Defining “Rich”

Once when I came home from Costco, loaded down with eight-packs of food, Phil asked me, “You think we have enough canned beans?” I told him that I liked having shelves full of beans; it made me feel rich. He responded, “Yep, we’re cash-poor, but bean rich.”

There are worse things. A person can do a lot with a can of pintos.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “rich” lately. Part of it is having a 10-year-old whose friends constantly talk about who is rich and who is poor, and they use the kind of markers you’d expect. Growing up, I had friends I thought were rich for reasons like they had a trampoline in their backyard, they had been to Disneyland, or their mom let us have both halves of the two-sticked Popsicle — she didn’t split it into two Popsicles like the rest of our moms. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and they chose carefully how we spent it. So I never went to Disneyland, and my mom did split the Popsicle. But, on modest salaries, they also fully paid for mine and my brother’s private high-school and college educations, they had the resources to help out people who were in need, and they saved and invested for a comfortable retirement.

For me, being rich means three things:

  • Having the resources to take care of needs and many wants
  • Having a backup of resources (cash or beans) to take care of emergencies and help others
  • Building skills that enable me to be resourceful and more self-reliant so that my needs are lessened.

This is a hard concept to explain to a 10-year-old: That stuff doesn’t necessarily indicate true wealth, and that resourcefulness and savings sometimes trump a big-screen TV. We’ve talked about The Millionaire Next Door, which famously documented a study that found most millionaires own a blue-collar business like a drywall company, live in a ranch house, and have been married for many years to a woman who is as likely to be a teacher as to be in any other profession. And I think he gets it, but he still wouldn’t mind getting a Wii.

As for me, I’m going to continue to build skills like gardening and home maintenance, slowly watch our accounts grow, and know that there’s a lot to be said for a shelf full of beans.

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