They're greedy, unscrupulous, and they rise to power based mostly on the silver spoons they've been fed with since infancy. At least, that's the story we have in our head when it comes to rich people. In the wake of the ascension of a billionaire to the White House for the first time, and with the divide between the haves and have-nots in America growing, it's easy for us to unquestioningly accept such myths.
But life is far more complicated than that. While we like to see things as black or white, the truth is often gray. In that vein, here are seven of the most pervasive myths about rich people, and what the research has to say on the matter.
1. They live in huge houses and drive expensive cars
Former Motley Fool columnist Morgan Housel once wrote about his experience as a valet at a fancy L.A. hotel. Here's what he learned:
"When you meet someone who owns a $100,000 car, you only know one thing about their wealth: That they have $100,000 less in the bank, or $100,000 more in debt, than they did before they bought the car ."
While there will always be exceptions to the rule, what Housel means is that if someone looks rich, they probably aren't as well off as you think. This theory is supported by the findings in landmark 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door: The authors found that most households with a net worth of over $1 million lived in middle-class neighborhoods and eschewed status purchases.
2. Rich people are happier because they are rich
Some studies do, in fact, indicate rich people are happier than those who aren't rich. But as the famous saying goes: "Correlation does not prove causation." And there's a mountain of research showing that increases in income only boost happiness levels up to a certain point. Once you have enough expendable income that you can cover your needs and do the things you generally enjoy doing without worrying about your finances, adding more money to the mix doesn't upgrade your emotional well-being.
So why are the rich happier? It's often because they either have experienced a good deal of success in their fields, or because they have greater freedom of time. As studies of the retired have shown, affluence of time leads to record high levels of contentment, and record low levels of anxiety. The rich just get to that point earlier than most.
3. A wealthy lineage explains why the rich are rich
According to Wealth-X, here's how the world's 2,170 billionaires came by their fortunes:
- 60% were entirely self-made
- 20% were a combination of self-made and inheritance
- 20% were purely a result of inheritance
No one is arguing that coming from a wealthy family doesn't help. But the next time you meet an uber-rich person, chances are that that person acquired that money from toil, not as a treasure dropped in their lap.
4. Investment bankers make up the vast majority of the rich
It's true that investment bankers, hedge fund managers, private-equity funders, and venture capitalists make up a disproportionate amount of ultra-high net worth people. But in the end, they account for just 19% of those with net worths of $30 million or more. That means that the other 81% of this population comes from outside of finance entirely.
5. Most rich people went to Ivy League schools
Again, it's true that Ivy League alumni make up a disproportionate fraction of those worth over $30 million. If we list which global universities the highest numbers of ultra-rich studied at, six of the top 10 come from that elite eight-school conference.
But add them all together, and Ivy League graduates account for just 3.5% of the world's population of ultra-high net worth individuals. In other words, 96.5% of the super-rich did not go to an Ivy. Even more surprising: 13.6% of them have no college degrees at all!
6. Rich people don't work that hard for their money
Thomas Corely spent five years researching habits of the rich. What he found surprised even him. Consider the observed difference in behaviors of those who were rich -- which he defined as a household with income over $160,000 per year and a net worth over $3.2 million -- and those who were poor -- or earned less than $35,000 per year and had a household net worth under $5,000.
- 86% of the wealthy who had a full-time job worked 50 hours or more per week, versus 57% of the poor who had full time jobs.
- 65% of the wealthy put in those hours because they had three revenue streams. Only 6% of the poor had more than one source of income.
- 67% of the wealthy watched less than one hour of TV per day, while 77% of the poor watched more than one hour per day.
Again, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation. But it's hard to claim that the rich aren't working for their keep.
7. Rich people never go bankrupt
This gets back to the very first myth. There's a hard and fast truth that no rich person can get around: If you spend more than you bring in, you'll eventually go bankrupt -- including spending on risky investment opportunities. That's why Jose Canseco, Mike Tyson, Mark Twain and even successful businessmen like Walt Disney, Henry Ford and -- yes, through his casinos -- President Donald Trump have all declared bankruptcy.
Like I said, we like to see the world in black and white terms. But the reality is often gray -- meaning that many of the myths we cling to when thinking about rich people are just that: myths.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.