Last week, I came across this chart and tweet:
This figure is striking.— John B. Holbein (@JohnHolbein1) February 16, 2019
It shows the relationship between where people think they are in the income distribution and where they actually are.
Observations below the line indicate that people think they are poorer than they really are (and the reverse above the line). pic.twitter.com/exECjYOdaH
Then I saw the response from the junior Senator from Iowa, Ben Sasse:
Median household income in the US is just a tad over $60K/year.— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) March 1, 2019
Most American families that are earning between $60K and 80K — despite being upper-middle income — perceive themselves to be lower-middle income. https://t.co/P1pQde228g
First, some thoughts about income and wealth that are so deeply ingrained in our psyche and conversations:
- High income alone doesn’t make anyone feel rich. Margin does. Margin is created when people focus on spending less than they make, and it’s typically done by prioritizing saving over spending.
- The comparison trap is very real. People struggle to feel wealthy if they don’t appear wealthy, compared with their neighbors or community; whoever is immediately visible.
- Health care costs and student loan debt have certainly ballooned in recent history, and that’s certainly caused a headwind. The average student loan debt burden is $20,000-25,000. But costs for what once were considered discretionary items have turned into costs for consumer staples (I see you, smartphones), and have lead to an inability for many to save a proportionally appropriate amount thanks to their lack of margin.
Here are some potential solutions; modifications that can be made at the household (or personal) level:
- Don’t view your budget in terms of dollars; view it in terms of percentages. William Bernstein’s great, short, free eBook If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly, helps with this concept. It’s useful not only for millennials but those who either aren’t millennials or who are afraid to describe themselves as such.
- Give first, then save, then spend. It’s a mantra we repeat around the office multiple times weekly, and clients of ours who live this order make it clear: Margin is easier to attain when the priorities are straight. They are people who make less, live on less, and are more satisfied with their lives than those who make more but get the order wrong.
- Focus on cash flow to build your balance sheet. When our national (and global) conversations are about income only, we ignore the reality of expenses and savings, and the impact they can have on a growing balance sheet. A brand new Porsche, purchased by a high income individual with negative cash flow, doesn’t do much to help the balance sheet.