Rich People on Not Being Rich

Whenever I see a headline like “Do the Wealthy Think They’re Wealthy?” I know that the answer is going to be “no” and that I’ll be in for a treat when I start reading. Scott Leonard, a 45-year-old CEO of a wealth management company declined to tell Marketplace how much he earns but he says under the new fiscal cliff deal, his family would be considered wealthy, or earning at least $450,000 a year, which puts him among the one percent.

The Leonards recently sold their house to spend a few years with their three kids sailing around the world on a boat. “A 50-foot catamaran,” he said. “Four bedrooms with queen sized beds and everyone has their own bathroom. So it’s a good floating home for us.” I told him he was living the dream, and he agreed, but with an asterisk. “Living the dream,” he said. “And not wealthy.”

So if he’s not wealthy, what is he?

“I still think of myself as middle class, or upper middle class,” he said. “I certainly do not consider myself as rich or wealthy.”

Leonard expects us to roll our eyes at him, and explains that wealth is relative, but even so, I’m boggled by the idea that someone earning more than 99 percent of the country wouldn’t believe that he or she is wealthy, and that when President Obama talks about the struggling middle class, someone like Leonard, who is earning half a million dollars, would think, “oh, that’s me, I’m middle class.” I mean, does he believe that someone earning, say, $75,000 a year is lower-middle class?

Of course, as a counterpoint, Marketplace talks to a couple earning a combined $250,000 a year who do think they’re wealthy. Elizabeth, a private school teacher, says that may not sound like a lot to other wealthy people, but adds, “But when I look at the rest of the country I’m very, very fortunate.”

I think that’s a good way of thinking about things. Rather than compare yourself to people who have bigger boats than you, it might give you some perspective to think about people who don’t have boats at all.

Photo: Yorick_R