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6 Things I Learned From the Book "The Thin Green Line"

By Morgan Housel – Apr 15, 2015 at 11:58AM

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The difference between rich and wealthy.

I read The Thin Green Line by New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan. It's a great book about how to think about money, and how wealthy people do it differently than others. 

Here are six things I learned. 

1. There's a difference between rich and wealthy: 

Wealthy [is] ... having more money than you needed to do all the things you wanted to do. It wasn't a number so much as a psychological feeling: you weren't worried about running out of money because you had more than enough, even if it might be less than someone who was worried about going broke. Wealthy was different from being rich. Rich was a number, and as we saw in the Great Recession, one that did not equate to being financially secure. Wealthy could be a successful corporate attorney; it could also be a teacher who lived on her pension and savings. 

2. Rich comes and goes:

[Researchers found that] 12 percent of Americans would be in the top 1 percent [of wage earners] and 39 percent would be in the top 5 percent for at least one year of their life. Over half would crack the top 10 percent -- with an income greater than $115,000 a year -- during their lives ... half of the people who earned more than $1 million between 1999 and 2007 did so for just one year; only 6 percent did it for the entire period. 

3. Being poor leaves no room for error:

[Are low-income children], whose parents cannot afford this kind of education, stuck at the bottom? Not necessarily. But they have to be more careful and, to be honest, lucky. "If you're poor, single acts of unluck can wipe you out," Kahn said. "You fail for a year in school and you're upper-middle-class, your parents hire a tutor and you're fine. You fail for a year as a poor kid and you get labeled an idiot, and chances are you start reacting negatively to education."

4. Having money has downsides, too:

"The whole excitement of life is becoming," [Kurt Vonnegut once said.] "Becoming is the process by which a person becomes a person, or an artist an artist." 

To start miles ahead of everyone else may sound wonderful, but without any understanding of the work it took to get there does a disservice to children, young and old. Money that is just doled out can rob people of the excitement of "becoming." Parents who make sure they don't rob their children of that opportunity to become whatever they are going to be is one divider of people who are wealthy and rich. When it comes to inheritance, it is far more pervasive than that. Channeling your good fortune to help your children get a good education is laudable, but using it to make sure they do not fail is a path to future failure. 

5. It even affects charity: 

Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecommunications mogul and the only man in the world richer than Bill Gates, had a more nuanced view on not being charitable. "The only way to fight poverty is with employment," he said according to a Wall Street Journal report. "Trillions of dollars have been given to charity in the last fifty years, and they don't solve anything." He added that he had no intention of signing the Giving Pledge. "There is a saying that we should leave a better country to our children," he said. "But it's more important to leave better children to our country." 

6. This is such an important topic:

Knowing the difference between being wealthy and being rich is the difference between living a secure or a fraught life.

Go buy the book here. It's great. 

Contact Morgan Housel at [email protected] The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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