Every so often, the radio program Marketplace Money runs a segment where they ask people on the street to finish the following sentence, "You know you're wealthy when . . . ."
As you might imagine, people are over the map with their responses. Some say you're wealthy when you own a car. Others say when you're debt free. Some put a social spin on the question and say when you've been married 25 years.
What's so interesting to me is that it seems like it should be such an easy question. Shouldn't there just be some set of criteria that determines whether or not we're wealthy. But it turns out there's no standard dipstick for testing a person's financial well-being, partly because our economies and social values vary so much from region to region and country to country and partly because we all have such different attitudes and ideas about money.
As I listened to all of the differing and sometimes contradictory answers, I couldn't help pondering my own definition of wealth. Even without taking a philosophical (and dare I say, somewhat
sentimental) take on the question (i.e. you're wealthy when you have
people who love you, blah, blah, blah) on the question and using only a financial context to shape my answer, I found I really had to mull over things to come up with a satisfactory answer. Part of me said, why define wealth, I know it when I see it. But then I thought, hey, maybe the lady wearing only designer labels is actually the Isla Fisher character from Confessions of a Shopaholic and up to her eyeballs in debt. Would we call her wealthy? No, we would not.
I also realized that using many of my definitions of wealth, I myself would be considered wealthy. When I wonder what our dinner's going to be, it's just that, a decision to be made about what food I should take out of the fridge, pantry, and/or freezer and prepare for dinner. I own a car. I make all of my payments on time. There's an emergency fund and I can afford to save a significant amount of each paycheck.
Yet I spend a lot of time feeling decidedly un-wealthy. I grow weary of being hyper-conscious of money. Sometimes, despite leading a very rich life on so many levels, I complain to Andy about how hard it is to financially responsible and why can't I just have everything I want already. (Psst, that's not poor, that's selfish.) Am I really poor if the fact that I paid a hella expensive car repair bill in cash means I can't take a trip to this spring? Really?
But then I thought, although I do quite well for myself now, it would be bad
news bears if I had a child and/or a mortgage. So if I can't support
an alternative lifestyle, does that in fact make me not wealthy?
I tried out various wealth "litmus tests" such as:
You're wealthy if you can let a check sit on your desk for weeks before you cash it.
You're wealthy when your finances aren't managed by a "if this, then not
this" strategy. You know, if health insurance than no more than one
dinner out a month. If contributing to my retirement plan, than no
In the end, I decided that wealthy means an abundance of options without negative repercussions.
Want to buy those beautiful purple pumps you saw in the boutique at the Bellagio (purely hypothetical here, folks) and still stop for gelato? If you're wealthy, you get both and you don't even have one little shred of buyer's remorse.
To me that's wealth, but is it happiness? Do those purple pumps decline in value to me when they become attainable? Having everything you could ever want . . . where's the fun in that?
What do you think? When you think a person is "wealthy"?