Observation

For Richer or Poorer—What Is Wealth?

I don’t know many wealthy people. But I know one. An old friend of mine, who after university, didn’t bum about like me, but got a job.

I met up with him a few weeks ago, and we started talking about money and wealth and what it meant — if anything. As a way of quantifying our progress since we left university almost twenty-five years ago, we totted up all the money we had in the entire world.

It was a bit of fun, we were a bit drunk, but the results were very telling, and quite surprising. My friend has a house worth £800k, has investments worth £300k, plus a steady job earning him £150k a year.

‘So you’re a millionaire,’ I commented. ‘Congrats, you’ve made it!’

He stared at me in disbelief. ‘You’ve no idea, Phil, have you? You’re probably richer than me.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I said, quaffing my beer. ‘I work on a farm in Normandy, for God’s sake, and earn €19k a year. I don’t own any property, and except for my savings, have no investments whatsoever. Compared to you, I’m a pauper.’

He didn’t see it like that, though, and told me that despite his big salary, come the end of the month, he probably has less money than me. In fact, by the time he’s paid his mortgage, his two cars (BMW & Mercedes), utility bills, food, petrol, clothes, nights out, booze, holidays, trips for the kids, etc., there’s barely enough to feed the dog.

I didn’t believe him. My friend has always been prone to exaggeration, but this was silly. And yet, he insisted it was true. Even his wife backed him up.

‘Even after my wage,’ she declared. ‘We still struggle.’

I was reeling. Struggle is not a word I’ve ever associated with my friend. I have other friends who struggle, but not him. I thought my old university flatmate had got it sorted: rich and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Turns out, he can’t even feed his dog.

‘So, what do you do for money at the end of the month?’ I asked. ‘Beg?’

‘Not quite, but close,’ he admitted. ‘We borrow. Take out loans, or get another credit card. Move money around.’

I felt cold. Is this how people live these days? On a financial precipice, playing one credit card company off against another, just to pay some bills. If they do, this monthly digital financial hustle seems exhausting. Harder than actually working. Or perhaps I’ve been living in rural France too long, and have lost touch with the reality of 21st century England.

‘I could lend you some?’ I offered, half joking,

I could tell he was considering it, but laughed it off.

‘Why not?’ I insisted. ‘I have money in the bank.’

‘Really?’ they both answered in unison.

I wondered what had happened to my friend. He was no fool at college and had always got much better grades than me and had worked hard to get where he was. And yet, he seemed to be squandering it on £5k TV sets when he couldn’t even afford to feed the dog. It seemed absurd.

My friend freely admits he sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and starts work, he’s so worried about losing his job. It’s not that he’s on the verge of being sacked, his position is quite safe, it’s just that if it happened, it would be a catastrophe. As a result, he’s always tired, doesn’t eat well, and by his own admission, is overweight.

He’s always been a bit of a spender. At university, he was always the one to get the rounds in down the pub. Always the one to buy everyone shots of tequila at closing time. And always the first to run out of money.

He often accused me of being tight. Arguing that money was there to spend, not hold onto like a teddy bear.

‘I’m not tight,’ I would argue. ‘I just don’t like spending money. There’s a difference.’

This subtle difference has shaped our lives, and will probably shape our futures. I doubt either one of us is going to be rich (I mean mega rich), but if one of us ends up poor, it won’t be me, that’s for sure.

After the stay with my friend, I concluded there were two types of wealth:

— Pure wealth

— Perceived wealth

The first one is money in the bank. This is me, albeit on a very minor level. The second one is my friend: lots of shiny whistles and bells (and cars), but when you look in the vault, there’s nothing there except dust.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I don’t really care. But next time you think someone is richer or wealthier than you, and before you start to feel bad about yourself, go and have a look to see what their dog has got in its bowl. It might surprise you.


This article was originally published on Medium on 25/01/22—click here


(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

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