Wealth Statistics in the United States: By the Numbers

What Do You Mean By “Wealth Statistics” in the United States?

If we’re going to talk about wealth statistics in the United States, I should probably clarify up front that the numbers aren’t going to be limited to folks you and I normally think of as “wealthy.” If you have a home and a checking account, you’re part of the wealth. If you have a small business with some inventory and a few years of keeping the doors open behind you, you’re part of the wealth. If you drive a car and eat at restaurants from time to time and aren’t on the run from the law for defaulting on every dollar you’ve ever borrowed, you, my friend are part of the wealth.

Of course, if you’re Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, you’re also part of the wealth. A big part, actually. Also, welcome to the blog. I hope you find it useful, Mr. Buffet and crew. Let me know if you need any tips.

What I’m saying is, wealth statistics in the United States include all of us. You may read that as an inspirational statement if you wish, and it’s certainly arguable that even those among us who can’t quite keep up with our credit card bills are nevertheless insanely well-off by the standards of even a few short centuries ago. What I really mean, however, is that “wealth” is a technical term here. It simply means “stuff of value which people have.”

Around here, we tend to focus on the practical things, like how much the average American has in savings or what our homes are worth across the country. The custom sports car collections, gold-plated toilet paper holders, and 30-acre mansions are fun for a half-hour TV series, but not all that useful in helping the rest of us make informed financial decisions. Sorry to be a downer.

On the other hand, if you have a gold-plated toilet paper holder, that’s great. I don’t get it, but hey – live your best life, my friend.

Don’t Wealth Statistics in the United States Include Rich People?

Yes, I suppose they do. OK, let’s get a little of that sort of thing out of the way so we can move on and talk about the rest of us. (No offense, Mr. Bezos.)

How Do Rich People Get Rich?

There’s no easy answer to that, of course. Some are simply born rich and unable to lose ALL of their fortune no matter how foolishly they live. Others get lucky with just the right song, movie, book, investment, or marriage. In general, though, it turns out there are things most seriously wealthy folks have in common. It probably won’t surprise you to know this is something reporters write about fairly regularly; it turns out many of us would like to know how to get rich.

I won’t try to cover the entirety of the field right here (it’s not that kind of post), but here are a few of the traits which show up again and again and again in genuinely successful people across the United States:

  • They read and investigate new things and always want to learn. They have intellectual curiosity. Yes, sometimes this has a practical bent to it – you never know what information might lead to innovation or opportunity. They investigate specific issues confronting them; they “do their homework,” so to speak. But beyond that, they make a point of spending 30 minutes or more each day just… learning new things.

  • They exercise and eat well. This one can become a bit of a circular trait – it’s easier to eat well and exercise when you have money and time – but people with money and time were eating well and exercising before they could entirely afford it. Healthy bodies, sharp minds, and all that.

  • They frame every obstacle as a challenge to be overcome. They complain little and confront more. Most confess they sacrifice time with family and friends to focus on conquering whatever’s in their way or finding pathways around, over, under, or through whatever challenges they confront.

  • They seek constructive criticism from peers, mentors, even those working with or for them. They want to build on what they do well and fix or improve what they don’t. They force themselves to maintain a positive attitude and refuse to whine or lash out at those who attack them – even when it’s not “constructive” criticism.

  • They maintain constant focus on their goals and vision. The same trait that makes some people seem so delusional with their local band, their start-up business, or their writing career, makes successful people successful. It’s not a guarantee of anything, but it does seem to be an essential ingredient.

  • They manage their money, time, and other resources carefully when they have very little in order to build the resources to do more. If you don’t save when you’re making $20,000 a year, many would argue, you won’t save when you’re making $20 million either. If you don’t invest your nickels, you’ll never invest your dollars.

  • They treat everyone with respect and courtesy, whether they like them or not and whether they “need” them or not. You’ve probably noticed that truly successful people in almost any field don’t have to be ugly to the rest of us. They know who they are, what they’ve got, and what they can do. That starts before they’re “truly successful people.”

The Rich are Getting Richer

There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the poor were getting richer as well – but they’re not. In fact, the difference between the rich and everyone else is growing at an alarming rate and recently hit levels not seen since the 1920s just before the Great Depression.

That doesn’t mean we’re going to have another Great Depression, but neither is it traditionally great for the economy overall when so few people have such a high percentage of the wealth. A guy making ten times what you do might start a business, buy a yacht, eat out more, hire more help – the so called “trickle down” effect. It’s conceivable that he’ll spend far more than he did before on things that help the overall economy. (If not ten times more, then maybe seven or eight times more… which is still a win for everyone.)

A guy making a hundred times what you do might do start a business, buy a yacht, etc., but there are only so many meals, cars, and homes he can use. He’s far more likely to save a substantial percentage of that money, and some of that might include stashing it outside the United States. There’s nothing wrong with that, but all that money isn’t “trickling down.” The numbers just don’t show that it works that way past a certain level.

A recent article by Fortune magazine put it this way:

he top 0.1% of the U.S. population possesses close to 20% of the wealth in the country—more than the bottom 80% of the population combined. When expanded to the top 10%, the share of the pie continues to grow: they own more than 70% of wealth in the country, or twice that owned by the bottom 90%.

But it’s not just about how much wealth the upper echelons possess. Their growing share of American wealth since the early 1980s has coincided with a drop in the share of wealth by the rest of the country.

For example, the 400 richest people in the U.S., or the top 0.00025%, have tripled their share of wealth in that time. Meanwhile, the 150 million Americans in the bottom 60% have seen a decline from a 5.7% share in 1987 to a 2.1% share in 2014.

In other words, the 400 richest Americans own a greater share of all U.S. wealth than the bottom 150 million.

You thought I was going to talk about how cool their home theater systems and custom limos were, didn’t you? Sorry – I guess I find wealth statistics in the United States to be a bit more sobering than that. Not depressing, mind you – I’m not complaining. But sobering.

Forbes and other traditionally reliable and relatively conservative sources are noticing the same thing. There’s no point in panicking or even worrying about it (unless you’re in a position to make massive systemic changes and have an idea what those should even be). On the other hand, it’s a great time for the rest of us to take a look at the remaining wealth statistics in the United States and consider what they mean for our decisions in the immediate future.

What’s Our Net Worth?

At its most basic, your “net worth” is your total assets (money and stuff of value) minus your total liabilities (what you owe to others, immediately or over time). Add up the value of your home, your vehicles, your investments, and whatever you have in your checking and savings accounts. Subtract what you owe on your home, your vehicles, your credit cards, etc.

That’s your net worth.

Let’s take a look at the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which issued a rather detailed report on Wealth and Asset Ownership in the U.S. in 2015 (a fancy way of saying they compiled a LOT of wealth statistics in the United States.) The complete figures are pretty extensive, so we’ll just zoom in on a few highlights of interest, starting with this one:

Net Worth by Racial Categories

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What jumps out at you?

The first thing which caught my eye was the extent of the disparity between households based on race. I suspected there would be a noticeable disparity, but I didn’t realize it would be so extreme.

Keeping in mind that these are self-reported categories (i.e., a family is “white” if they checked the “white” box on their forms, etc.), the average total net worth for a white household in the United States as of 2015 was just short of $140,000. About $85,000 of that reflects the value of their homes, while another $40,000 shows average investments in stocks, mutual funds, and the like. Mr. and Mrs. Average White Family have around $6,000 in the bank, although that could easily mean Family A has twice that while Family B has none.

Still, on the whole, it sounds very “middle class.” We’d need the numbers on how many own some form of small business, but it’s enough that there’s additional equity of around $6,000 if averaged out over everyone in that demographic category. It’s highly unlikely, of course, that most middle class white families run a business worth exactly $6,000. It’s far more likely that a relatively small number (let’s say 1 in 10 just to keep the math simple) have their own businesses, and that each one has an equity value, of, say, $60,000. That would come out about right.

The small business numbers are tricky, because entrepreneurs are often in a unique position when it comes to taking on productive debt. There are several good reasons for individuals to borrow, but dozens for the small businessman. There are few things most of us simply most go into debt to purchase in modern America, but dozens of reasons for business owners.

These particular wealth statistics in the United States highlight something we don’t normally talk about here, but can’t avoid in this case. The disparities in the numbers for Black and Hispanic Americans are stunning.

The average net worth of self-reporting black households is less than 10% of that of white households, while categories like money in the bank or investments fall below 20% of the white average. Hispanic households are faring somewhat better than those reporting as black, but still fall far short of the numbers for Mr. and Mrs. Average White. This isn’t the place for an extended discussion of social issues in the United States, let alone racial disparities in and of themselves, but this is certainly one more indication those discussions need to be had.

Then again, if this is something in which you’re interested – or directly impacted – the good folks at Inequality.org have done far more extensive research than I and their numbers suggest even greater disparity than my very simplified version here. I highly encourage you to check them out and consider getting involved.  

Oh, one last note on the racial breakdown…

Asian households, it seems, are beating all other averages in terms of net worth, business equity, investments, and a half-dozen other categories I cut from the chart to keep it from becoming too bewildering. I’m not sure what to add in terms of commentary on that one, but it seemed worth noting before I move on...

Net Worth By Age

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There are fewer surprises here. Americans under the age of 35 haven’t had as much time to build up savings. If they own their own home, they’re going to be pretty early in the process of paying for it.

We see a gradual increase in Net Worth as Americans age, with a few minor wrinkles along the way, followed by a drop off after the age of 75. Presumably, this is an age at which most people have retired. It’s reasonable to assume many of them have by this time been living partly off of their savings and investments, so of course the balance is going to decrease the longer that continues.

Let’s try one more way of breaking down these same wealth statistics in the United States.

Net Worth by Education Level

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The increase in financial status as educational levels rise isn’t particularly surprising, but did you notice the dramatic leaps? Take a moment and look for them before I tell you which ones most jump out at me.

The difference in net worth between Americans who completed high school and those who didn’t isn’t just notable – it’s almost a tenfold difference. Americans with only a high school diploma have an average of over three times as much in the bank as those without. Their average investments are comparable with every other category below Graduate or Professional Degree. None of this is intended to disparage or embarrass those who didn’t finish high school, but wealth statistics in the United states say that if you have the chance to graduate from high school, DO IT.

There’s another dramatic leap between high school graduates and those with Associate’s Degrees. These are usually two-year certificates in practical career skills – various sorts of medical assistants, accounting, web design, paralegals, etc. They’re the bread-and-butter of every community college across your state. While various sorts of financial aid are often available for such programs, they’re generally quite affordable to begin with.

In other words, if you’re not currently in a job you’re happy with, or making the kind of money you feel like you could or should be making, you might not need a decade at Notre Dame to change the game. You might need a certificate saying you’re qualified to clean teeth or assist teachers at your child’s school.

What Can I Do NOW?

That’s a fair question. On the one hand, I hope you’re thinking long-term and considering all of the options – even the ones you might find far-fetched at first. On the other, there’s no reason you can’t start now with a few simple things to improve where you land among those wealth statistics in the United States. After all, like I said at the beginning, they mean us. You and me, friend. So let’s talk options.

Lower Your Debt

It sounds so simple when I put it that way, doesn’t it? The fact is, Americans are in debt. LOTS of debt. And most of it’s getting higher. When you combine that with the growing income disparity we mentioned above, that’s...

Well, at the risk of getting all technical on you, that’s not good. Some might go so far as to say it’s bad.

You may not be able to immediately impact national trends, but you can immediately impact you and yours. You may not be able to magically leap into a whole new tax bracket, but you can start making better choices today about where you’ll land on net years wealth statistics in the United States. And step one is to prioritize getting out of debt, or at least reducing your debt.

What does that look like?

Make the Tough Mortgage Choices Up Front

The single largest debt most of us will ever take on is the purchase of a home. That’s great; home ownership is a good thing. Taking a little time to educate yourself on mortgages and mortgage loan statistics before you start touring bedrooms and basements, however, can make a HUGE difference over the life of your loan.

We’ve talked about mortgage loans statistics elsewhere, but here’s the short version for now:

  • Not all mortgages are the same. You don’t know what interest rates you can get or what terms can be altered until you’ve genuinely explored the options. Visit your local bank or credit union, absolutely, but this is the 21st century. Don’t discount the value and efficiency of online sources as well.

  • Your parents’ home-buying experience put them in the role of supplicants – “please, sir… may I have a loan?” Yours should involve multiple lenders competing for your business, whether your credit score is perfect or not.

  • If you have to go 30 years, go 30 years. If you can do 15, however, do 15. There’s also no law that says a home loan can’t be somewhere in between.

  • You may need a home, but you don’t need THIS home, and you don’t need it RIGHT NOW. Don’t be afraid to take your time until you find not just the right house, but the right price.

  • Ask specifically about paying extra towards the principle of your mortgage whenever possible. Make sure there are no penalties or confusion associated with the practice, then do it. Regularly.

It’s An Automobile, Not A Spouse

Everything I just said about buying a home? Swap out a few details and apply it to buying a car or truck. Sometimes dealer financing is a great way to go, especially if the manufacturer is offering some sort of 0% for 100 months special and the small print confirms what the big print suggests.

But if you just show up and sign what they put in front of you because you like the dark green finish and the spoiler, you deserve to get fleeced. No offense, but your midlife crisis just delayed your ability to retire comfortably for about a decade.

Make Credit Cards Work For You; Don’t Work For Your Credit Cards

Credit cards can be a wonderful tool of financial flexibility and crisis management. They give us options and some degree of security, and they’re one of the most convenient ways mankind has ever invented to end up buried in debt with no clear idea where all those dollars even went. Of all the things it seems like we can pay on endlessly without ever getting ahead, plastic is king.

Here are Blaine’s Greatest Hits when it comes to Credit Card management:

  • Make your payments on time every month, even if it means sacrificing elsewhere. Don’t take grandma off her meds or anything, but it’s absolutely worth not eating out for a few weeks or delaying that trip out-of-town if it allows you to make at least the minimum payment on your cards. That’s the only way you’re going to protect your credit rating and eventually be eligible for better rates and better terms.

  • Don’t just make the minimum payment on your cards. I know, I know – I just said you should. That’s only if the alternative is NOT to make the minimum payment. But you should be making a substantial enough payment to offset that month’s interest or fees and knock the balance down enough to be able to tell the difference next month.

  • Stop impulse buying. It’s one thing if you’re unexpectedly caught needing emergency repairs for something or having to cover unplanned medical bills. Those are very different than “Hey, they raised my limit! Let’s go to the mall!”

  • Look for lower interest rates. Ask your current card company for a better rate, especially if you’ve been with them for a while and made your payments on time. If they aren’t cooperative, actively seek other options. They’re out there, I assure you.

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted…

Please keep in mind that I’m not actually trying to tell you what you can or can’t buy or how you’re “allowed” to spend your money. It’s your money, after all. But there are better and worse ways to get what you want and to do what you want to do.

If you’re wanting to travel, or take the family somewhere for a little getaway, that’s great – but you can still be smart about travel expenses. If you’re flying, look for times of day that fares are substantially less – you might save enough for an extra night or two at the hotel just for being willing to get up a little earlier or change planes in Chicago. Explore packages and promotions in whatever locations you’re considering.

I’m not saying you have to be trapped on a tour bus with a few dozen senior citizens and eat at some nasty buffet on the strip, but keep in mind that these places want your business. They want you to come to their place instead of the other places you could go. At least give them a chance to work for it, yes?

And if traveling means taking on some debt, let’s be smart about the debt. Obviously, I’d rather you save up for the trip before you go. But if that’s not practical for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean the only alternative is to put everything on your high-interest credit cards or to skip a few car payments. Consider a small personal loan specifically for traveling. There are lenders who actually specialize in these sorts of things. It may not be what you decide to do, but at least inform yourself a bit. Then, if you still want to run up the high-interest card, well… that’s your choice, my friend.

Conclusion

If you want to shoot for rich, be my guest. On the other hand, if you’re primarily interested in just improving your money management skills a bit from where you are now, maybe we can help. We can’t tell you how to make money, but we can help you learn how not to waste it.

We can keep sharing our free money management articles from folks who know their stuff, but who are more like you than they are TV personalities or famous authors. Perhaps most importantly, we can connect you with reliable lenders who want your business and can often demonstrate a flexibility traditional financial institutions do not. What you do with that connection is, of course, up to you.

You know how to reach us if we can help.