Very few people self-identify as upper middle class or wealthy — even if, by the numbers, their income or net worth puts them in that category. Only 1% of Americans consider themselves upper class, according to a 2015 Pew survey, and just 6% of those earning $100,000 or more say they fit this category.
According to most economists’ definitions, this group is much larger. One of the ways the Brookings Institution defines “middle class” is those in the 20th to 80th percentiles of household income, meaning 20% of American households count as upper class.
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And within that 20%, there are significant distinctions between the rich, the super rich, and the wealthy.
But it is not just income or even net worth that makes someone “wealthy,” experts say. That’s especially true when it comes to differentiations between the upper-middle class, the rich, and the truly wealthy, says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and the founder of Sudden Money Institute.
“Wealth to me is a much bigger, deeper experience,” she says. “And a lot of people with money don’t have wealth.”
Here’s what it means to be wealthy in the U.S., according to a CFP, a political scientist, and a social psychologist.
‘No matter what, we’re going to be OK’
Whether or not you qualify as, or feel, rich can depend on where you live, Bradley says. “‘Rich’ is having a lot more than everybody else around you,” she says. In a small city, that can mean you’re earning $100,000 per year. However, in a metropolis with a higher cost of living, achieving that status could mean you have to make $1 million per year.
Being wealthy means your money has bought you an “emotional sense of safety,” she says, and your general well-being is secure: “The feeling that, ‘No matter what, we’re going to be OK. No matter what, we’ll figure it out. We have the resources.'”
If you’re rich, this sense of security might waffle depending on how much you’re earning that year or what the housing market is like. Being rich means more of your mental energy is focused on earning money, she says. A rich person will earn more than a middle-class person. However, they won’t possess enough assets to make their income irrelevant.
For the wealthy, though, making money is only one part of what determines their quality of life.
Wealthy people often embrace ‘the American Dream’
Wealthy people are more likely to have the mindset that hard work pays off and that their wealth is a result of their effort, says Benjamin Newman, an associate professor of public policy and political science at University of California, Riverside.
“The wealthy are more likely to rationalize their wealth in a way that embraces the American Dream,” he says. “It helps assuage guilt.”
‘Rich’ is having a lot more than everybody else around you.
CFP, founder of Sudden Money Institute
This is especially true of wealthy people who exist alongside people who have a lot less than they do, according to Newman’s research. In a county with extreme income inequality, low-income Americans are less likely to believe in a meritocracy and high-income Americans are more likely to believe in it.
“It’s uncomfortable to see affluence side by side with poverty,” Newman says. Therefore, the wealthy justify their class status by saying that any one person could attain it, too, if that person worked hard enough.
‘Wealth affords you the capacity to separate yourself from other people’
Oftentimes, wealthy people are able to keep their worldview because they are more able to design the environment around them, says social psychologist Michael Kraus, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, who specializes in the study of inequality.
As Kraus tells it, a wealthy person might think, “I don’t have to be in a situation where I see people suffering. I can separate myself from people by going on vacation or traveling into space.”
This is called “solipsism,” he explains. “The only mind that exists is my own mind,” he says. “You can create a world around yourself where the only things that matter are you, and it’s easier to do when you’re wealthy. And you’re rewarded for it when you’re wealthy because people are excited about what you’re doing.”
You can create a world around yourself where the only things that matter are you, and it’s easier to do when you’re wealthy.
associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management