Like many people I know, I’m fascinated by the wealthy. Not the simple rich who have a mere two commas on their net worth statements but the über-wealthy multi-billionaires. Bill Gates. Warren Buffett. The Koch brothers. People with so much money that it boggles the mind to think of how they spend it and where they keep it.
For us wealth voyeurs, autumn is the perfect season. Publications issue all manner of rankings, a veritable surfeit of data that invariably makes my life feel so … so … well, dull and deficient. Last month Forbes magazine came out with its annual Forbes 400, a list that tracks America’s wealthiest. Many are familiar. Others are far from household names and probably prefer the anonymity.
Bill Gates is the richest American for the 21st year in a row, with a net worth of $81 billion. Newcomer Elizabeth Holmes is, at 30, the youngest woman on the Forbes list and the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. She got there by starting the blood-testing company Theranos, now valued at $9 billion. (I don’t know about you, but at 30 I was just getting comfortable in my own skin.)
Sunny South Florida, my backyard, is apparently a wealth magnet, according to my employer the Miami Herald. A recent article listed the area’s 25 wealthiest, from part-time resident Carl Icahn to longtimers Norman Braman, H. Wayne Huizenga, Micky Arison, Stuart Miller, Philip Frost, Jorge Pérez and Mike Fernández.
The net worth of South Florida’s 19 billionaires and six millionaires ranges from $26.6 billion (Icahn) to a still-throat-clearing $200 million (Laurans Mendelson and family, the folks behind Heico Corp, a manufacturer of aircraft replacement parts). The collected wealth of the Forbes 400 totals a whopping $2.29 trillion, equal to the GDP of Brazil.
I’d get dizzy just counting.
Though reading about the nose-bleed section of affluence can be entertaining, truth is that envy always muscles into whatever conversation one might have on this subject, namely because for every rich person there are many poor, hungry ones. After all, how much money do you need to be thoroughly satiated? Apparently it depends on where you stand.
I’ve just read a different kind of wealth report, one with a wider lens and a different perspective. According to global financial services Credit Suisse, $3,650 puts you among the wealthiest half of the world’s citizens. A modest $77,000 qualifies you for the top 10 percent of global wealth holders and a mere $798,000 catapults you to the top 1 percent.
Wealth is definitely, absolutely relative. Someone will always have more — or less — than you do. In fact, 113 U.S. billionaires didn’t have enough money to make it to the increasingly rarefied Forbes 400 list.
So maybe the point is not necessarily how much you have but what you do with it. Gates has used his fortune to help eradicate smallpox and polio, and Buffett, who has already donated almost $23 billion, has pledged to give away 99 percent of his fortune. Closer to home, South Florida’s richest have donated to a wide array of causes — science, education, museums, medical schools, hospitals.
If you’re reading this, the likelihood is that you are among the 10 percent of the world’s richest people. A few of you may even qualify for the top 1 percent. And while it’s amusing to dream about a Lamborghini in the driveway and Stuart Weitzman shoes in your closet, the bigger pleasure may be in deciding what to do with the wealth you do have. It doesn’t take a lot of zeroes to make someone else’s life better.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.