What does it mean to be wealthy? When I was younger, I used to think that being rich involved a castle, a few ponies, and a moat. It was a concrete image with a clear line in the sand: you either had the ponies or you didn’t.
The television I watched and the books I read confirmed this vision: there were two socioeconomic classes – “very rich” and “very poor.” It was also clear from my research that a combination of the two was the foundation for a beautiful romance involving talking squirrels and evil stepmothers, but that's beside the point. My definition of wealthy was formed without me even noticing.
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Wealthy vs. poor: recognizing nuances
It took me several years to realize that the socioeconomic divide in the U.S. isn't comprised of two clear-cut camps. Rather, it's a hodgepodge of countless overlapping gray areas – impossible to navigate and easy to offend. My definition of wealth changed.
What does it mean to me now, having graduated from college and witnessed all types of wealth up close? It means even less than it once did. I no longer have a clear perspective on what it means to be wealthy or poor, or know how to define them.
How can you make the distinctions of what someone is – especially once you realize how little you know of their financial life?
Sure, he’s a partner at a law firm and has a six-figure salary. But he also has six kids, a mortgage, and a wife with medical needs. Or yes, her income is less than $50,000, but her student loans are paid off and she only has to worry about basic monthly costs. Who’s rich in that scenario?
When I asked what salary a single person needed to be wealthy, the answers ranged from $60,000 to $100,000 annually.
For a standard nuclear family (for our hypothetical, I said two to three children), the answers once again fluctuated wildly. This time the answers spanned from a low of $100,000 to a high of $500,000 annually.
The estimation of what it meant to be “rich” varied by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The answers speak for themselves. And I can only assume that perspectives vary even further with a wider demographic, considering that my friends and I share a similar educational background. Still, it was an astounding contrast.
If this was wealthy, what does it mean to be middle class? Lower middle class? Poor?
My friends were pretty stumped on these – especially the middle class. One friend chimed in that she had read somewhere that, “$40,000 for a family of four is poverty-level.” There wasn't much more input.
Financial literacy & financial wellness
Our understanding of money and its literal, honest-to-god worth is tenuous at best. Bringing children into it, it’s entirely untethered. This lack of knowledge can be attributed to the limited time we have to take care of ourselves, pay taxes, etc. But isn’t this the time when we should understand what salaries we need in order to reach our desired lifestyle?
If our estimation of “being comfortable” ranges by hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of us will probably feel unpleasant shock at some point, right?
Do we simply learn where we are once we are 40 and looking back at what we’ve built so far? This seems wildly counterintuitive to me.
Although wealth, salaries, and quality of life are – of course – always in flux, it can’t be an accident that our generation is so unaware of personal finance. Or that we have very little savings on average.
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At this stage in my life – with no children or extra expenses – I think I could live extravagantly on any salary over $90,000. To me, an “extravagant lifestyle” would entail traveling often and not keeping track of my food expenditures (hello daily lattes!). But I know that in order to live extravagantly when I'm older, I should save a lot now. So if I start making tons of money, I would probably sock away most of it. But still, the lattes….