.

I recently had dinner with friends who give the appearance of being quite well-off and have for many years, but who told me they applied for property tax relief. I’m not sure how I feel about that. In prior years, they told me they didn’t believe in stocks and bonds or any of “that stuff.”

I met a young lady while having coffee and we began talking. She was looking for a new job to boost her income and advance her career. In the course of talking, we hit on that old paycheck-to-paycheck thing and she mentioned she is lucky to have $8 in the bank at the end of the pay period. You can imagine how I felt—I had just finished telling her about my last trip to Europe. Sometimes, a good sense of another person’s financial reality is just what we need to stay grounded.

The median household income in the U.S. is around $59,000. But that’s income. What about wealth? Do we even know what wealthy is? Americans say it would take $2.4 million to be considered truly wealthy, according to a Charles Schwab survey. In reality, only 5% of Americans come close to that definition of wealthy. Many more just live like they have that much money.

Oh well, time to check my 401(k) balance. I wonder how I’ll feel today?

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Sharing the LoadFamily Resemblance and Late Start. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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