To truly become rich, you need to stop acting like it

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; G01

There are many words to describe how so many people end up in financial trouble, but one stands out.

Pretenders.

Sure, sometimes bad things happen, and it's not your fault. But many of you -- and you know who you are -- are experiencing economic problems because you were pretending to be rich.

Thomas J. Stanley has been examining the truly rich for years. A former university professor, he's the co-author of one of my all-time favorite personal finance books, "The Millionaire Next Door." It should have a permanent spot in your home library.

Just before year's end, Stanley released "Stop Acting Rich . . . and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire" (Wiley, $26.95). I'm recommending this book as the February selection for the Color of Money Book Club.

The credit crisis and recession, Stanley says, have presented us with the opportunity to treat and cure the pretenders.

"But for the treatment to work, you must take a cold hard look at your balance sheet and at your life, and determine if you would be wealthier if you would stop acting rich," he writes.

In Stanley's new book, a millionaire is defined as someone with net-value investments of $1 million or more. The investments include cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and equity shares in a private business. The author said he eschewed the traditional way people calculate wealth, particularly as it relates to the value of a home. If your net worth was $1.5 million with 85 percent of that from your home, and the value of your home depreciated by 50 percent -- which it has for too many people -- then your wealth wasn't real.

Stanley's research does a great job of proving there's a big difference between income and net worth. Many pretenders have become very good at generating income and enjoying a high standard of living. But take this Stanley gem to the bank: "Those who are among the least productive in transforming their incomes into wealth are in the higher-status occupations."

What do we often tell a child who expresses an interest in teaching? "You won't get rich as a teacher."

Yet, there are more than 350,000 millionaire educators, working or retired teachers or professors, according to Stanley's research.

Stanley has one major purpose for this latest installment in examining the lifestyles of the truly rich. He wants to make the case that if people stop acting rich, they can achieve the kind of happiness money can't buy.

Here are just a few things Stanley found in his research on the wealthy:

-- Eighty-six percent of all prestige or luxury makes of motor vehicles are driven by people who are not millionaires.

-- Typically, millionaires pay about $16 (including tip) for a haircut.

-- Nearly four in 10 millionaires buy wine that costs about $10.

-- In the United States, there are nearly three times as many millionaires living in homes with a market value of less than $300,000 than there are living in homes valued at $1 million or more.

-- Forget the Manolo Blahnik high-priced shoes. The No. 1 shoe brand worn by millionaire women is Nine West. Their favorite clothing store is Ann Taylor.

Will the recession motivate pretenders to hit the reset button and not just act rich but live modestly like many real millionaires?

Stanley isn't so sure.

"Time will tell if society and people have really changed," he says. "My research indicates that people, for generations, have become so accustomed to consuming that it is second nature. And I am fairly certain that they will resume their spendthrift ways once outward symptoms of the financial flu have passed."

This book reminds me of a wonderful Scripture.

Proverbs 13:7 in the Today's New International Version Bible reads, "One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth."

Don't be a great pretender, pretending you're doing well when you only look the part. Read this book and find out how to emulate real-deal millionaires.

It's easy to be a member of the Color of Money Book Club. We don't meet, at least not in person. We come together for a live online discussion. Join me at noon Eastern time March 4 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. Stanley will be my guest.

Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win Stanley's book, e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.comwith your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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