Don’t Call Me That

Richard Quinn

YOU KNOW HOW certain things people say stick in your mind. Often, it’s a hurtful insult. But for me, the words I can’t forget are, “You’re wealthy.”

I live in a 90-year-old house on a small lot, my wife’s car is 12 years old, our television is 10 years old and the last time I bought a new suit was a dozen years ago. Okay, it’s true, I don’t wear suits very often these days.

Still, until someone uttered those two words to me, I’d never thought of myself as wealthy. But the data shows I am. Who knew?

I guess it’s easy to lose perspective. Sometimes, I hear my wife say to a friend, “Why don’t you just buy it?” or “Why not come with us on a cruise?” I cringe, because I know many of her friends aren’t wealthy.

But what counts as wealthy? That depends. Are you measuring income or net worth? Do you live in New York, New York, or Anniston, Alabama? It takes $150,000 to get into the top 5% of individual income earners and $300,000 to get into the top 1%. The thresholds for household income are roughly 50% higher.

Make no mistake: I’m not in the top 1%, but I’m well above average. I have not only Social Security, but also a pension. In the eyes of many people, that alone makes me wealthy.

Then there’s my net worth. After working, saving and investing for 70 years, I’m above average there, too. To check on your wealth relative to others, try this calculator.

If you looked at me in my jeans, flannel shirt and braces in New Jersey, I doubt you’d tag me as wealthy. On the other hand, if you saw me in Florida in shorts and my Trump National golf shirt—no, I’m not a member—your impression might be different. I once walked into a designer shop in a high-end mall looking to buy my wife a new handbag for Christmas. The clerk came up to me and asked if I thought I could afford the item I was considering. In those days, it was questionable. I guess I could have afforded it. But would I spend that kind of money on a handbag? Not a chance. Perhaps that’s how I came to be “wealthy.”

I had a discussion once with a young person about money, wealth and having stuff. I don’t recall the specifics. But in essence, he thought I was lucky because I “had it made.” He seemed to think I’d rolled out of bed the day after graduating high school and there it all was for me to enjoy. I resented that but said nothing. It was almost as hurtful as being called wealthy.

I started with nothing and my wife started with less than nothing. Over the past 50 years, we accumulated what we have by being prudent, by running a few small part-time ventures, by my working at the same company for nearly 50 years and by never, ever living above our means. I literally saved for 20 years to buy my newest car. Okay, I admit it, it’s a Mercedes.

I started work after high school as a mail boy earning the lowest wage out of 15,000 employees. I retired 49 years later earning the company’s 20th highest salary. A lot happened along the way, including two years in the army and nine years of night school.

There are things I can’t take any credit for. I had a few good mentors who helped me immensely. I’ve been very fortunate to avoid the kinds of tragedies that many people face in their lives. But I will take credit for not doing irresponsible, stupid stuff that would risk our financial security.

Should those of us now deemed wealthy feel guilty? I think not. Should we be thankful for the good fortune, the opportunities and the people who helped us? Certainly. Should we be proud of what we accomplished? Why not?

In the end, though, real wealth is not income or net worth. It’s family, friends and grandchildren. It’s enjoying good health. It’s being able—when necessary—to help others, especially those you love.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Happily Ever AfterThe OfficeStill Learning and Healthy Change. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
3 years ago

and not being subjected to punishing taxes i.e. socialism makes a huge difference.

Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
3 years ago

I, for one, applaud you and your wife’s accomplishments and you should never feel guilty about your situation. My mom and dad both came from nothing and they provided a good example of how hard work and living beneath your means can lead to a pretty good life. I started doing yard work for neighbors and a paper route around age 13-14 and have worked ever since. As to your conversation with the young person, that mindset seem to be gaining a little more ground these days. In my public accounting days, we had what I called income statement wealth and balance sheet wealth. I had clients making $400-500k a year that spent every dime on the high life, had no savings and were in debt up to their eyeballs. One of my favorite clients could have been mistaken for being homeless. He dressed in jeans because they were comfortable, drove a old Chevrolet because he liked it and easily had a net worth between 20-30 million. A very humble but hard-working individual.

2 years ago

One of my favorites is: “You didn’t build that.” In July 2012, then President Obama said:

“… There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along. …”

I remember who paid for the roads, who paid for public education, who paid for my education, who paid the salaries of police and fire fighters, who paid for national defense, …Yes, President Obama, it was me, and hundreds of millions of others, just like me … taxpayers. And, those taxpayer dollars financed the social capital (roads, bridges, schools, etc.) that continue to “pay it forward” today.

Back in 2012, as candidate Romney could have said, it wasn’t built by the 47% who weren’t paying income taxes, those who were net, net beneficiaries of taxpayer dollars.

In my 50+ year journey (I am still employed), every year I have been a net, net contributor of taxes to American society. Never claimed unemployment or workers compensation. Never had extensive breaks in employment, paid income taxes every year since the late, late 1960’s. Served in the Army during the Vietnam conflict (I wish I had been a better soldier).

For 11 of those 50 years, while working full time, I also paid for and went to college/graduate schools at night. Two of those years had a 110 mile commute 4 nights each week. Another 18 month period, in my 60’s, included a once a week commute of 750 miles – in pursuit of my last degree.

Yes, in pursuit of financial independence, I denied myself, and my family, a variety of potential expenditures and enjoyments. No, you will never convince me that I should credit someone else for my accomplishments or my current financial status (nor, will I ever blame others for all of the opportunities I failed to take advantage of, nor all of the mistakes and stupid stuff I did along the way).

Yes, I was the beneficiary of my parents and my siblings and other family members – members of my various churches, CYO, etc. Yes, my parents, my siblings, I and my wife supported those churches and non-profits (sometimes badly, often generously). Most of my family has had relatively good health – though my father died very early while I was still in high school. Lucky? Sure. Beneficiary of love and guidance? Absolutely. Learned from great siblings who modeled behavior? Certainly.

Along the way on my journey, I didn’t see Bernie, Liz, Trump, Obama, Biden, Steyer, Bloomberg or anyone else who is running for president in 2020. I didn’t expect them to be there either. Each must find her/his own way. Each should also be responsible for themselves and their families and their community and our country.

Generously, candidate Romney didn’t point out that while he paid his “fair share”, it wasn’t President Obama or vice-President Biden who built that. To that date, for the majority of their lives (and/or incomes), they were public servants or working for taxpayer supported non-profits. They were, net net, beneficiaries of taxpayer dollars or tax deductible charitable contributions. Now, there is nothing wrong with government employment or employment by a non-profit.

President Obama, I agree, YOU didn’t build that. Up to 2012, you were likely a net-net beneficiary of American taxpayers.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayers, over the past 200+ years, hundreds of millions who served in the military, some who paid the ultimate price, built and/or paid for all you saw on the 2012 campaign trail.

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