Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when people talk about rich, I get an image of someone who has a 10,000 square foot mansion or an enormous penthouse in Manhattan, or their own private jet, who drives a car that costs more than our house and whose vacations are often on private islands or on yachts the size of a Navy destroyer. That’s what it means to be rich. And I think most people have similar ideas.
That may be why more than a few people I know were incredulous when President Obama declared that couples who make more than $250,000 a year were “rich.” The general consensus among them was that families that made $250,000 were comfortable, even in some cases fairly well off, and possibly upper-middle class… maybe. But rich? No way.
One couple pointed out that while their house was paid for, it had taken 20 years, and that it wasn’t exactly a mansion, but a raised ranch of 3500 square feet with a modest two-car garage on a half-acre lot in a nice neighborhood, but certainly not one filled with mansions or even McMansions… and that she and her husband had only taken one vacation in the past ten years, and that their cars, a four year old GM Denali and a twelve year old RAV, while also paid for, were not exactly luxury vehicles… and that the rest of their possessions were similar… and that what they had saved for retirement might provide them with a comfortable but even more modest lifestyle than what they now enjoy.
Another couple just laughed. They both work in Manhattan, and their combined income, I’d estimate, is probably a little over $200,000. They can’t afford to live in New York itself, not in anything other than a shoebox, and instead own an 1800 square foot co-op apartment – definitely not a luxury one — in the suburbs north of the city and commute to work by train. Again, they’re certainly not starving or impoverished, but any reasonable person might find it difficult to insist that they are on the borderline of being rich.
I could give example after example of similar instances, of couples making $200,000 – $300,000, who may be well-off, but are anything but rich. They don’t own a Mercedes or a Rolls-Royce. They don’t travel first class on the Queen Mary, or have luxury skyboxes at the Superbowl, or millions – or even tens of thousands of dollars – stashed away in Switzerland. And they don’t squander money on anything.
Now, I know that the IRS statistics say that only something like two percent of the population makes more than $250,000, and only one percent makes more than $450,000, but those numbers can be misleading. To begin with, there’s a significant difference between income and wealth, and between sources of income. For example, compare a businessman or a doctor, or a two income family that makes $250,000 a year to an heir or heiress getting the same income from sitting on $20 million in tax-free municipal bonds. A couple that averages $200,000 in income for 40 years would have to save 25 % of their pre-tax income every year [and closer to a third of their after-tax income] to put away two million dollars… and even with compounding of those assets, they’d likely only provide a retirement income of $50,000- $75,000. That’s certainly comfortable, but rich? And even with Social Security on top of that, it’s barely middle-class in places like New York, San Francisco, and other high-cost cities.
Rich at $250,000 a year? I don’t think so, not unless someone can explain how you can have a mansion, a Mercedes, and a private jet on that… and not end up in jail for theft or tax evasion.