The rich are different.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy,” he writes: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
Fitzgerald’s literary characterization of the rich has defined for many what it means to be wealthy. People envision lives full of extravagant things. But two academics in an extraordinary book published 19 years ago surprised us with findings about regular rich people.
“We have discovered who the wealthy really are and who they are not,” Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko wrote in “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy.”
The rich are different — but not in the way you might think.
“Most people have it all wrong about wealth in America,” Danko and Stanley wrote. “Wealth is not the same as income. If you make a good income each year and spend it all, you are not getting wealthier. You are just living high. Wealth is what you accumulate, not what you spend.”
On Feb. 28, Stanley died in a car crash near Atlanta, where he lived. He was 71. This month, instead of a new pick for the Color of Money Book Club, it seems more fitting to talk about “The Millionaire Next Door” and why it remains one of my favorite financial books. The best tribute I could give Stanley is to remind people of his work and his message.
Stanley contributed so much to the field of personal finance by showing us that the frugal folks who live next door to you may be extraordinarily wealthy.
When I think of Stanley’s work, I think of Ronald Read, a Vermont gas station attendant and janitor, who was in the news recently when people in his community found out — after his death at 92 — he was a multimillionaire. Read was known for his frugality and modest lifestyle. Recently his estate made its first distributions to the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brooks Library for $4.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively, according to his attorney’s office.
In the preface to an updated version of “The Millionaire Next Door,” Stanley addressed the question of whether his research still holds true following the Great Recession. It does, he said. In fact, it puts an exclamation point on his life’s work of studying the rich.
The economic downturn pulled the curtain back from many wealth pretenders. They had a lot of stuff, highly mortgaged homes, but little to no savings or assets they could sell to carry them through hard times.
“One of the reasons that millionaires are economically successful is that they think differently,” wrote Stanley, who interviewed hundreds of low-profile millionaires.
There are a lot of rich pretenders. They spend on prestige products and services but are two or maybe even one paycheck away from financial disaster.
But look at typical millionaire couples. They don’t buy clothes at upscale stores. They don’t frequently swap cars. Many don’t live in upscale neighborhoods. They are more likely to be living in homes valued at $300,000 or less. They simply live below their means.
Five years ago this month, Stanley joined me on my regular online chat. Another of his books, “Stop Acting Rich . . . And Start Living Like a Real Millionaire,” was the Color of Money Book Club pick. In that book, he made the case that if people stop acting rich, they can achieve the kind of happiness money can’t buy.
During the discussion, Stanley received the following question from a secretary in Manchester, Mich.: “I live below my means, pay extra on my mortgage (my only debt), save for retirement and now, a replacement (used) vehicle I’ll need in 3 to 4 years. There are times when living frugally is really a drag, like when co-workers eat lunch out a couple of days a week or take nice vacations. (I take ‘day trips’). What is your strategy for remaining disciplined without becoming discouraged?”
Stanley told the secretary: “The social pressure from colleagues, friends to spend is enormous. Add to that the pressure from marketers, and it’s hard to believe that anyone saves money today. It’s really hard to remain frugal. However, you have to think differently than the crowd and take pride in doing so. As many financially successful people have told me, you must constantly focus on where you’re going versus what others are spending. Remember what you’re saving for . . . your retirement, your transportation needs!”
Why did Stanley spend his life researching the rich?
“It is not for the benefit of rich people,” he said. “What I write is designed to enlighten those who are confused and misinformed about what it means to be rich.”
Dare to be different and you can live a rich life. That’s Stanley’s legacy.
Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.