Are You Rich?

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Wine & Cheese

The air gets noticeably thinner at $50 million to $500 million in net worth -- partly because you're now flying in your own jet. "The first thing people do after arriving in this group is to resolve to never to fly commercial anymore," says Lagomasino of GenSpring. The fabled Gulfstream V, which can carry more than a dozen people and fly internationally, is yours for $20 million to $50 million, depending on your preferred level of luxe.

A penny-pinching hectomillionaire might opt instead to up his or her stake in a jet through a fractional-ownership outfit. A 50% stake in a jet through NetJets, for instance, offers 400 hours of flying a year and costs $3.3 million, plus $50,000 a month for management fees. By contrast, a minimum stake of one-sixteenth offers 50 hours of flying for $417,000, plus $7,000 for management fees.

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While the range of wealth in the Wine & Cheese category -- $50 million to 10 times that amount -- may seem wide, the members tend to have similar goals. Philanthropy, for instance, often becomes a preoccupation, since all members of the group are likely to outlive their money by wide margins. Many launch their own family foundations to carry out customized giving. The number of family foundations stood at 34,000 at last count, up from about 28,000 in 2001.

The opportunities for home ownership become particularly intriguing for the Wine & Cheese crowd. While lesser millionaires may have a nice second home in, say, the Bahamas or Europe, people with $50 million and up might well have three or four homes. And thanks to the private jet, the homes can be in places that are difficult to reach on commercial airlines, like Sun Valley, Idaho.

Your primary residence won't be too shabby, either. In New York City, if you have $50 million in the bank, you can probably afford a $15 million cooperative apartment, says prominent socialite Alice Mason of the Alice F. Mason Ltd. real-estate brokerage.

The rule of thumb, she says, is that you can buy a home that costs about a third of your net worth, assuming you don't want too much of your fortune concentrated in your home. She believes the "true rich" of Manhattan have net worths of $100 million, allowing them to comfortably buy $30 million Park Avenue apartments with several bedrooms.

Champagne & Caviar

With a net worth of $500 million or more, "You can buy whatever you want" in Manhattan real estate, says Mason. Or you can buy anywhere else. Some members of this group buy $20 million homes "all over the world," says Gary Gold, realty broker to the rich at Hilton & Highland in Los Angeles. He's been as surprised as anyone by the growing number of people who qualify for the Champagne & Caviar class. Five or 10 years ago, he says, "you'd know who they are. Now, they can have vast wealth and you don't know who they are."

Leslie Mandel, chief executive of the Rich List, a marketing company, contends there are now more than 2,000 Americans with net worths of a $1 billion or more, far more than the 400 who appear on Forbes' annual list (the cutoff for that is now $1.3 billion). Some bankers figure the number of billionaires is closer to 500, but either way, it's up remarkably from the 170 of 10 years ago.

When you hit $500 million, you can at last buy a decent mega yacht. For about $50 million -- and another $5 million a year in maintenance payments -- you can have a 200-foot yacht with 21-foot launches, 15 crew members and five or six staterooms, says broker Sanderson.

Like realty broker Gold, he says potential customers are getting harder to pick out of the crowd. "At one boat show, a guy in cutoff shorts and a T-shirt was one of the wealthiest guys I ever met," he says. "You never know."

It goes without saying that you will travel to the mega yacht in your private jet. Surprisingly, however, your kids may be getting bored with the jet. In his 2007 book about the wealth explosion, Richistan, Wall Street Journal writer Robert Frank tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who asked her father for a ride on a commercial airline even though the family owned its own jet. "I want to ride on a big plane with other people," the girl said.

The fact is, people in the Champagne & Caviar set are so rich that their money can become a burden. Everyone from your gardener to your local opera house may know about your money and want a piece of it, suggests Lagomasino. "It's kind of sad," she says. People at this level, she says, have to ask, "Do you like me or my money?"

Many Champagne & Caviar members ratchet up their philanthropy to world-saving proportions. They can scarcely get rid of their money fast enough. Bill Gates, with a net worth of $58 billion at last count, would have to spend about $10 million a day on non-appreciating items like McDonald's Happy Meals just to hold the level of his wealth constant.

Even people at some lower levels of wealth turn philanthropy into a full-time pursuit. Take John Hunting of Grand Rapids, Mich. Now 76, he inherited $140 million when a company started by his father went public 10 years ago. He set up a new foundation for environmental causes and gave it $100 million of his fortune. A bachelor with no children, he plans to give most of the rest away, too.

"I live off my income and devote myself to philanthropy," he says.

* * *

This is not to say that America's rich have stopped spoiling themselves. They absolutely haven't. This May, for instance, all 750 seats at Christie's are expected to be full as a Mark Rothko oil painting is auctioned for an expected $30 million-plus says Marc Porter, president of Christie's Americas.

And for many members of all three groups of wealth, the term "credit crunch" means nothing. American Express offers the truly rich a Centurion card with such perks as zero-gravity flights with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. A person with $500 million in net worth could charge $10 million to the card for some gambling in Monaco. But even that card holder would first undergo a credit check. Yes, Virginia, there are deadbeat billionaires.

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