Americans are filthy rich, but you wouldn’t know it

Odds are good that you’ve heard of NBC’s Million Second Quiz, which is about half over now. If you haven’t, the premise is simple:

  • The quiz is a million seconds long.
  • You earn money by sitting in the Money Chair. You get into the Money Chair by beating the person in the Money Chair at a multiple-choice trivia quiz. You stay in the Money Chair by continuing to win.
  • The amount you earn by sitting in the Money Chair is $10 per second.

As I was scanning my Twitter feed a few nights ago within the Million Second Quiz hashtag, I had this conversation:

  • (@cassidyrobinson): “If I could just sit in the money chair for five minutes, I’d be set…” – my husband while watching #MSQ.
  • (@mbhunter): @cassidyrobinson Five minutes in the #MSQ Money Chair is (A) $3,000 (B) $10,000 (C) $30,000 (D) $100,000. You’ve got five seconds …
  • (@cassidyrobinson): @mbhunter a) 3,000! Haha
  • (@mbhunter): “And 2 Points to @cassidyrobinson …” :)

She was a good sport about answering my question. I wouldn’t be too surprised if her husband thought that five minutes in the Money Chair was worth a bit more than $3,000. Nonetheless, $3,000 for five minutes worth of work is exceptional. That’s a $36,000 hourly rate. If that were a 40 hour/week job, 50 weeks a year, it would be a $72 million annual salary.

But what if $3,000 were just an annual salary? Where would that place us in the grand scheme of things?

In the US, $3,000 is a little more than one-quarter of the single-member household poverty threshold.  In other words, almost in the bottom quartile — of the impoverished. Or, if you were one of the guys that was picked last in gym class, everyone else *in that group* was picked before you.

But that’s just us. (I’m American, so when I say “we,” “us,” or “here,” I’m referring to Americans and the US.) To put that into global perspective, I visited the Global Rich List. A $3,000 annual salary is above average on a world scale! If the world consisted of just ten people, a person earning $3,000 per year would have the third-highest salary.

But that’s not just poverty level here. It’s deep poverty here.

Americans are indeed filthy rich

If a very poor person here can be the third-richest guy in a room of ten people from the world at large, that says something profound. We have an absolute abundance of riches, yet many of us still feel that we’re falling behind. A six-figure salary here would make that person “the 1%” on a world scale, yet this isn’t enough. It would nip at the heels of the top 20% in the US for household income, yet few in this position would claim that they don’t worry about money.

If we’re this filthy stinking rich, you wouldn’t know it by the way we act or talk.

Why is this? Why is this not enough?

It’s partially because we’re also huge spenders. We buy vehicles that cost four to five figures, and then pour three to four figures per month to keep them going. We buy houses in the five to six figure range that cost thousands of dollars, or more, to run each year. We have schools that educate our students to the tune of $100,000 or more, each.

We have subscriptions. Oh, boy, do we have subscriptions: cable TV, gym membership, cell phone, internet, pest control, garbage pickup, grocery delivery, satellite radio, security, and — of course — magazines and newspapers.

It really makes me wonder what it would take to say: “I have $3,000 and I’m set.” I fully admit that it’s out of my comprehension. Maybe someone can say that, and mean it. Certainly lots of people — billions — earn far less than this in a year; can they say it and mean it? Or do they just have to make do with what they earn?

One thing’s for sure: They don’t spend as much as we do. They can’t.

That’s something we’ve done to ourselves, and it’s why you wouldn’t know that we’re rich.

John Wedding

Husband. Father. Web publisher. Musician. John has blogged at Mighty Bargain Hunter since 2005, helping people to recognize life's good deals.

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  1. says

    Well, don’t forget that expenses are generally relative to the income levels. People in poorer countries pay far less in rent, food etc.

    That said, I agree that the biggest issue is how much we buy/consume. Most of us have too many baubles and too many clothes. A lot of people buy too much car, though I haven’t heard of anyone steadily paying four figures a month to keep a car going, even with a car payment.

    We certainly have a ridiculous style of living compared to other countries. I try to remember that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, or like we’re never getting ahead. But most of the time then only thing that calms me is looking at our bank account balances. Superficiality runs deep in this country.

  2. says

    I’ve read and written about Global Rich List, too.
    Recently I was outlining a thought to write about. It started with “You can’t get rich on credit card rewards,” and progresses through my lifetime rewards in excess of $30K. Then we close with (a) where does $30K in wealth put you in comparison to the rest of the world, and (b) same question but in the US. Better still, what % of US have this much saved for retirement?
    Very interesting way to put all of this in perspective.

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