Image: Wealthy couple © Digital Vision, Getty Images

Making sweeping generalizations about any group of people is tricky. The poor aren't all alike. Neither are the rich.

But there is a set of attitudes, assumptions and values that seems to be more prevalent among the wealthiest families than among the general population. I turned to some experts who specialize in advising the rich, including one who's an heiress, for some insights on what high-net-worth people know about money.

Again, these ideas aren't the exclusive property of the rich; nor are they universally held among the 1% families that hold about 40% of our nation's wealth. But they can provide some food for thought for the rest of us to chew on.

Education is important

Many Americans question the value of a college education. The wealthy typically don't. (Read "Should your kid skip college?")


"They not only have their kids go to college, but they want them to go to the elite schools," said Linda Davis Taylor, the CEO of Clifford Swan Investment Counsel, a Pasadena, Calif., wealth advisory firm. "They want their kids to maintain the social and culture position that these families have worked so hard to achieve. . . . They want that continued access to power and influence."

(Taylor has particular insight into this phenomenon: She's the chairwoman of the board of Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and before she joined Clifford Swan she was the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College. She has also worked for Amherst College in Massachusetts and Emory University in the Atlanta area.)

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

There are exceptions, of course. Myra Salzer, who runs the Wealth Conservancy in Boulder, Colo., said some of her clients include wealthy Texas ranching families that value business acumen and hands-on know-how over formal degrees. The black sheep of another family she knows is a surgeon; he's disdained because he chose medicine over participating in the family business.

Still, the exceptions more than prove the rule.

"There are some (wealthy) families that don't value education, but that is really rare," said therapist Thayer Willis, the author of "The Dark Side of Wealth" and an heir to the Georgia-Pacific fortune. "It's really considered to be one of those things that you do."

What can the rest of us learn from this?

You may not be able to get your kids into Harvard, but make sure they get at least some post-secondary education. Well-paying jobs that don't require college degrees are fast disappearing, and the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma is twice that of those who have a college degree. Economists tell us that a college degree will be all but essential for those who hope to remain in the middle class, let alone advance economically.

Rich is relative

Everyone on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans can point to someone wealthier than himself or herself. That includes Bill Gates, whose net worth is bested by Mexico's Carlos Slim Helú.

Elsewhere in the top 1%, there's actually a fairly wide variation in wealth. About 1.4 million households qualified as the top 1% of taxpayers, according to 2009 Internal Revenue Service statistics, the latest available. The minimum adjusted gross income needed to qualify was $343,927, while the average income of the top 1% was just under $1 million.

But even people with million-dollar annual incomes and multimillion-dollar net worths don't necessarily define themselves as wealthy.

"If you ask them 'Are you rich?' or 'Are you filthy rich?' they don't think that they are," Salzer said. "They can always point to someone who is richer than they are."

What can the rest of us learn from this? Perspective. As humans, we tend to compare ourselves with those who are better off -- even if many, many people are far worse off. Folks at the bottom of the economic ladder in the U.S. are wealthier than most people in developing nations where access to clean water or sufficient food aren't givens. According to the World Bank Development Group, 85% of the world's population has an income of less than $2,200 a year. If you want to see where you stand vis-à-vis the rest of the world, check out the Global Rich List.