Sunday, April 25, 2010

If You Are So Smart Then Why Aren't You Rich?

Are the Rich Smarter Than You?

"Well if you're so damn smart, why aren't you rich?"

I never knew how to respond to this. Still, it ingrained in us the notion that the rich must have a little something extra going on upstairs, otherwise we'd all be rolling in it. Right?

There is, in fact, some evidence to support this.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, there is a strong positive correlation between education and income. Over an adult's working life, high school graduates should expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; those with a master's degree, $2.5 million; those with doctoral degrees, $3.4 million; and those with professional de grees, $4.4 million.

But here's the rub: Studies show that those who earn the most aren't necessarily the richest. To determine real wealth, you need to look at a balance sheet - assets minus liabilities - not an income statement.

We generally envision millionaires as Lexus-driving, Rolex-wearing, mansion-owning, Tiffany-shopping members of exclusive country clubs. And indeed, Stanley's research reveals that the "glittering rich" - those with a net worth of $10 million or more - often meet this description.

But most millionaires - individuals with a net worth of $1 million or more - live an entirely different lifestyle. Stanley found that the vast majority:

• Live in a house that cost less than $400,000.
• Do not own a second home.
• Have never owned a boat.
• Are more likely to wear a Timex than a Rolex.
• Do not collect wine and generally pay less than $15 for a bottle.
• Are more likely to drive a Nissan than a BMW.
• Have never paid more than $400 for a suit.
• Spend very little on prestige brands and luxury items.

This is certainly not the traditional image of millionaires. And it makes you wonder, just who the heck is buying all those Mercedes convertibles, Louis Vuitton purses and $60 bottles of Grey Goose vodka?

The answer, according to Dr. Stanley, is "aspirationals" - people who act rich, want to be rich, but really aren't rich.

Many are good people, well educated and perhaps earning a six-figure income. But they aren't balance-sheet rich because it's almost impossible for most workers - even those who are highly paid - to hyper-spend on consumer goods and save a lot of money. (Unfortunately, saving is the key prerequisite for investing.)

In his new book, Stop Acting Rich... and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire, Dr. Stanley recalls an appearance on Oprah when a member of the audience asked the question - one he's heard hundreds of times before:
"What good does it do to have all this money if you don't spend it?" She was angry, indignant even. "These people couldn't possibly be happy."
Like so many others, this woman genuinely believed that the more you spend, the better life is.

Bear in mind, we're not talking about people living below the poverty line. We're talking about middle-class consumers and up who have lived beyond their means and have suddenly found themselves under enormous pressure in a weak economy.
Some were overly optimistic. Others didn't realize that they are up against an army of the best and most creative marketers in the world, whose job it is to convince you that "you are what you buy," that you need to outspend - to out-display - others.

The unspoken message behind the constant barrage of TV and billboard ads featuring all those impossibly good-looking men and women is that you are special, you are deserving, and you need to look and act successful now.

According to Dr. Stanley, "The pseudo-affluent are insecure about how they rank among the Joneses and the Smiths. Often their self-esteem rests on quicksand. In their minds, it is closely tied to how long they can continue to purchase the trappings of wealth. They strongly believe all economically successful people display their success through prestige products. The flip side of this has them believing that people who do not own prestige brands are not successful."

Yet "everyday" millionaires see things differently. Most of them achieved their wealth not by hitting the lottery or gaining an inheritance, but by patiently and persistently maximizing their income, minimizing their outgo and religiously saving and investing the difference.

They aren't big spenders. According to Stanley's surveys, their most popular activities include:

• Socializing with children/grandchildren (95%)
• Planning investments (94%)
• Entertaining close friends (87%)
• Visiting museums (83%)
• Raising funds for charities (75%)
• Attending sporting events (69%)
• Participating in civic activities (69%)
• Studying art (63%)
• Participating in trade/professional association activities (56%)
• Gardening (55%)
• Attending religious services (52%)
• Jogging (48%)
• Attending lectures (44%)

You'll notice the cost associated with these activities is minimal. Most millionaires understand that real pleasure and satisfaction don't come from the car you drive or the watch you wear, but time spent in enjoyable activities with family, friends and associates.

Yet they aren't misers, especially when it comes to educating their children and grandchildren - or donating to worthy causes. Although they are disciplined savers, the affluent are among the most generous Americans in charitable giving.

They "give" in another important way, too. According to the IRS, the top 1% of America's income earners pay 37% of the entire federal income tax bill. The top 5% pay 57%. The top 10% pay 68%. (The bottom 50% pay less than 4%.) It's a far cry from the populist complaint that the rich "don't pay their fair share."
Just how prevalent are American millionaires?

According to the Spectrum Group, there were 6.7 million U.S. households with a net worth of at least $1 million at the end of 2008. Very few of them won a Grammy, played in the NBA or started a computer company in their garage. Clearly, thrift and modesty - however unfashionable - are still alive in some parts of the country.

So while millions of consumers chase a blinkered image of success - busting their humps for stuff that ends up in landfills, yard sales and thrift shops - disciplined savers and investors are enjoying the freedom, satisfaction and peace of mind that comes from living beneath their means.

More often than not, these folks are turned on not by consumerism but by personal achievement, industry awards and recognition.

They know that success is not about flaunting your wealth. It's about a sense of accomplishment... and the independence that comes with it. They are able to do what they want, where they want, with whom they want.

They may not be smarter than you, but they do know something priceless:

It's how we spend ourselves - not our money - that makes us rich.

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