How Much Do You Have To Make To Feel Rich?

Of course, the answer to the question in the title of this post will vary depending on the person.

How you feel about your own financial success will largely depend on how you grew up, where you live, your lifestyle, and particularly, how you’re doing compared to your friends and family.

Wealth is relative.

John D. Rockefeller, considered the wealthiest American of all time and the richest person in modern history, was once asked how much money he thought was enough. He responded:

“Just a little bit more.”

I would hazard a guess that everyone, at every income level, tends to feel the same way.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal profiled people who make $400,000 or more a year in income, which is the line in the sand the Biden administration is using to define wealthy households for tax purposes.

The data backs up that classification. As of 2022, only 3.4 million, or 2.6% of U.S. households made $400,000 or more.

The following graph shows the breakdown by state:

If you’re curious, Washington D.C. had the highest share of households above $400,000 at 6.1%. And Mississippi was the lowest at 0.8%.

However, as I’m sure you can guess, the people interviewed in the piece who are making above the $400,000 cutoff do not consider themselves rich.


A 33-year-old who works in business development for an HVAC contractor in Kentucky said he and his wife feel comfortable, but doesn’t think of himself as rich. They say they make coffee to avoid Starbucks and buy fruit based on when it’s on sale. He adds:

“We’re not extravagant people with high-end country-club memberships or a private jet or anything like that.”

I thought this comment from a 41-year-old executive at a healthcare-staffing company in Florida whose pay has fluctuated around $400,000 was fascinating:

“I don’t think of myself as rich. I think of myself as having worked really hard.”

He responded almost as if being called rich was an insult. And he wanted to be sure to bring up the fact that he worked hard to earn his income, which, I don’t doubt in the slightest. It would be quite difficult to reach that level of income without a good work ethic. But I also think the other 97% of the American population isn’t exactly lounging around all day.

It’s okay to admit you make a lot of money when the data objectively shows that you do. As to not feeling rich at that level of income, I think that comes down to our natural human desire to compare ourselves to others.

In one Harvard study, researchers gave participants two options:

  1. Earn $50,000 per year while everyone else earns $25,000.
  2. Earn $100,000 per year while everyone else earns $200,000.

The participants were told to assume everything else was equal, so more money meant they could buy more.

Option 2 seems like the obvious, logical choice. Who doesn’t want more money?

However, more than half the people in the study chose option 1. They didn’t want more money, they just wanted more than everybody else.

The problem with the world we live in today is that it’s never been easier to compare ourselves to others. Where in the past we would compare our situation to our immediate friends and neighbors, the internet and social media now have us keeping up with the Joneses from all across the world who flaunt their wealth for all to see.

If you solely measure your financial success relative to the others, you’ll end up on a never-ending path of feeling inadequate, incompetent, and poor. Even if you’re in the top 2% of income earners in the U.S., there will always be someone smarter than you, more popular than you, better looking than you, and someone getting richer faster than you.

“If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.” -Montesquieu, 275 years ago

Thanks for reading!

This article was originally featured on “Money Talks” Substack.

Jake Elm, CFP® is a financial advisor at Dentist Advisors. Jake a graduate of Utah Valley University’s nationally ranked Personal Financial Planning program. As a financial advisor at Dentist Advisors, he provides dentists with fiduciary guidance related to investments, debt, savings, taxes, and insurance. Learn more about Jake.