America Called to Tell You You're Poor, Then Called Back to Tell You You're Rich.

What is considered "wealthy" in America? Depends on who you ask ... and where you live ... and what you like to do ... and other things.  According to a recent study from Charles Schwab, to be wealthy in America means making $2.4 million a year, and about $1.4 million to be considered well off (1). That benchmark for wealth likely seems high for most, but seems low to others, like the millionaires in Aspen, Colorado who can’t find a home because all the billionaires are hiking up prices (2). Damn billionaires.

Defining wealth in America seems entirely about perspective, though there are some consistencies documented in this Charles Schwab study and others. A company called GOBankingRates conducted a similar survey and found ...

  • 21.15% surveyed thought $500k makes you rich
  • 26.22% of Americans stated you need $1 million to be wealthy
  • Incredibly, 12.82% said you need to clear $10 million to be considered wealthy (3)

Technically speaking, anyone who makes $9 million a year has reserved seating at the 0.1% country club, so what does this say about the average American’s ability to gauge personal wealth? Despite the numbers cited in these surveys, the reality is most Americans don’t make north of $100,000 a year. In fact the average salary in the United States is closer to $47,000. Though many people surveyed wouldn’t consider a person making $1 million a year rich, anyone making $100,000 a year is wealthier than 87.9% of Americans (4).

According to the surveys, money is not the only sign of wealth. While 18% defined wealth as “being able to afford anything I want,” 17% defined wealth as having “loving relationships with family and friends” (5).

So What Does Rich Mean, Anyway?

While we can easily look at the net worth of public figures online and form a ballpark definition of wealth, that doesn’t tell us much about how people define personal wealth. Factors that influence wealth include inflation, cost of living, location, personal priorities and savings strategies. Let’s look at each:

  • Inflation - To live like the millionaires of 1930 you would need upwards of $14 million in net worth today (6). Back in 1994, $3 million was considered a significantly high net worth, according to Peter Charrington, global head of Citi Private Bank. Today, the billionaire is the new millionaire. Inflation has done some serious damage to the U.S. dollar, making the exact number for wealth harder to pin down.

 

  • Cost of Living / Location - Wealth also varies by region or state. New York and Hawaii, which have the highest costs of living in the country, defined wealth as making $500,000 a year. Those surveyed in West Virginia had the lowest answer pertaining to what they consider a wealthy salary--$100,000 a year. Surprisingly, the state with the highest answer at $10 million per year is not a state with a notably high cost of living. It’s Maine, which has a median salary and cost of living. So, cost of living does not directly determine a person’s definition of wealth (7). Even the lowest answer is outrageously high compared to other areas around the world, like sub-saharan Africa, where people still live off less than $2 a day (8).

 

  • Priorities - When asked what defines a wealthy life, 41% said ability to dine out or get meals delivered. Another 33% said having subscriptions like Spotify or Netflix. Some people might consider these conveniences as part of their lifestyle budget, while others consider them necessities, and others still see them as luxuries. Still, 62% of Americans surveyed include spending time with family and friends in their definition of wealth. However, that time spent with loved ones often costs money, whether that’s going to the movies, dining out or taking a vacation. According to these numbers, absolute bliss for the average American would look like ordering gourmet pizza for delivery while binging the latest Netflix special with friends and eating an extra slice because you’ve got your weekly appointment with your personal trainer in the morning.

 

  • Savings Strategy - You can be making $5 million a year and spend it all on luxuries with nothing left in savings or for investment, and by all accounts you could be considered poor. On the other hand, you could make a cozy $60,000 with investments and live modestly with a retirement fund and pension lined up, and you could be considered rich. In this sense, wealth is less about what you earn and more about what you burn (or don’t burn). Money (or lack thereof) can fuel your lifestyle. If you’re always running on fumes, it doesn’t matter how much you’re earning.

Defining Rich, According to Banks

Let’s ask another audience: banks. If you’re asking banks what’s considered “wealthy,” you’re not rich until you’ve hit $25 million in investable wealth (9), and that’s just the first rung. In the world of the hyper-wealthy, you’re only just getting started at $25 million. $50 to $100 million is respectable, and for those who’ve hit $1 billion, they probably own a man-made island and named it “wealth.”

For many banks, you have to make $50 million to receive custom financial advisement, so anyone who is below that mark (i.e. pretty much everyone) misses out on valuable financial services (10), services that used to be available to those with lower net worths.

Once you’ve got that $25 million, elite wealth managers might invite you to the next ultra-wealthy networking event (maybe). We’re talking philanthropic events where the rich and famous get together, swap exaggerated stories, give talks and mingle (they probably meet at the 0.1% country club).