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 QuinnsCommentary.com. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Happily Ever After, The Office, Still Learning and Healthy Change. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.