They may have money, but they still have stress and guilt. Here's what you can learn from them.
There are two ways to read polls of well-off Americans: “Who cares?” and “What can I learn?”
A classic definition of a First World problem is asking Americans with money what they’re nervous about. I look at these polls differently, however. I believe there are more lessons to be learned from people who are financially comfortable than those who are incredibly wealthy.
Who are the “mass affluent”?
For example, last week Bank of America issued its latest twice-a-year study of “mass affluent consumers.” Bank of America defines them as “individuals with $50,000-$250,000 in investable assets” — which sounds like sheer wealth. It’s not.
Of course, there’s no single definition of “wealthy,” but for this study, “investable assets” cover…
Cash, savings, mutual funds, CDs, IRAs, stocks, bonds and all other types of investments excluding primary home and other real estate investments.
If you consider a household — not an individual — earning $1,000 a week will need more than $666,000 to retire for 20 years (according to Statistic Brain), you can see how these “mass affluent” people are certainly well off but not filthy rich.
This is an important distinction, because I believe most Americans currently in debt can aspire to have enough money to invest — and not have to ever again deny themselves the basics of a good life. Becoming absolutely wealthy requires much more, because hard work and exceptional skills often must collide with business timing and maybe a lucky break or two.
Of course, how to become really wealthy is a source of much debate among politicians and business leaders. So I’ll leave the details for others to haggle over, as long as we can agree: You’re more likely to enjoy a debt-free life with disposable income than you are to own a private jet and mansions in each time zone.
What you can learn from the affluent
Now that’s out of the way, onto what the affluent regret and why it matters.
After interviewing more than 1,000 of these “mass affluent consumers,” researchers came to this big conclusion: “They know they need to do more investing and saving for the future.”
It turns out only half of these Americans “said they are’ content’ with the financial decisions they made in 2014.” Here are some specific numbers, along with what I think debt-laden Americans can learn from them…
RESULT: “51 percent did not save for retirement at all in 2014.”
LESSON: Saving for retirement requires more than money. It requires a mindset. We’re so worried about what’s happening today and next week, we consider planning for the future to be a luxury. Of course, it’s not. Everyone can save something, even if it’s just a few dollars a week. You can open a MyRA for as little as $25.
RESULT: 82 percent believe some of the best decisions they are making today are financial, specifically in the areas of avoiding debt (33 percent), saving for the future (27 percent) and budgeting (22 percent).
LESSON: Notice what wasn’t said. The best financial decisions the affluent made had nothing to do with playing the stock market or trying to strike it rich all at once. They were most proud of the boring little decisions they made. Budgeting isn’t the most enjoyable task, for instance. But it’s important to enjoying your life later on.
RESULT: Many respondents admit they are making some of their worst decisions when it comes to their health (22 percent) and romantic relationships (21 percent).
LESSON: I’ve spent my career counseling people on their finances, yet I realize money is just a tool to living a balanced and happy life. If you have no money, the stress of debt will quite literally kill you. However, pursuing money for its own sake might not kill you, but it probably won’t make you happy, either. For what is life without your health and someone to share it with?
Howard Dvorkin is a CPA and chairman of Debt.com, an educational resource for those who want to conquer all forms of debt in their lives.