Who Is Rich?

Mod Note (Andy): Best of Eddie, this was originally posted in September 2010. To see all of our top content from the past, click here. If there's an old post from Eddie you'd like to see up again, shoot me a message.

Who is rich? This is the perennial question in any progressive tax scheme. Where you draw the line makes a big difference to a lot of people. With the sun about to set on the Bush tax cuts, the debate is raging online, and I wanted to find out what you guys think. First, the preliminaries:

Those people making $250,000 a year or more seem to be the targeted income level to be considered "rich" in America. But they'd be the first to tell you that they're not. Two recent news pieces have the debate raging. The first was written by a Chicago law professor. I guess it was so incendiary that the original piece was taken down, but you get the gist from the above link. Even at $455,000, the good prof is barely making ends meet.

Next was a letter to the Wall Street Journal from Glen Esnard, a Southern California real estate executive. He tells a similar tale of woe about how $250,000 ain't what it used to be, and then finishes up with the not-so-veiled threat that he and his quarter-millionaire buddies might just take their ball and go home:

Apparently our president thinks that living in America is so wonderful that we will never leave, despite being directly attacked and held responsible for the political class's inability to constrain its desire to buy votes with our money. He should think again.

Esnard was then pilloried by Felix Salmon as the "sob story of the day". The law professor was taken apart by none other than Tyler Cowen. Not a lot of sympathy in those circles.

I don't mean to make light of the above situations, because both men have good points. And you know I'm not the type to vilify someone for their success. But the question of who really is rich has always fascinated me. As a kid growing up in a blue collar neighborhood, I figured anyone with a million bucks was rich. A couple decades later when I was swinging the bat, P&L might swing a million bucks in a day. It's all relative.

Felix Dennis on Getting Rich

It wasn't until recently that I found the answer to my question, and it came from someone eminently more qualified to answer it than I. I can't remember how I came to buy his book (because I normally wouldn't buy a book with a title as simplistic as How To Get Rich), but Maxim Magazine founder Felix Dennis answered the question of who is rich for me once and for all. According to Dennis (who says he's worth anywhere from $400 million to $900 million and that any legitimately rich person who can narrow their actual worth down more than that is lying), here is how it breaks down by overall net worth:

  • $2-4 million: The comfortable poor
  • $4-10 million: The comfortably off
  • $10-30 million: The comfortably wealthy
  • $30-80 million: The lesser rich
  • $80-150 million: The comfortably rich
  • $150-200 million: The rich
  • $200-400 million: The seriously rich
  • $400-800 million: The truly rich
  • $800 million - $1.998 billion: The filthy rich
  • $1.998 billion and Above: The super rich

So by his definition, one isn't "rich" until one is worth a minimum of $30 million. He also published a chart I would call "liquid" net worth (cash on hand or readily available), and the bare minimum liquid to be considered "rich" by Dennis was $2 million.

I think those are pretty accurate figures, actually. $30 million overall and $2 million liquid sounds about right. The guys making a quarter mil a year and struggling to keep the lights on would probably agree.

Incidentally, the book is great fun to read. Dennis started off with nothing and created an empire worth almost a billion in spite of himself. He's a dyed-in-the-wool party animal, and the book is wildly entertaining (if you're into h***ers, co***ne benders, and Legionnaires Disease like I am). On top of that, he gave the best and most unvarnished advice about getting rich I've ever read, summed up in two sentences:

  1. Don't try to get rich because you won't make it, and
  2. You'll ruin your life in the attempt

Apart from all that, I'd like to hear what you guys think about what it means to be rich. Does $250,000 a year in income make you rich? Is $30 mil overall and $2 mil liquid closer to the real definition? Somewhere in between? Or does it take more than $30 mil to be rich in your book?

The number changed a lot for me over the years, I'm interested to hear what it is for you.
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