If you’re not wealthy, is it your fault?

I’m troubled.

I was listening to a program on the radio (which I’ll leave unnamed for reasons you’ll see soon). It was one of the 27 various programs on financial wellness that seem to pepper the AM dial at any given time.

On the program, the host was talking about people who had become millionaires. His assertion was that the vast majority of millionaires (defined, let’s remember, as those with a net worth of $1 million or more, not those with an income of $1 million) were self made, and did not inherit much or any money.

That’s a little weaselly, but that’s not what troubled me.

This was couched adjacent to a rant about “fairness”. The host mocked how some people believed that it was “not fair” that wealthy people shouldn’t need to give more to those less fortunate. “Not fair?” the host said (and I’m paraphrasing here). “Almost every one of these millionaires are self-made! They are successful! Why is it not fair that they’re successful and you’re not?

Ouch. This is a dangerous train of thought, and all it takes is one tiny logical leap from that one sentence to:

If you’re not wealthy, it’s your own fault.

Let’s explore that assertion.

“Self-made” millionaires

First, let’s find some facts, which, as we all know, are “stubborn things“.

Thomas Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door, is one of the foremost experts on millionaires and their behavior. He has claimed that in his experience that between 80-86% of millionaires are self-made.

In addition, BMO Private Bank released a study in 2013 that said that two thirds of millionaires were “self-made”.

One problem immediately comes to mind: what do we define as “self-made”? Everything I’ve read tends to equate with “self-made” with lack of inherited wealth. Is that fair?

Obviously if you inherit wealth, you’re not self-made. But can a person can be “assisted” without an inheritance?

I can think of quite a few ways. Off the top of my head:

  • Born to a stable, loving family
  • Living in a safe, prosperous area
  • Healthy, both physically and mentally
  • Chance meeting with influencer

Do all of those count as help? I say they do, in that they are not things that one can do anything about. Arguably, these are bigger than any real inheritance you can earn. After all, anyone can win the lottery (an inheritance of sorts), but people win the lottery and then lose it all.

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So the premise of equating “self-made” with “no inheritance” is weaselly at best, and nakedly self-serving in another.

Lying your way to fame

Furthermore, people lie. I know, big news, right?

I was particularly taken by a Yahoo Finance article about a 27 year old who had been so diligent at making smart financial decisions that he was able to call himself a self-made millionaire. 27 years old? Damn, good job son.

But before you click through to the article, it later turned out that it was a fabrication. He had inherited $600,000 from his parents, but just omitted that detail. Why? Because he ran a financial advice blog (now shuttered) with lots of affiliate links, and so he got a kickback from all the traffic.

Nice work, slimeball.

But while I think most people don’t engage in such naked chicanery, I think a lot of people are totally blind to the help they’ve received.

When you’re blind to the help you’ve been given, you mistakenly think that you did it yourself. And if you did it yourself, and think you came from “nothing”, then it’s all to easy to believe that anyone can do it.

And so if you’re not doing it, sorry, but why should we help you?

Your fault

There is a current in our society that believes that if you aren’t successful, that it’s your fault.

I find that totally abhorrent.

Like all small-minded beliefs, it’s very simple, and certainly self-serving. It allows wealthy people to be smug and uncaring, and not have to part with any of their “self-made” money.

So here’s my problem.

On one hand I write constantly about how we can affect our situation to better ourselves. By practicing intentionality and focus, we can stabilize our finances, gain control, and start to get traction in our lives.

I believe this 100%.

But on the other hand, not everyone has the same opportunities. You can be the most diligent person on the planet, and then find out you have a dire medical condition, and your insurance decides that it’s not totally covered.

Have $200,000 in medical bills? How lazy. You should have just worked harder.

That’s why I believe we need a more nuanced sense of what is possible. We need to believe that we can take control of our lives, because we can.

But I also believe that we all need to contribute to those less fortunate than us, in the form of a stronger safety net, and we need to do this with gratitude. People aren’t less fortunate because they were lazy. Okay, occasionally you will find a lazy person, but so what? If you’ve got plenty, what does it matter?

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Wouldn’t you rather have a society where we might by accident give to undeserving folks, rather than have a society where we were don’t give enough to those who need it?

We need both a sense of ownership over our circumstances as well as a safety net, not as a tax on success, but as a way to contribute back to make our society a better place. If you’ve got so much money that you’re a millionaire, I really don’t want to hear how you believe you shouldn’t pay more into our safety net.

A nuanced message is harder, I admit. It would be so much easier to say that everyone can get ahead through hard work, and that, as someone once idiotically said, “poverty is a state of mind“.

Is that $200,000 medical bill a state of mind too, Ben?

So no, millionaires aren’t all “self-made” and if you’re not wealthy, that’s not your fault. But you can make progress, and as long as you can, you must.

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