You can be rich without being wealthy. And you can be wealthy without being rich. In his new book, The Thin Green Line: The Money Secrets of the Super Wealthy, Paul Sullivan takes a look at what separates the two.
“Rich to me is a number. It’s a number on a brokerage statement. It’s the value on your house when somebody Zillows it to get directions,” says Sullivan, who is also the Wealth Matters columnist at The New York Times. “Wealthy is the ability to have control of your life.” he says. “Not to let life control you.”
But the whole notion of control is tough for people, particularly if you have money to spend. “Nobody wants to be told, ‘Don’t have your Starbucks coffee today,’” says Sullivan. “It’s about small decisions and changes to behaviors that can help you over time.”
So what can they control? A lot, says Sullivan. "They can control how much they save, they can control how much they spend," says Sullivan. "If they’re philanthropic, they can control the way they give money away and perhaps save some money on taxes. I really emphasize the things that we can control in life, not the things that are beyond our control."
An example of that control comes from an unlikely field—the professional football one to be exact. In his book, Sullivan interviews linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Paul Posluszny. Sullivan points to a conversation he had with Posluszny about whether the former Penn State star was going to buy a BMW—a car he really wanted—or an Audi, which cost about $15,000 less. He went with the Audi. “If you are worth $20 million, you are in your 20s, why not go with the BMW?” asks Sullivan. “It’s small choices like that that a fellow like Posluszny is going to make throughout his life that’s going to make him one of those football players who is still wealthy later on in his retirement,” he says.
But not everyone has a professional athlete's salary to make decisions around. According to analysis of Federal Reserve data from the Pew Research Center, the gap between America’s upper-income and middle-income families is at its highest level on record. In 2013, the median wealth of the nation’s upper-income families was $639,400—almost seven times the median wealth of middle-income families which is $96,500. That’s the widest wealth gap in 30 years, which is the length of time the Federal Reserve has been collecting this data.
So how can you be "wealthy" at any income level? One of the things Sullivan recommends is to take a step back from the day-to-day news about markets and investing. For most investors, that doesn’t matter, he says. “For the average person, they would be better off not checking the Dow everyday. They would be better off having a balanced portfolio and doing things that they control.”
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