Millionaire Myths

Boy, you can’t count on anything anymore — not even the rich.

When we think of “the rich,” we think of guys like Thurston Howell III, the “Gilligan’s Island” millionaire with the condescending upper-class accent.

We think they have the finest clothes, homes and cars — an abundance of material possessions that they never need to worry about losing.

If only that were so.

According to the 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, 80 percent of America’s millionaires were not born millionaires. They are first-generation affluent.

They earned their money by providing some product or service that other people need or value enough to pay for.

We might classify some of their businesses as “dull,” say the authors: “welding contractors, auctioneers, rice farmers, owners of mobile-home parks, pest controllers, coin and stamp dealers, and paving contractors.”

Most millionaires get by on an annual income that is only 7 percent of their total wealth. They save at least 15 percent of that income and invest another 20 percent.

They aren’t speculators, either; they invest for the long term.

They “wear inexpensive suits and drive American-made cars. Only a minority drive the current-model-year automobile. Only a minority ever lease motor vehicles.”

You probably don’t see them around much. Nearly two-thirds work between 45 and 55 hours per week. Those that own their own businesses never really are “off.”

Here’s an interesting finding: Only 3.5 percent of America’s 100 million households are wealthy, with a net worth of at least $1 million.

Ninety-five percent of America’s 3.5 million millionaires have net worths between $1 million and $10 million.

Only 5 percent — some 175,000 households — have net worths of more than $10 million.

Of course, those statistics date to 1996, when The Millionaire Next Door was published. The rich have changed somewhat since then. The well-to-do are not doing so well of late.

Robert Frank writes in a recent Wall Street Journal article that the mega-rich have succumbed to the lure of low interest rates and easy money and have become the “leveraged elite.”

“The household debt of the top 1 percent surged more than three-fold between 1989 and 2007, to $600 billion, and grew faster than their net worth,” he writes.

Their debt hasn’t worked out so well.

With the economy tanking, the over-leveraged rich are feeling significant pain. Some who borrowed to pursue high gains have suffered severe losses. Both their income and net worth have taken hits.

“The number of Americans making $1 million or more fell 40 percent between 2007 and 2009, to 236,883, while their combined incomes fell by nearly 50 percent,” says Frank. “(A)s of 2009, the richest 20 percent of Americans showed the largest decline in mean wealth of any other group.”

He also points out: “Only 27 percent of America’s 400 top earners have made the list more than one year since 1994.”

That’s because in America, people are moving from “low income” to “middle income” to “high income” — or in the reverse direction — all the time. One’s income level is not static in America.

In any event, our nutty, heavily indebted country’s rich are taking it on the chin — and as they suffer, and rein in hiring, spending, and investment, everybody suffers.

Now that I think of it, maybe America’s rich are more like Thurston Howell III than I realized.

Mr. Howell, according to his “Gilligan’s Island” backstory, had been a billionaire, but lost much of his wealth during the Great Depression.

Millionaire Myths

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