High Net Worth Individuals: The Most Exclusive Club in the World

Just what does it take to be considered "high net worth" today? The numbers are staggering.

Travis Hoium
Travis Hoium
Jun 9, 2015 at 2:12PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

We all want to be rich, right? To have more money than we know what to do with and never have to worry about the stress of paying the bills every month.

But what does it take to truly be rich? How much money do you have to have to be a high net worth individual?

The level of wealth in the U.S. and abroad is simply staggering these days. 

Woman getting out of limo next to a red-carpeted stairway leading to a private plane.

Image source: Getty Images.

What does it take to be high net worth?
The definition of "rich" or "high net worth" is probably different for everyone. If I had $5 million I would consider myself rich, but if you ask the Koch brothers they would probably have a much higher bar -- somewhere in the billion perhaps?

For the sake of this article, I'll define rich as being among the highest net worth individuals in the U.S. or the world. These are the richest of the rich and they have more money most of us could spend in a lifetime.

One great measure of wealth is a list of high net worth individuals that Forbes keeps up to date in real time. According to Forbes, to make its prestigious Forbes 400 list -- the list of the richest people in the U.S. -- you had to be worth $1.55 billion in 2014. Last year there were a whopping 513 billionaires, so even a billion dollars may not make you one of the 500 richest people in the U.S. 

Globally the figures are even more staggering. The 1,000th richest person in the world is worth $1.95 billion, according to Forbes. That's enough money to buy a brand-new Bentley Continental GT every day for 24 years. Every single day! 

The amount of wealth the rich have amassed is enormous, but just who has it and how did they get it? There are really only a few paths to high net worth status.

Three paths to high net worth
Looking at the list of richest people in the world, a few trends emerge. The first thing is that no one gets rich working for someone else (except maybe Steve Ballmer, who was Bill Gates' right-hand man). And there are really only three ways to build incredible net worth.

  • Build something
  • Inherit something
  • Use someone else's money to make money for yourself

If you want to be truly rich, it's best to either be born with money or start an incredibly successful business. Below I've outlined how the 10 richest people in the U.S. got their money, and only Warren Buffett got there without building a start-up or inheriting a business from his parents, but he was also a pioneer in using other people's money to make himself rich.

High Net Worth Individual 

Net Worth

How They Got Here

Bill Gates

$79.4 billion

Founded Microsoft

Warren Buffett

$69.7 billion

Started successful hedge fund and bought stake in Berkshire Hathaway

Larry Ellison

$54 billion

Founded Oracle

Charles Koch

$42 billion

Inherited Koch Industries

David Koch

$42 billion

Inherited Koch Industries

Jeff Bezos

$39.1 billion

Founded Amazon.com

Christy Walton

$37.2 billion

Inherited Walmart stake

Michael Bloomberg

$37 billion

Founded Bloomberg

Mark Zuckerberg

$36.2 billion

Founded Facebook

Jim Walton

$36 billion

Inherited Walmart stake

Source: Forbes.

You can see above that inherited money is an incredibly powerful source of wealth. The Walmart (NYSE:WMT) estate continues to leave the children of Sam Walton among the richest in the world despite the fact that they have very little to do with running the business. 

And of course, starting a wildly successful business like Amazon.com's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Jeff Bezos or Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Mark Zuckerberg did. 

The other good way to get rich is to use other people's money to make money for yourself. This is how Bill Ackman ($2.5 billion), David Einhorn ($1.9 billion), and Leon Black ($5.3 billion) made the Forbes 400, building hedge funds or private equity funds to build their wealth. It's also how Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn ($23.5 billion) made their initial money, which they were able to then invest successfully to make them among the richest people in the world.

The most exclusive of clubs
Only a small number of people in the world will even know what it's like to be in the Forbes 400 or the richest 1,000 people in the world. There's an incredibly high bar to reaching the club and unless you were born incredibly rich or started a revolutionary business, the chances you'll get there are remote. But that's why they're called high net worth individuals, isn't it?