What's a Million Dollars?

Ransom Riggs

With talk of money dominating the national conversation, and looming clouds of gloom seeming to threaten everyone with worst-case-scenarios ranging from selling pencils on the streetcorner to not being able to send the kids to college, it seems like this is the right time to reevaluate not only how we use money, but how we think about it. Screenwriter and blogger John August wrote about how "one million dollars" as an aspirational object in films is starting to sound a bit antiquated:

"In movies, TV, and actual conversation it's by far the most frequently quoted dollar figure to mean "rich," despite inflation. The top-shelf reality competition shows (Survivor, The Amazing Race) use that as the prize figure. But it's not just a lot of money. It's been mythologized as the transformative tipping point between the life we have and some mythological Good Life in which profound satisfaction is possible."

Personally, I think this joke from Austin Powers sums it up:

But is a million bucks really the life-changing windfall it sounds like? If someone dropped a cool million on you right now, could you really quit your job and never work again? In an article titled "Is $1 million enough to retire on?" US News makes this point:

"If you drew down 4 percent of your $1 million nest egg every year, a share many financial advisers recommend as prudent, you would receive about $40,000 annually, before adjusting for inflation — a pretty comfortable salary outside major metropolitan areas, especially if your house is paid off. Of course, how far that $3,333 a month goes depends on your lifestyle, health, and inflation."

If you had $1 million in the stock market, what's it worth right now? (And the magic question: what will it be worth next week?)

In Manhattan's real estate market, a million dollars might only buy you a loft. According to Zillow.com, right now there are five apartments for sale in my neighborhood for more than a million bucks. Apartments.

So why do we keep using $1 million as a frame of reference for rich? John August has a few ideas:

1. We have no personal frame of reference for "million." Most Americans earn five figures ($10,000 to $99,999). If we buy a house, we're likely dealing with six figures ($100,000 to $999,999). But few Americans will ever encounter seven figures in relation to their own finances. So it seems like a magical and unobtainable sum. 2. All rich people are millionaires, so all millionaires must be rich. This failure of the symmetric property has been pointed out in books like The Millionaire Next Door, which shows that cost-containment and steady investment is a more realistic lifestyle for the average millionaire. Along the same lines, having a million dollars isn't the same as making a million dollars. It's easy to confuse assets with income. When stocks and home prices were rising, an increasing number of Americans became millionaires on paper.1 But since that's not spendable cash, it's not what most people mean by millionaire. 3. What matters is the million, not the actual value. Americans would rather have the million dollars than 750,000 euros. And two million dollars doesn't feel twice as good as one million.

So we'd love to hear what you think: if $1 million is a depressingly behind-the-times point of reference (or perhaps you disagree), what does rich mean to you?