Becoming rich isn’t easy, especially if you’re starting from scratch and not getting an inheritance. It takes a lot of hard work. But as it turns out, it’s almost just as hard to define what being rich is.
If you’re thinking, “Am I rich, or merely really well off?” and you’re stressing over that question, you aren’t likely to get any sympathy from your family and friends – unless they are all rich, too. But if you're wondering how to define being wealthy, the question can be an interesting intellectual exercise. So if you're wondering if you're rich, there is a lot to consider.
Rich vs. Wealthy
What’s the difference between being rich and being wealthy? The words don't really mean the same thing, according to many personal finance experts. Still, everything is subjective with these terms. Most personal finance experts tend to equate wealth with financial freedom.
Some experts think that you’re wealthy if you don’t have a lot of debt and you have enough income to do what you want. You could consider yourself wealthy even if you have a pretty low income. That's provided you have a decent amount of revenue stashed away in your savings account, you never really struggle to pay your bills, and you’re able to spend pretty freely if there’s something you want to buy. In that sense, you could be wealthy without being rich.
"There are many semantics around the term 'wealthy' – and varying degrees and definitions," says Doris Meister, CEO and chairman of Wilmington Trust, a wealth and investment management firm in New York City. "For example, an individual’s wealth can be defined by the conditions in which they live. Someone can be wealthy living in a smaller city or less expensive state and therefore be able to achieve a luxurious lifestyle. Those with a similar income in an area with higher expenses could potentially be struggling to make ends meet. Numbers alone don’t tell the full story."
Some personal finance experts say that being rich is a scenario in which you make a lot of money through your salary or investments. However, you may actually have so many debts weighing you down to the extent that your freedom to spend freely is somewhat curtailed. If that’s the case, you’re probably rich but not actually wealthy.
Of course, for some people, there's no debate. Some people are rich, wealthy and all of the other adjectives that describe having a lot of money.
"When you get to a certain stage of wealth where you have excess capital – making more money than you will ever spend in your lifetime – then that is truly wealthy," Meister says.
Net Worth vs. Income
These are two concepts that help to define whether you’re rich or wealthy. Your net worth is the total of your household’s assets, minus the debts. It’s definitely possible to be rich because of your net worth and not due to your income. For instance, you might pull in a paltry salary but are also sitting on a sizable inheritance. Or you could be "property rich" and own a parcel of land that would fatten up your bank account if you sold it.
There really is no arbitrary number or threshold you reach or definition that officially means you are "rich," according to Meister. She says that it's up to everybody to define that individually. "For example, some people want multiple pieces of real estate, some want boats, to donate to philanthropy or invest in art," Meister says.
Ultimately, being wealthy is knowing that you can achieve the objectives that fulfill you by smartly investing your financial resources.