How America’s “Rich” Are Wasting Their Financial Potential

in Financial Planning by

Have you ever wondered if you are truly “rich”? Not just by American standards, but in a global sense?

If you’re curious, look no further than the Global Rich List. With the help of a calculator that uses World Bank data and global wealth statistics you can use the site to compare your wealth to that of folks across the globe.

Go ahead and play around with some numbers if you want, but I’ll give you a spoiler. According to Global Rich List, bringing in just $75,000 per year in the United States places you among the top .11% of earners in the world. And the coveted six-figure income? That puts you among the top .08% of earners on the entire planet.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Even the median household income in the U.S. ($51,939 in 2013) falls in the top .28%. So, how is it that so many American high income earners are broke?

Why High-Earners are Living Paycheck to Paycheck

A recent survey shed light on this curious issue. The study surveyed only households who made $75,000 or more, and found that one-third of high earners live paycheck to paycheck. Meanwhile, 44% of respondents said lifestyle purchases are holding them back from saving more.

And it gets worse. Among those who claimed that lifestyle purchases were the source of their money woes, 68% pointed to dining out as their biggest issue. Among high-earning Millennials, that figure jumped 70%.
In other words, a large percentage of high earners are literally eating away at their financial potential. Instead of socking money away in 529s and Roth IRAs, they’re choosing to feast on baby back ribs and guzzle expensive cocktails.

Unfortunately, those delicious dinners cost more than most folks realize. As the study revealed, only 53% of respondents aged 35 to 44 feel they are saving enough for retirement. Among respondents aged 45 to 54, that figure drops to 37%.

Chew on that for a minute.

Find the right tool to track your spending today.

Other Reasons High Earners Can’t Get Ahead

Of course, it’s important to note that a six-figure salary doesn’t go as far as it used to – especially in certain parts of the country. Take San Francisco, for example, where the median home value was $750,900 in 2012. Or New York City, where the median home value was $501,500 that same year. A $75,000 annual income seems like peanuts when the roof over your head costs upwards of $3,000 per month.

Other factors add to the financial hurdles Americans go through. For one, when accounting for inflation, median household incomes in the United States have shrunk over recent decades. Meanwhile, the cost of commodities and household necessities has risen significantly. A few examples:

America's Rich Chart

Got kids? Ask any parent how expensive it has become. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the price tag for raising one child from birth to age 18 has surged to $245,000. Try having two kids in full-time daycare for a few years and see how much you can save. When you consider all of the factors working against you, it’s no wonder that so many Americans just say, “screw it,” and head to their favorite restaurant for a basket of chicken fingers.

Related: Why a Six-Figure Salary No Longer Means You’re Rich

High Earners: Quit Squandering Your Potential

If you look only at the factors working against you, it’s easy to give up. But that would be a mistake. No matter what, remember that you have control.

You may not be able to dictate the cost of healthcare, daycare, or college tuition, but you are 100% in charge of how you spend your extra funds. Be honest with yourself – are you reaching your potential?

If you know for a fact that you aren’t, there is still time to turn things around. Changes you make today can mean the difference between having money for emergencies or living paycheck to paycheck, retiring early or never retiring at all, having peace of mind or struggling to make ends meet. What you do today matters, even if you’re late to the game.

Are you a hire earner ready to make a change? Here’s how:

Track your spending – One of the most efficient ways to see how much you’re wasting on lifestyle purchases is to track your spending. Personal Capital’s Cash Flow tool, for example, groups all of your purchases into categories and presents them in easy-to-interpret pie charts and graphs.
Find ways to save – Once you begin tracking your purchases and discover your problem areas, you have nowhere to hide. Find ways to save on your most common splurges. Cut dining out down to once per week, for example. Subscribe to Hulu over cable, cancel monthly memberships you don’t use, and whittle down your grocery bills. Small changes will add up over time!
Create a budget – Tracking your spending can be an eye-opening experience, but it’s also a great first step towards creating a monthly budget. Once you figure out your ideal spending for the month, put it down on paper. As the month progresses, track your spending to stay on track. It might take a while to stick to new spending limits, but you’ll eventually learn to live within self-imposed limits.
Maximize tax-advantaged retirement accounts – One of the easiest ways to grow your nest egg, and lower your tax bill, is to maximize tax-advantaged retirement accounts. The IRS raised 401(k) contribution limits up to $18,000 per year, and anyone with earned income can also open a traditional IRA. Raise your retirement contributions at work or set up automatic contributions on payday so you can “set it and forget it.”
Hire a financial advisor – If you feel overwhelmed, it may be worth it to hire a personal financial advisor. Personal Capital, for example, also offers advisory services where conflict-free financial advisors can help you lay out your short-term and long-term goals, and make a plan to reach them.

The most important thing is to think long-term. Don’t just get through this week, month, or year. Think about how well off you’ll be in five, 10, or 20 years if nothing changes. Picture yourself as a little old lady living with the money you set aside for her. Be honest; are you taking good care of her?

Related: The Investing Advice Every Millennial Needs to Hear

It may be harder and harder to save, but it’s not impossible. And if you’re a high-earner living in America, you’re probably luckier and more privileged than you realize. In fact, many would argue you’re one of the luckiest people in the world. Don’t squander it.

Instead of wasting your resources on temporary pleasures like dining out, learn to put your family’s financial security first. The sweet taste of financial independence will be worth it.

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Holly Johnson

Holly Johnson is a financial expert and award-winning writer whose obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel plays a central role in her work. In addition to serving as Contributing Editor for The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for inspiring publications such as U.S. News and World Report Travel, Personal Capital, Lending Tree, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns two websites of her own - Club Thrifty and Travel Blue Book. You can follow her on Twitter or Pinterest @ClubThrifty.


  1. George

    But we’re being consistently told that there is no inflation! They just keep hammering the point that there is no inflation. Say a lie many times and people will stating believing it. I’m amused at how many pundits try to very hard to get us to accept that there is no inflation when the real proof is in our wallet.

    So who is correct? the Feds or the actual rise in the cost of living? And if the reality of *living expenses* contradict what the pundits try brain washing us with, what are we to make of these cheer leader types? That they’re out to mask this facade? Every time I hear someone tell me that “there is no inflation”, I’m pretty sure it’s from an arm chair academic.

    • Tom G.

      That’s quite a rant, George. Who is telling you that there is no inflation? Why are you acting like chicken little over information that is verifiably wrong? Look it up man, the numbers are easily retrieved and, over the last 100 years, 90 of them had a > than zero rate for US inflation.

      PS: I also recommend you look up the definition and measures that are reported as inflation as you clearly don’t know them since you seem to be equating it to ‘cost of living’.

  2. Paul

    I agree that we are a very rich country and that most American’s are squandering away their wealth. In your chart above your first few items have to do with oil. If you would have chosen a different date it would have significantly changed the % Increase. For example if you would have chosen any date between 1975 and 1985 you would have seen a net decrease in the price of oil and gas compared to prices today. Not to mention that today’s cars are much more fuel efficient, homes and gas furnaces are much more fuel efficient. In my opinion, the reason America is squandering away their wealth is that they feel compelled to buy, buy, and buy more until their paycheck is gone. How can we change this? The items you detail above are definitely a starting point but America has a long, long way to go. .

    • Holly Johnson

      We do have a long way to go. As cheesy as it sounds, I honestly think what most people need is hope – hope and a belief that the small changes they make will actually make a difference. I know far too many people who don’t get their financial lives together because they believe deep down that it won’t matter.

      • IndyMike

        Well, President Obama promised hope and change. We now have numwanted change and absolutely no hope. Thanks, Barry.

        • Jim

          Speak for yourself. I don’t blame Obama for the financial crisis he inherited. I think most of the changes he’s made (health care, new federal wilderness areas, actions to deal with climate change, etc.) have been wise. And I certainly have hope for the future. Consider who you’re talking about when you say “we,” as you don’t represent the whole of this country.

        • Anonymous

          I agree with you 100%. This country has nose dived since Obama. He knows exactly what he’s doing and his intentions are clear.

        • Origbless

          Correction: Thanks Republican Congress – the most destructive force in America.

          • Sherry

            Correction,, thank you ALL government with your over spending No balanced budget. Overpaid President, Democrats and Republicans who think they deserve outrageous salaries and do nothing to earn it. Stupid taxpayers who allow this to be ok.

      • Hugh Caley

        Holly, there is an entire infrastructure of political organizations (including the RNC) that are dedicated to removing hope from Americans, because they have pinned their hopes for power on the fear they create. You are absolutely right that we need hope – but we are being actively deceived about it for political purposes.

        I think just about any American who plugged his/her pay into the CARE “Global Rich List” app above would be pleasantly surprised and made just a little more hopeful.

      • Mike

        I call it the “Starbuck” instead of spending 10 minutes and $5 day day in the Starbuck drive through, buy a coffee pot and you could afford $40,000 more in a home. Identify the Starbuck in your own budget and reap the rewards.

    • Lela Markham

      It doesn’t matter whether we call it “inflation” or “cost of living”, the fact remains that it costs more to live than it did 15 years ago. As for 1975, I happen to know for a fact that in Alaska in that year, home diesel was 65 cents a gallon. My kid and I did a research paper using my mother’s tax records (she operated a business from our home and kept receipts). Alaska (which is we lived) at the time was considered high-priced for fuel because we had no instate refineries, so I’d be willing to bet that fuel oil in 1975 in the Lower 48 was running somewhere south of 60 cents a gallon.

      Gasoline at the time was $1.69 a gallon (nationwide average) and a barrel of oil was about $12.

      On every price line, you will find a sharp increase between what those items costs in 1975 compared to now. It takes some research,. but when you do it, you quickly discover that the pundits and the government have been spinning the economic story. Maybe there’s no “inflation” by the government’s standard because the government standard no longer includes food and fuel, but when you’re the one trying to get your paycheck to stretch over basic living expenses, the cost of living has gone up and that is an inflation of costs.

      So, is the government lying to us when they say “there’s no inflation”. They’re using rhetorical tricks to make the statement and that’s dishonest. The cost of living has increased dramatically — could we be honest with that?

      • Hugh Caley

        Can you please point out where “the government” is showing “there’s no inflation”? I personally have seen no such information being put out by “the government”.

      • Origbless

        Eliminating food and fuel is one of the Greenspan Era legacies. Desperate times, deceptive

  3. Tre

    Although we are among the higher earners on a world-wide comparison, we have to take into account the higher cost for living. That being said, we live in a society where we are told to spend, spend, spend. Everyone can benefit from looking at their spending and setting a budget.

  4. Amit Sinha

    Instead of relying on survey data, could personal capital analyze anonomized data of its user base and see if there are similar insights? For example, it would be interesting to see something like : over 70pct of personal capital users with income above $100k spend 25pct on dining out – reducing this by 5pct could increase chances of going to college by 75pct , as an example

    • Holly Johnson

      I think that would be really interesting!

  5. Joe Money

    I wonder where they get the spending information from high earners? I don’t think people are willing to give out their private spending information for fun. Watch out for free apps that help you track your money, all your personal and private spending records will go into a pool of public information later disseminated on these websites.

  6. teaisstronger


    that is why.

    • Hugh Caley

      Well, the title of this article is “How America’s “Rich” Are Wasting Their Financial Potential”, so there is no “why” question to answer here. Beyond that, the US is doing better financially in almost every way since Obama came into office, so your statement was nonsense even if it actually made sense.

      • Anonymous

        What country do you live in? Our country is in greater debt than ever because of Obama!!!!

    • Anonymous


  7. Joe Durzo

    Most people simply blow money on useless expenditures.
    I go out to eat about once a month and watch people that I know make very little, spend a fortune on food and cocktails.
    They will spend 30% of a weeks salary on Friday nights.
    That same money saved will grow into a real fortune is just a few years.
    I am considered wealthy, but I don’t spend half as much going out, as these paycheck to paycheck folks.

    • Gary

      Hey Joe!!!
      Save your money when you get a million dollars put it in Chase Bank savings account and receive one quarter of one percent (+ or -) and that equals $ 2,500.00 a year. How many millions of dollars will you have to save to be able to live out your retirement years. Better find something to invest in instead of saving your money.

      • Anonymous

        Check your math there Gary

  8. Chris

    I am so sick of this type of victim-blaming rhetoric. Why do high earners not have enough money? Because living in places where we have access to high earning jobs are NOT high earning enough for the cost of living in those area. In addition we are making student loan payments on the insane loans which were needed to go to a university, and make these “high-earning” jobs attainable.. give me a break.

    • Bob

      Amen, Dude. Amen.

  9. Gary

    I am 76 years old in 1957 I was paying twenty five cents for gas (25 cents) in 57 and when I was in the service 1962 -1968 cigarettes were a $1.50 a carton … Fifteen cents a pack. The first new car I purchased was in 1964 a Chevrolet Impala from De Anza Chevrolet in Riverside California for $2700.00. In 1964 I took out a permit to build a house in Riverside County One hundred and fifty dollars ($ 150.00) the 1200 square foot house cost about $5000.00 to build or less than five dollars a foot and I did most of the work.

    Today Cigarettes are about $5.00 a pack not 15 cents.
    Gas is close to $3.50 a gallon not 25 cents
    The same quality automobile is close to $50,000 not $2,700.00
    Permits cost close to $20,000.00 the last time I thought about building a house not $150.00
    And it is impossible for a carpenter to go into the Planning Commission and lay down a piece of notebook paper with a drawing on it and get a building permit for $150.00. Yes all drawings must be signed by an approved engineer or draftsman.
    house cost over $150 a square foot not $5.00 a square foot

    But still in 1957 I was not making very much money but it did not take much money to live as I lived at home until 1964.

    • Who Ami

      Gary, you’re not saying what you were earning in 1964 and what you would be earning today doing an equivalent job. Then we’ll have a better basis for comparison ….

    • Hugh Caley

      Exactly, Gary. As long as wages increase commensurately, inflation is not a problem.

      • BUD WOOD

        Put graduated income tax payments in those figures and you’ll see that you’ve overlooked something.

  10. John Brooks

    Factors that I did not see mentioned are the cost of government; local, state and federal regulations, actions and taxation that have an upward effect on the price of goods and the cost of living. While I am not a fan of the current federal administration, I am pointing at all government.

  11. John Allan

    Not all high income earners live paycheck to paycheck. My wife and I decided a couple of years ago to pay back every debt including student and car loans and never borrow any money again. Since then, we’ve saved to buy 2 new cars, and have only the mortgage as an obligatory debt payment. We’ve also amassed an emergency fund of 8 months expenses as a hedge against the moron president and congress and what dumb things they might do.

    We still eat out (2 times a month or so), but forego the expensive drinks. We still take a very nice vacation at least once a year. We don’t have the newest smartphones, the fastest internet, the most cable channels, the trendiest new clothes, or the McMansion house that needs to be traded in for another more expensive one every couple years. Instead, we have our freedom.

    Yes, there are some areas of the US where a big salary will not cut it by itself, (Santa Clara, Los Angeles, New York City). That’s partially why we don’t live there.

    Our income has been stagnant to down since about 2003. Well, when there’s not as much coming in, not as much should be going out. It’s simple maths, but some people just don’t get that. And suggesting that small things add up is nonsense. It’s the big impulsive buying that kills a budget. Going out to get new tires, and coming back with a new car instead. Looking for a new mobile phone, and paying it off over 24 months because you don’t have the cash on hand now….and getting a new tablet because it’s such a good deal with your phone plan. Finally, having so much stuff that just maintaining what you have is in itself a big expense. Cut the big stuff, and the little stuff will fall in place just fine.

    • Jim West

      Yeah, John , if it weren’t for the “moron president and congress” you wouldn’t need an emergency fund and could simply live month to month. What a bunch of BS. That said , living within one’s means is always a good idea regardless of income and historical circumstances.

  12. julevern

    Interesting article. Personally I try not to let money become my sole goal in life. I save consistently, give consistently and treat myself to a night on the town every two weeks. I try to invest in relationships that nourish me and thank God everyday for my/our many blessings. I know this sounds “Pollyanna” but it works for me.

  13. John E

    I have zero sympathy for a high-income person who cannot live within his means. Whatever happened to Yankee thrift and individual fiscal accountability? I live in a small 40-year-old house in a desirable neighborhood, keep my cars 20 years, and use the Internet, an antenna, and DVDs from the library instead of money-sucking cable TV. One can put a (generally decreasing) value on various material possessions, but financial independence is priceless.

    • BUD WOOD

      Hear, hear!

  14. ceh4702

    The average income in the USA is around $45K. You need to quit drinking that latte and calm down.

  15. Sully

    Some people simply can’t be helped. Back in the 1990’s I worked in HR for a company that matched 401K contributions dollar for dollar up to 6% of income. And the company matching money vested in one year. Yet still it was impossible to get many people to contribute. Even when I would explain that one could literally contribute $1,000, get a matching $1,000 and then withdraw $1,800 in one year.

    • bigknows48

      Agreed many folks squander their money on useless things, but let’s look at some basics on a college educated head of household with a kids that earns a $100,000 income:

      Monthly net= $6,055 (according to ADP take home pay calculator)
      Rent = $2,000 (for a 4 BR home in a suburb in NJ/CT/NY, a mortgage with taxes on $350K home would be similar…
      Life/Auto/Home Renters Insurance= $400
      Health Insurance Family plan + out of pocket costs =$762 (
      Groceries = $600 (being generous for a family of 3 that never eats out)
      Car Payment= $300 (if only own one to get HoH to and from work)
      Cell phones for adults/Internet/Cable= $160
      Gasoline- $200 (will vary by commute).
      Student loans = $280 (assuming only one)
      401K contribution @ 5% of income = $400

      Were already almost at zero…this guy or gal is doing all the right things, hasnt dined out, seen a movie, bought their kid ice cream, joined a gym, paid for the kid to play soccer, had to repair their brakes, fix a gutter, buy a friend or family member a present, or even done something crazy like go on a weekend trip with their family, let alone contributed to a 529 plan or set aside additional money. If anyone in the Northeast area of the US sees these numbers as out of whack on the high side please keep me honest.

      I guess I just don’t understand why people are surprised by so much paycheck to paycheck living given the cost of living today….I know the baby boomers still think 100K means something because it did for them in 1986 when healthcare was $40 a month and a nice home was $90,000, maybe thats why?

      • Tom

        My family of 3 lives very comfortably on a total household income w/2 earners ~100K . We don’t have car payments (yet have cars both 5 years old or newer), don’t pay for cable, waited to buy a house when the market was in the tank — twice — so we got a rate near zero and a low price and for everything else we saved money. Our 11 year old already has $45K in her college fund (not counting gifts from relatives) even though she knows she is expected to work for the rest of the costs, whatever that ends up being over the anticipated $100,000 I will have saved for her by then. We both even have the luxury of decent smartphones.

        How is this all possible? A big reason is we don’t choose to live in the most expensive areas of the country. We also spend the time necessary to research and comparison shop. Own your choices and take responsibility for your financial situation.

        We save 25% of our income every month, soon to be even more than that. Yeah, we struggled for the first 10 years of our marriage but not anymore. We have friends that make twice or three times what we make who don’t live as well because they drink it away or waste it.

        This ain’t that difficult people. We don’t smoke, we don’t drink and we don’t have expensive hobbies like playing golf. We save and the rest takes care of itself.

        Should we be making more money than we do? Of course! We both have masters’ degrees and 20+ years in our fields but the salary or lack thereof doesn’t determine our success.

  16. Gary

    What is left out of the above cost comparisons is one showing earnings from then and now. The wages most are paid are flat beyond belief! They have only risen slightly in 20 years!

  17. Martin Swett

    The above messages are contrived, written by a ghost writer. The inflections and tones feel all the same. They are polite, too well written and directed. I get it, you hate Obama and want to think it’s the general population that agrees. And the only thing that differentiates you from real news is a ‘sponsorship’ near the title. Way to win over the easily influenced. That’ll also be the base you’ll have to rally. Good luck with that.

    You won’t post this, but it was fun to write.

    Oh, is that a marketing disclaimer below?

    • Martin Swett

      Let’s see how I do?

  18. Frank

    So I emigrated to the USA in 1997 and took out a mortgage for $160k. The property also had two rentals on it which paid the mortgage. We rarely made above 6 figures during this time and lived on about 50% of our income.. Of course having no kids helped as did maintaining my own cars (never sent one to a mechanic yet) and doing all home repairs including doubling the size of our small house using our own bare hands while working 50 hours a week.
    My Wife and I made double mortgage payments and paid the mortgage off in 2003. I then put any spare money in a well diversified stock portfolio and now invest in Stock ETF’s with low fees and some bonds and cash to balance out the volatility.
    I retired in Jan 2014 at 52 with the portfolio worth $1.5M (plus a little pension income if we choose to take it).

    At a historically safe withdrawel rate of 4% (includes increasing each year for inflation) that’s $60k a year income for the rest of our lives. Which is more than enough.. then we have some pension income if we choose.

    As you can see this was not done by living paycheck to paycheck, but we made choices that allowed us to become financially independent. Of course not having kids is a choice everyone wants to make, but its amazing what can be done if your focused.

    Last year we spent about $28k, and that included a 3 week roadtrip for vacation and we didn’t feel like we were living cheap.. Heck in 2006 I finished building a 200mph airplane that I sold last year.. Not a cheap hobby..:)

    • BUD WOOD

      Frank: You did better than I by about double, but then we financed 5 kids. Those luxuries are expensive.

    • Ellabulldog

      yep, kids would have left you with nothing.
      daycare costs and college costs eat away at your savings
      time you spent doing things to save money you would not have had time for
      one of you would maybe have stayed home so that income subtracted for 18 years leaves you with what?

      heck our dog cost us a thousand or two a year….

      It is a choice I asked my wife. We could have a kid and be broke or retire early. We had a kid. We are happy and would not take money or retirement over the joy he gives us. But if you are happy and that works for you great. Everyone is different.

  19. Allen

    Luckily I live in a rural area where the cost of housing is affordable. The median home value is about $135K, and the median household income is about $50K. My wife and I are very fortunate as we are well educated which is reflected in our $120K household income. However even though we have higher than average income, we live in an median priced home and drive two used cars. We live below our means with no debt.

    At the other end of the spectrum I see others that I know that have considerably less income, living in large homes, drive two new cars, and have every expensive toy (power boats, jet skis, snowmobiles, etc.) I just shake my head knowing that they are truly not free. They are a slave to debt.

  20. Frank Luke

    There’s very little thought given for the future and immediate gratification rules, evidently. You only live once and you need to live life to the max and damn the expense. Everybody else is having a ball and heaven forbid not having one yourself !! What consequences .. ??

  21. Dan S

    The answer, as always, is More Home Schooling.

  22. William H

    It’s a few things:

    1) Cost of living has been going up for education, healthcare, food and so forth for a decade. Check the Consumer Price Index.
    2) Taxes increased when Bush tax cuts expired
    3) People are being encouraged to spend more money by 24/7 media and viral advertising
    4) Over-consumption in the US (record high obesity, debt rates, etc)
    5) Flat wage growth since around 2000

  23. Ellabulldog

    We can all budget better or save more. But to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools costs $10000 in property taxes, the fed takes a chunk, state takes a chunk, SS, 9% sales tax, gas tax, tolls, tax on internet and phone. So 100000 is not 100000. It is now maybe 40000 left. Now responsible people have healthcare, life insurance, car insurance, home insurance. Down to 30000 left. Now you have to pay your mortgage. Say that is 20000. Now 10000 left. Have to pay for gas, food, clothes, heat, electricity and gas, water, vacation, pets, activities etc. So where does a family save?

    Now if we lived in a crap neighborhood and rented we could save on many things. Insurance, property taxes and many things a home costs. We could be irresponsible and not pay for health care and life insurance and car insurance.

    It is not eating out of buying stuff that is causing people not to save. Yes it adds up but that is so simplistic to figure that is everyone’s problem while ignoring the bigger picture.


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