Image: Roll of bills © John Wilkes Studio, Corbis

"What's it like to be rich?"

My friend was settling into her business-class seat on a flight to London when a man making his way to coach asked her that question.

The man seemed a little odd, she said, but he didn't sound hostile. Just curious. Still, she was caught off guard. Instead of ignoring the question or offering a non-answer -- the usual approaches etiquette experts suggest when people ask rude questions about money -- she told him honestly that she hadn't paid for the seat, a company had.

His bluntness and her unease show how loaded the term "rich" can be. It can inspire awe and anger, admiration and envy, curiosity and contempt. "Rich" implies a level of security and ease that many people, including those with a lot of money, don't actually feel.

So you might be interested to learn that if you're reading this sentence, you're probably rich. And no, I don't mean rich in friendships or health or family (although good for you if you are). I mean in material terms.

How can I say that? Well, think about the following:

  • We may fret about the price of gas, but at least 85% of the world's population doesn't own a car. (Source: WardsAuto)
  • We may hate to pay the utility bill each month, but nearly one-quarter of the world lives without electricity and one-third doesn't have access to basic sanitation, such as a toilet. More than 1 billion people don't have adequate access to clean water. (Scientific American, 2006 United Nations Human Development Report)
  • Even people below the poverty line in the U.S. -- which now includes one in seven Americans -- are better off than the vast majority of humanity. Someone earning just $11,000 a year, which is just below the poverty level, actually has more income than 87% of the people on the planet. Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day, or $730 a year. (GlobalRichList.com, the World Bank)
  • You needed an adjusted gross income of $343,927 to make it into the top 1% of U.S. taxpayers in 2009, the latest year for which Internal Revenue Service statistics are available. On the other hand, the U.S. median household income of $51,914 would put you in the top 1% worldwide. (IRS, GlobalRichList.com)

    Liz Weston

    Liz Weston

Some of those statistics may surprise you. But they may not make you feel much richer.

That's because we don't tend to look down when we're assessing whether we're wealthy. We look up. If the people above us on the economic ladder can afford business-class seats on overseas flights, we may feel bad about our coach-class seats.

Of course, most of the world couldn't afford the cab fare to the airport, let alone an overseas flight. And those folks in business class may be fretting because they're not passengers on a private jet. (I'm not sure whom the private jet riders envy. Maybe billionaire Sir Richard Branson, with his rockets.)

"It's all a matter of perspective," writes my friend Marla Fisher. "When I go to Newport Beach and visit gorgeous homes with yachts, I feel poor. But when I go to Third World countries and see people living in mud shacks, I know we are rich because we live in a comfortable home with soft beds and plenty of food to eat and have a car to drive and the chance to go on vacation and attend nice clean schools."

We also tend to look back. Our parents and grandparents may not have had easy financial lives. They may not have had all the stuff we have today. But they came up in a time of generally rising incomes. In the U.S., the median income adjusted for inflation still hasn't climbed back to its 1999 peak. For some, reduced expectations make it hard to feel rich.

"Rich" is a pretty squishy term, in any case. When I asked my Facebook fans what it would take for them to feel rich, some set the bar pretty high. For one gentleman, it was "$50 million in total assets and at least $10 million a year in net income." Another wanted $5 million in the bank.

"I wouldn't feel rich even making $250,000 a year because I'd feel like that could end at any time and I'd be in danger of not meeting my nest egg goals," he said.

Several said being rich would mean being having no debt. Some said they'd feel rich if they didn't have to work anymore. Others just wanted a job they could count on.

"I'd feel 'rich' if I were in a job that provided for my basic needs: rent, food, utilities, with a little extra for fun or a vacation sometimes," one woman wrote. "I'd feel richer if I knew the job was permanent and safe. I've been laid off more times in four years that I can really count anymore."

Another woman put it succinctly: "Rich is never having to stop and think if there's enough money in the bank account to pay for whatever is on the counter."

Why should we ask ourselves this question? It's not a pointless exercise. Questioning and challenging our feelings about wealth can actually help us achieve some.

If your expectations are unrealistic, you probably won't create a plan that might get you ahead. If your goals are achievable, you might.

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You aren't likely to be able to buy a professional sports team, for example, so starting to save for one is silly. You could, on the other hand, build up an emergency fund so you don't have to be quite so terrified of losing your job. You could contribute to a retirement plan, so someday you'll have the choice to stop working. You could start to pay down your debt, so you can free yourself of your lenders.

Small potatoes, you think? Perhaps. But small contributions over time can build up into real money -- money that can help you achieve the freedom, security and ease most of us associate with being rich.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

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