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What it's really like to be rich

Those who consider themselves upper class and upper middle class made it through the recession relatively unscathed.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 7, 2012 4:09PM

This post comes from Kimberly Palmer at partner site U.S. News & World Report.


U.S. News & World Report on MSN MoneyWealth -- who has more of it, how it was earned and how it's spent -- has been a centerpiece of the presidential race this year. Now, a new report from the Pew Research Center shows what self-described upper-class and upper-middle-class Americans really think about their lives, and what less fortunate Americans really think of them.


Image: Wealthy woman (© moodboard/Corbis) Upper-class and upper-middle-class Americans describe themselves as happier, less stressed and healthier than lower-income Americans. They also made it through the recession relatively unscathed and report enjoying their careers more. About one in three upper-class Americans say they "frequently experience stress," while close to six in 10 lower-class Americans report doing so.


That stress is closely correlated with financial hardship: While just 7% of upper-class adults say they struggled to pay their rent or mortgage in the last year, 45% of lower-class adults say they had trouble making housing payments. Lower-class respondents also report being much more likely to lose their jobs, with a quarter experiencing a layoff or job loss within the past year, compared with 7% of upper-class adults and 12% of middle-class adults.


The better health of wealthier Americans also appears to reflect their access to health care: 45% of lower-class respondents say they had difficulty accessing or affording medical care within the past year, compared with 11% of upper-class Americans.


Not surprisingly, wealthier Americans also feel more optimistic about their future financial security. Four in 10 are "very confident" that their savings will last through retirement, while just one in 10 lower-class respondents said so.


Meanwhile, most lower-class respondents say they are pessimistic about the future of the U.S. economy, while most upper-class respondents are optimistic. (Middle-class Americans also reported more optimism than pessimism.)


Wealthier Americans are also more likely to feel as if they're "making progress in their careers" (84% of upper-class respondents report doing so), compared with middle-class respondents (76%) and lower-class respondents (54%). (Post continues below.)

Those positive feelings apply to rich people's personal lives, too. The vast majority of upper-class Americans say they are "very satisfied with their family lives; just 57% of lower-class Americans say the same. Upper-class Americans are also more likely to be content with their housing situation.


Still, wealthy Americans didn't escape from the recession without a scratch: Four in 10 said they have "cut back on spending." (Eight in 10 lower-class respondents reported doing so.)


As for what poorer Americans think of their wealthier compatriots, many of their beliefs fall along the lines of expected stereotypes: Respondents describe wealthy Americans as greedy and less honest than average Americans, but also more intelligent and harder working.


Most respondents also say they think wealthy Americans fail to pay their fair share of taxes, another frequent source of debate in the presidential election. Even upper-class and upper-middle-class respondents say wealthy Americans pay too little in taxes.

Americans of all financial levels also agree that the gap between rich and poor has widened. (Census Bureau statistics confirm that observation.) Still, respondents' own self-identifications demonstrate the potential for economic mobility: Just one in three self-described upper-class respondents said they grew up with similar privilege. A similar proportion said they grew up in a lower-class family.


While the amount of money it takes to feel "rich" varies widely by location, respondents estimate that a family of four would need to earn more than $100,000 a year. Three in 10 thought they would need to earn at least $250,000. Respondents say it would take $70,000 a year for a family of four to be middle class.


That figure is far more than the median household income in the U.S., which the Census Bureau reports is close to $50,000.


More on MSN Money:

Can poor people have HDTVs?

Family net worth falls by 40%

Lost decade for the middle class

Sep 7, 2012 9:32PM

 I have been on both sides of the equation. The money came later. I will tell anyone who wants to listen, it is a HUGE stress lifted off your shoulders. I don't have enough to buy the Yankess or the Cowboys, but I never wanted to own them anyway. We have enough and we are happy and stress free.

Sep 8, 2012 9:21PM

Happiness = wanting what you have (vs. having whatever you want).

Being "rich" depends less on your income than on what you owe. You can have a six-figure income, but if you are maintaining a lifestyle maxed out on credit, then you are not really rich at all. 

Sep 9, 2012 11:49AM


"While the amount of money it takes to feel "rich" varies widely by location, respondents estimate that a family of four would need to earn more than $100,000 a year. Three in 10 thought they would need to earn at least $250,000. Respondents say it would take $70,000 a year for a family of four to be middle class." - end quote

Good luck trying to live a normal middle class life in Manhattan, Honolulu, San Fran, San Diego, Seattle, Boston on $70,000/yr for a family of 4.


Sep 10, 2012 3:08PM

What's rich? I think Jerry Van Dyke's definition has best stood the test of time: "You're rich when you have your 'F___ You' money together."


No quantitative figure can be stated; lying to yourself isn't possible; cheating on the test is impossible. It's a lovely definition!

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