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Wealth and Affluence

I can think of two fairly recent instances in publishing that elucidate just how “the rich” or “the one percent” are different from everyone else, and we should all do ourselves a favor by studying their approach to money so we, too, can be monetarily wealthy.

Steve Siebold wrote a book, How Rich People Think, and the author was a guest of Tom Dziubek on the Consumerism Commentary Podcast a few years ago. Prior to recording the interview, the author sent a copy of the book for me to read and gather ideas for the podcast interviews. I no longer have the book; it was part of a significant collection of financial books I recently donated to a local library.

But as I remember, it was an easy read, filled with a contrasting generalizations about “rich people” and “average people.” Here’s one:

Average people think selfishness is a vice. Rich people think selfishness is a virtue.

Of course, this statement, as far as I’m able to see, is inaccurate, and that’s the most kind. Talk to your average upper-middle-class business person, and you will probably get the idea that they believe that their success is due to their self-centered focus, their drive for personal achievement, and their unwillingness to give freebies. They’re most likely to complain about welfare freeloaders and harbor misconceptions about poverty.

This starts to change once you get away from the people who like to talk about being rich, your millionaire entrepreneurs, business coaches, and people who are more focused on their personal image and brand than actually doing work, and you start looking at the actions of the historically wealthy. Selfishness still exists, certainly, but so does selflessness in many ways. Things look different when you stop listening to what the “rich” say about themselves and start reviewing what the wealthy actually do.

If How Rich People Think idolizes the attitudes of a select collection of wealthier individuals, The Rich and the Rest of Us, by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, looks at the rich in a different light. Jay Frosting and I chatted with Tavis Smiley for another episode of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. This book doesn’t take rich people to task, per se, but follows a “poverty tour” by the authors in which they met people living in or close to poverty in cities across the United States, during which they found average people were not nearly as philosophically poor as painted by Siebold.

Yet, it still did paint a troublesome picture of those in power, who manipulated the “average people” through marketing, advertising, and even regular television programming, into spending money with credit cards to upgrade their own lives to match the lifestyles of those they see in the media. The authors offer this warning:

Every empire, especially shortsighted societies that catered to greedy and powerful rules and dictators at the expense of the poor, eventually crumbled.

Back in the other direction, CNN is the latest media outlet to erect a monument to the wealthy class. But this time, what we see is not too bad, nor is it as self-serving or chest-thumping as Siebold’s book. Here, we left behind your “everyday millionaires,” those millionaires next door who, let’s face it, aren’t rich in today’s terms: the small business owner, the entrepreneur with a side job, the business coach who earns his living from talking about earning his living.

Instead, we look at the historically richest Americans, where the unit of measurement is today’s dollars, so all wealthy men — not surprisingly, they’re all men — are competing on the same playing field. We put aside what they might have written about being wealthy, or any speeches they may have given on the topic, or any out-of-context quotations that mention the words “money” or “wealth,” and just look at what the records show.

And CNN was quick to point out that most of these men were not perfect. Some were morally troubled, some allegedly (or definitely) broke the law. But it turns out that if we look at these twenty richest Americans of all-time as a group, there are some trends that stick out.

Most people on this list owned major businesses. Even the only one individual of twenty who inherited all his wealth was a business owner. But these weren’t proprietors of the local automobile repair shop. These weren’t the electricians who start their own businesses and stay there, like your millionaire next door. These are business owners who were involved with the highest technology of the day, whether that may be shipping, railroads, or computers. Not only that, but these were owners of businesses that innovated their technology and changed the world. William Gates III changed personal computing forever. He now changes the world through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Marshall Field revolutionized retail shopping. Samuel Walton revolutionized it again. Henry Ford revolutionized personal transportation, and he did so by paying his employees double the competition’s rates. Russell Sage revolutionized Wall Street, and unlike the “greedy traders” we see in literature like The Wolf of Wall Street, he gave away most of his fortune.

Some people on this list owned real estate. Stephen Van Rensselaer was in a position since his birth to come into ownership of over a million acres of land in the New World, bestowing vast wealth on him as real estate in the United States proved to be a good “investment.” Land grant recipients didn’t even have to earn that wealth! But like the technologists and major land owners, he gave back to society by funding what in the 20th and 21st centuries would be public works projects.

But don’t get the idea that real estate today is the same as it was in the 17th century.

Most people on this list have changed the world. Everyone changes the world in some way. Every reader makes a difference in the lives of their families, every blogger makes a difference in the lives of their readers, every business owner makes a difference in the lives of their employees. But those who endeavor to change the world in some marketable way — and succeed — find their way to lists like this one presented by CNN.

If you want to learn something about living your life the way rich people do in order to attract wealth into your life, don’t bother with the self-help literature. Don’t look for motivational books. Skip studying the small-time entrepreneur (like myself). Rather than buying courses and attending seminars about how to get rich, start looking at the actions of those who most inspire you. Discover how to change the world like the wealthiest Americans in history, and try to remain humble like most of them, and you’re on the right track.

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No, I’m not attempting to start a class warfare riot. As the title of this article states, recent studies have shown beyond any doubt how wealth or a feeling of wealth leads people to behave in a more self-interested manner.

Paul K. Piff, a social psychologist post-doctoral scholar in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, led this research and shared his findings in a recent TED Talk, which you can view below. If you’re not reading this article on Consumerism Commentary, you can watch the video here or at the TED website.

In one of the experiments, the researchers created a rigged two-player game of Monopoly for one hundred pairs of subjects. By virtue of a coin toss, one subject in each pair was chosen to play by an advantaged set of rules, while the other would play by the standard set of rules. These are the privileges afforded the advantaged player by design:

  • The advantaged player begins the game with twice as much money.
  • The advantaged player collects twice as much bonus money for passing “go.”
  • The advantaged player rolls two dice rather than one, as the disadvantaged player rolls.

With hidden cameras, researchers were able to observe the attitudes of the players. The rich players smacked their playing pieces around the board aggressively, consumed more snacks, and celebrated their successes. The aggressive behavior wasn’t limited to their relationship to inanimate objects; the advantaged players acted ruder towards their competitors. One of my favorite quotes from the recorded gamin sessions came from a rich player: “I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.”

The games were limited to only fifteen minutes. Unlike non-rigged Monopoly sessions, these games wouldn’t have lasted much longer than fifteen minutes anyway. When the games were over, the researchers asked the rich players to reflect on their success. The winners attributed success to their skill, completely ignoring the fact that the game was obviously rigged. Their success was, in their opinion, due to the choices they made in buying properties.

Had the coin flip at the outset of the game produced the opposite result, this game-playing skill would have gotten these winners nowhere. Had they started out with half the wealth of their opponents as measured in Monopoly money and were forced to move around the board slowly, they would be in the losing position — most likely blaming the situation on their environment, not their supposed lack of skill.

The video includes additional demonstrations that show how an increase in wealth correlated to decreases in compassion, empathy, and even willingness to obey the law. At the same time, the increase in wealth is correlated to increases in selfishness and narcissism.

From Scientific American’s report on the study:

But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused.

Will taking on those personality traits and attitudes associated with wealth help to bring about financial success? If you start acting greedy, will you be more likely to grow your wealth? Many authors have suggested thinking like one is wealthy in order to become financially successful. When wealth is revered as a goal, those who have achieved it are revered as well. And they’re more than happy to share their insights with the rest of the “average” world listening. You’ll rarely hear any expert advice from the wealthy that touches on luck, circumstance, or privilege; the key to wealth lies in hard work, perseverance, and making smart decisions.

Those great attributes for attaining success don’t work for people who are living in poverty, but they sell a lot of books.

There is virtue in taking responsibility and blame for your circumstances, whether those circumstances are positive or negative. It helps you identify aspects in your life than you can change to improve your situation. There’s a tradition of blaming bad situations on external forces — the economy, your employer, your parents’ skills — while taking responsibility for good situations, just like the research subjects did in the Monopoly experiment. It takes objective analysis to separate yourself from the situation and truly evaluate the forces that played a role in any particular situation.

Taking responsibility for the good and assigning blame for the bad is a variation of a defense mechanism. If good situations are a result of our choices, they can be repeated, and success will continue despite of the world around us. If bad situations are someone else’s fault, there is nothing inherently wrong with us; given the right opportunity, we will succeed, too.

Not every financially independent person displays these negative personality traits, and not every wealthy person cares little about the world around him or her. You can see that in highly-publicized examples of wealthy individuals making selfless choices.

  • Bill Gates, the privileged founder of Microsoft, formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle many societal problems around the world.
  • Warren Buffett, along with the aforementioned Gates, launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, encouraging some of the world’s richest individuals to give away their wealth to charity.
  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $1 billion last year, 5% of his total net worth.

Lest the reader believe that this research and other studies by this author pertaining to social class are too critical of the wealthy, Piff does point out when the attitudes of the rich have positive outcomes for them, and for those who adopt the same principles. The wealthy believe, due to their control over their situations, that the quality of their health is in their control. They go to more appointments with doctors and take advantage of preventative medicine, while others who believe they have little control over their health end up in emergency rooms for problems that could have been prevented.

This is a stratification based on wealth, but also based on access to medical professionals and trust of the health industry. The realization that we can control many aspects of our lives results in better health, but also increased wealth — relatively.

The word entitlement is usually used in American society when talking about welfare benefits or other governmental assistance for the poor. It’s often used in a pejorative sense, implying that those who receive these benefits don’t deserve them because they lack the motivation to improve their situation. There is also the implication that wealth redistribution (in that particular direction) is bad for society because it encourages complacency. What the studies about attitudes of the wealthy and the average show is that those with power and money consider themselves entitled.

With a high level of self-efficacy, the wealthy believe they earned their success through hard work. They perceive the poor through that lens, as if that difficult situation is a matter of level of effort, while the poor look through their own lens of opportunity, seeing the wealthy as have been provided advantages by society.

It’s difficult to take a large step back and look at the progression of my life as if I were an outside observer trying to understand an individual. I maintained a low sense of self-efficacy for a while, and a former boss of mine continued to chastise me for it. I wasn’t disadvantaged — in fact, I had a relatively advantaged background, able to explore my passions without completely devastating my finances — but I was not very well-positioned to handle the small amount of money I was earning with great decisions. I was making the most of a bad situation, which could have been much better if I had made a few better choices. I thought I’d be able to pursue a degree in education and a job in non-profit, but I didn’t have the financial grounding to make that possible.

After a few difficult life lessons from experience, I opened my eyes a little bit more and started taking control of my situation. Again, I wasn’t living in poverty. I was smart and marketable to employers. Things were going to get better for me once I put the effort in, but these advantages aren’t available to everyone. The question is whether my approach towards other people has changed in the years following as I drew closer to financial independence. I’d like to think that it hasn’t, but I’m sure I’m not immune to the subconscious changes.

Watch the video above to see how the feeling of wealth can affect an individual’s attitude towards another person. Have you seen evidence of wealth being correlated to meanness? Is selfishness an essential personality trait for attaining wealth?


Financial self-help gurus, professional financial advisers, and bloggers who write about personal finance as a hobby or a job all tend to agree on a few basic tenets. One of these is that saving today can generate more financial freedom in the future. Financial freedom is important because it allows you to pursue activities you’d most like to pursue, whether that involves spending or giving, without barriers related to money.

There are many variations on this theme of delayed result. Some writers and advisers propose extreme savings today to reach financial independence as fast as possible, while others propose gradual but persistent savings with the goal of being self-funded by the time retirement age arrives. Some offer advice on investments, entrepreneurship, or building real estate empires as methods of enhancing progress towards the goal of financial independence.

All advice, but especially the advice that’s presented without any knowledge of each specific reader or listener, is based on a number of assumptions. For instance, financial planners want college graduates entering the work force this year to immediately begin investing a portion of their incomes in retirement plans like 401(k) plans and Roth IRAs. This isn’t necessarily bad advice, but it’s based on the assumption that not only is any particular student going to live to retirement age, but also the assumption that the retiree will continue to live a number of years in retirement to make use of those saved funds.

Assumptions like these are based on averages, and science has shown that actuarial tables, which predict the chance of any individual dying within the next year, are useful for these predictions. As a 37-year old male, I have a 0.1807% chance of dying in the next twelve months, and I can expect to live another 41 years. In reality, I may live longer or shorter, but on average men my age will live to 78. This is based on the IRS’s actuarial table.

For the most part, that’s the best advice-givers can offer: assume that everyone’s experience will fall close to average. Generic advice will be best for most people. And even many advice recipients who don’t consider themselves “average” will end up close enough.

Whether I live another 41 years or not, money is only useful when used. When I die, I can leave any remaining wealth to descendants or to causes I believe are worthy, but until then, I want to live my life. And I want to do a better job of that than I have so far. I’m looking for a balance between my present and future that’s a little more biased towards the present than the future than it has been.

Here’s how I plan to re-evaluate my balance.

Spend more, while still maintaining financial solvency. One of the most common pieces of financial advice is to spend less than you earn. I first encountered this phrasing of the concept over a decade ago when I was learning about money management primarily by reading message boards, particularly the “Living Below Your Means” message board on The Motley Fool.

It’s hard to find fault with the concept of spending less than you earn. Some writers have even called it the only thing you need to know about managing your money. It prevents you from borrowing money from other people or businesses like high-interest credit cards, and not having to pay interest keeps more money in your pocket. Interest you pay eats away at your ability to reach the point of financial independence and delays your life-long goals further.

While I was building my business, I managed to spend less than I earn, and when the business was earning its most profits in 2011, I couldn’t even imagine spending that much. Eventually, I sold the business, and I recognize that it’s unlikely I’ll ever personally earn that much income again.

My retirement is probably safe at this point, but my income from working is the lowest it’s been in five years. It’s not a desperate situation because I saved a good portion of what I’ve earned, but it does point out how I let my lifestyle creep slightly higher when I was earning more money. I’m still spending less than I’m earning overall when I include income from investments, but the numbers are more volatile and some months, because I actually don’t see reinvested income from investments, my cash balances dwindle.

I’d like to say I’m spending that money wisely, enjoying experiences for myself that improve the quality of my life, but I’m not sure that’s always the case.

The reason I feel comfortable thinking about the present is because I’ve already taken care of my future. Even if an emergency situation exists later in my life, I should be able to manage while maintaining a good amount of my net worth. It’s time to start thinking about the present. But it’s worthwhile to remember that, regardless of your financial situation, life is only lived “today.” You have to make the most of your time because, although actuarial tables may tell you one thing about how much time you have left, you never know what your personal lifespan will be.

This is not an excuse to be reckless, but it is a reminder that personal finance is about more than putting all of your income away for the future.

Plan for the future but live in the moment. Once you’ve planned for the future, you’re in a better position to be concerned about making the most out of every day, but you can live in the moment without sacrificing your future. While you’re accumulating wealth to meet your long-term goals, enjoy life frugally. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a good time. But as your future becomes more secure, you can safely begin shifting your spending towards the present. Find a balance that doesn’t leave you in the cold later, but allows you to make the most of your saving efforts while you still can.

How do you balance your future needs with the idea that you are only alive today?

Photo: Flickr/Cooperweb


Last Thursday, I drove to the place that was my home for four formative years of my life, my undergraduate university. I’ve written before about how the degree and overall course of study during college isn’t directly related to what I do today. Nevertheless, I still feel strongly about the importance of music and arts education.

I’ve been distracted away from this passion for many years; some bad experiences in my career in the non-profit and educational worlds led me to explore a different vocation. And then, as Consumerism Commentary began to grow as my “side job,” I pushed some other passions aside. At the same time, I haven’t maintained many connections with friends and professors from my time at the university. I was to be more involved, and today, I’m in a position to do so.

After a drive that brought back some memories, I found myself on campus, enjoying a tour arranged and led by a director of development. I’ve been a financial supporter of the university for several years, so I knew the purpose of this friendliness, including the opportunity to meet with the chair of the department and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was primarily financial. More came out of it than I expected.

The director of development used the phrase: “time, treasure, and talent,” which although I had never heard this before, it seems to be a common way to describe charitable endeavors. For instance, I agreed to visit the campus again and speak to students in a new entrepreneur track at the university about my experiences.

It was on the drive home that I was struck with another idea about money systems. I passed an area on the interstate highway that I became closely familiar with over a decade ago. My new-to-me car, a grey 1986 Toyota Celica, broke down at that spot on the highway. I was working near campus after graduation, and it might have been when I was driving back to my parents’ home for vacation. And it might be misleading to say, “The car broke down.” It would be more accurate to say, “I broke the car.”

No one explained to me that in order to maintain a vehicle, you need to check and maintain the oil level. This is a basic rule of operating a car, and every driver should know this, but I didn’t. I could blame my dad for never telling me; maybe he did, and I didn’t remember. The 13-year-old car was a graduation gift, so I was just thankful to have something to drive. I didn’t ask the right questions, such as, “What is everything I need to know about owning and operating a car?”

A habit is a system, and asking questions until you understand everything is a habit.

Create a habit of asking questions.

I’m the kind of person who needs to know as much as possible about a topic that interests me. As a kid, I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia collection my parents had in our house. Today, if I read or hear something that leaves me with more questions, I search for more information online. If I read a word and I’m not confident about my understanding of the definition, I’ll look it up. When someone I respect sees success in an area I’d like to see success for myself, I ask for suggestions.

It’s not enough to just ask questions. Get in the habit of asking the right questions — questions that get to the core of the issue. Even if I had asked my father to tell me everything I needed to know to own and operate a car, it’s likely I’d not get all the information I needed right away. It would start a conversation that would lead to follow-up questions, and getting into these details would give me real confidence — not false confidence — that I’m in a much better position for succeeding in my desire to make the car last many years.

The strongest barrier to asking questions is the fear of sounding stupid. Believe me, when friends asked me how I could possibly not know that a car’s motor needs oil to run, I didn’t feel like the intelligent young adult I knew I was. But I got over it, and figured it’s better to ask questions and ensure the knowledge is there than to run into a problem later.

As a result of my lack of inquisition, I needed to come up with several thousand dollars to replace the car’s motor at a time when I was earning very little money and had a growing amount of debt from student loans and credit cards.

The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

A few years, ago Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was defending the administration’s choice to go to war with Iraq. Here is what he said about the evidence:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns -– there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Putting aside the circumstances that required such a statement, Rumsfeld was getting to the core of risk management. When you ask a question, it’s usually because there is a known unknown, some topic for which you are aware of needing more information. But ask you get into the habit of asking these questions, your increased knowledge can reveal other missing details for which you originally didn’t even know was a hole in your set of knowledge of a topic.

Healthy skepticism.

More classic a phrase than “time, treasure, and talent” is “trust but verify.” When I ask questions, I try to only ask those that the other person in the conversation is qualified to answer unless I’m looking for less-than-informed opinions. I don’t immediately take a response as truth. Depending on the question, the answer might stem from a personal bias.

If I had taken that unasked questions about my car to a mechanically-inclined friend as well as to my father, I might have received two different answers, had two different conversations, and ended up with some confirmed ideas and possibly even more questions.

Healthy skepticism assists your financial condition in more direct ways. When you’re visiting the same mechanic that offered you advice to fix your car, asking questions helps reduce the possibility of being charged for something you don’t need. Asking questions when negotiating a contract or a job can offer you opportunities to earn or save more money than you would have been able to had you remained silent.

The more you get into the habit of asking questions, the better chance you have of taking advantage of good financial opportunities, whether to save money, to earn more money, or just to prevent someone from taking advantage of your ignorance.

Have there been any situations where asking questions has helped you financially?


A Video About Quantum Leaps in Finance

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This past weekend (including a few adjacent days) I attended the third Financial Blogger Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. I wrote about the experience in detail on my personal website, so check that out for a full report on the conference. Some of the highlights relevant to Consumerism Commentary include winning the Lifetime Achievement Plutus ... Continue reading this article…

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Quantum leap

I don’t completely agree with the “get rich slowly” theory. I accept the fundamental advice, like paying yourself first, making conscious decisions about big financial decisions as well as the full series of small financial decisions, and setting long-term goals, but there is a fundamental flaw with taking this theory as the sole approach to ... Continue reading this article…

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George Oscar Bluth

In the fourth season of Arrested Development, the audience discovers the troubled Bluth family received a government stimulus bailout during the recession. Rather than using the “stimmy” to fix their troubling real estate family business operation, they used the money to buy 4,000 acres of worthless land in — well, I won’t spoil it. There’s ... Continue reading this article…

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by Luke Landes
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by Luke Landes
Movie marquee

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by Luke Landes
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by Luke Landes
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by Luke Landes
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Steve Jobs may not have been as wealthy as his arch-nemesis Bill Gates, but after his successes with Apple and Pixar, he was one of the world’s richest men. Forbes recently listed Jobs as 39th on the Forbes 400, a list of the richest people in America, with a net worth of $7 billion. The ... Continue reading this article…

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