You may have seen the recent article in USA Today: an estimated 3.5% of all American households now have assets of $1 million or more, including their house, according to the current best-seller The Millionaire Next Door (a wise gift for any spendthrift spouse or business partner). But that’s clearly not rich in the way it used to be, if only because half that $1 million, if you live in California or Westchester or someplace, may be the house (and $400,000 may be the mortgage).
USA Today would not state categorically what it takes to be a millionaire today but seemed to lean toward $5 million.
If you happen to have $5 million, you are doubtless quite pleased with yourself. This comment is not for you. It is for the 99.9% of us who have much, much less and for the 0.1% of us who have much, much more.
Whether you have much less or much more, you need things to be able to say to make it clear you are not impressed. “A man’s worth is not measured in money,” you might say if you have much less. (You might also say this if you have much more, but you’d be less likely to mean it.) But why be so direct and moralistic? Why not take a more whimsical approach that will leave the wealthy object of your remark a little off balance, unsure just where you’re coming from. Envy? Disdain?
“Five million dollars?” you could say. “A child starting with a penny and doubling it every day would require almost a whole month to accumulate that much. Now that is a long time.” (It’s true, by the way.) Or how about:
“Did you know you could pay the entire interest on our national debt — yourself! — for 11 minutes? Would you consider that? We’re coming up on July 4th. It would make a great human interest story: MILLIONAIRE CONTRIBUTES ENTIRE NET WORTH TO PAY 11-MINUTES’ INTEREST.”
Or how about:
“Gee. Enough to buy every man, woman and child in Zambia a Slurpee.”
(This is also true. I researched all this stuff assiduously for the Net Worth section of Managing Your Money years ago. But it takes no account of the actual availability of Slurpees in Zambia — has 7-Eleven reached Zambia? — or what this sudden unprecedented demand for Slurpees would do to their price.)
Or how about:
“Whoa! Get outta here! If you keep saving up, you’ll soon have enough to buy a couple hundred shares of Berkshire Hathaway!” . . . pause, frowning with concern . . . “Or then again maybe you won’t, if the stock price grows faster than you can accumulate additional savings. Come to think of it, you’ll probably never be able to afford a couple hundred shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Ever.” Or, finally:
“Money can’t buy happiness, Felix. But if it could — at the special introductory rate of $1 a minute (less than I pay for my cell phone, when roaming) — you’d be grinning contentedly for nearly ten years. Then what?”
Every time I think how much money $5 million is, I also realize how little it is. For example, it’s enough to tip every waiter and waitress in America $2.50. That sounds like a lot, no? But remember: they have to split it with the busboy.
If there is a lesson here — which you would be forgiven for thinking there’s not — it is that $5 million, while so much, is also so little that it might be far easier to find ways to be happy without it than to go to all the effort of accumulating it. (Not that I don’t cheer for capital accumulation — I do.) If you could accumulate $5 million, and if you could find nine other equally wealthy people willing to combine forces, you could collectively trade your fortunes for one (very nice) Van Gogh. Alternatively, for $19.95, marked down from $59.95, you could get an entire book of beautiful Van Goghs. And not worry about the expense of insuring it.