Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Color is Your Millionaire?

Considering that I think a lot about personal finance, and bother to write a blog about it, you would think I had more interest in reading books about the topic. I like reading books about larger economic issues, such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat, both by Thomas Friedman. And books with demographic information, such as Who We Are Now, or about the lifestyles of different social classes, such as The Working Poor and Bobos in Paradise, fascinate me.
But I don't read much from the personal finance section. I browse books about investing, as I know I have a lot to learn in that area, and sometimes I will flip through books like The Automatic Millionaire if I'm in an airport, but otherwise, I tend to avoid this category. However, I'd heard a lot about The Millionaire Next Door, and thought it might be interesting, so when I had some time to kill the other day, I parked myself in a corner of the local B&N, and started to look through it. But I was only a few pages in when I got really annoyed.
First of all, his data is pretty bogus, as other critics have pointed out. His methods can't be called statistically accurate. But what really pissed me off was the section called "You or Your Ancestors." He's trying to say that no, you don't have to be a Mayflower descendant to be a millionaire, and that not everyone who is wealthy inherited their wealth rather than building it themselves. "America continues to hold great prospects for those who wish to accumulate wealth in one generation," he says. Well, that is all very inspiring but then he proceeds to chart the ethnic makeup of his millionaires vs. the percentage of these ethnic groups in the U.S. population. The #1 group are people of English ancestry, at about 21% of millionaires vs. 10 % of the population. Then you've got Germans, Irish, Scottish, Russian, Italian, French, Dutch, Native American, and Hungarian. If you look at it another way, people of 9 European ancestries are 80.4% of millionaires vs. only being 51.6% of the population.
Doesn't that begin to sound like opportunity might not be so equal for all?!? I mean, hello, this is not the 1800s anymore! If an Irish person becomes a millionaire that can hardly be trumpeted as an example of our equal opportunity society allowing an opressed minority to triumph over adversity. He makes no mention of African-Americans, Asians, or Hispanics as even existing, let alone their representation among millionaires. As for the Native Americans he mentions, I think that is an example of his skewed data. Maybe they slipped in because he was trawling for survey participants at casinos. I just find it anomalous that this is the only minority group that makes it onto his list, and it is at odds with other statistics that I've read about the income levels of Native Americans.
The author also lists a chart of ethnic groups that tend to be more recent immigrants and who make up very small percentages of the population but have higher than usual wealth levels-- I found it rather disturbing that he seems to go out of his way to highlight the position of Israelis on this list, as if to confirm anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews & money.
Of course I am not trying to do a full book review here-- I admit I've only read a small part of it. I do think that the main point of this book, that you are more likely to be wealthy if you don't flash expensive status symbol possessions all over the place, is a valuable message for many people to hear. But I felt like the book should have been titled "The White Millionaire Next Door" or "Some Millionaires that Live Next Door to People I Know," or "Some of My Best Friends are Black but Of Course None of Them Live Next Door or are Millionaires."
I realize that the point of this book is not to critique race relations in America. We do live in a society that at least theoretically offers equal opportunity, and people of all colors, religions and backgrounds can and do become millionaires. But there is also blatant, persistent inequality between the races when it comes to income levels and net worth-- just look at the census data. To indulge in Panglossian gushing about how great it is that we can all become millionaires, and not acknowledge reality is offensive, and just stupid in a book that claims to have some basis in research. Not to mention that the author has obviously just forgotten that something like 30% of his potential readers don't happen to be white.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why don't you read the book and take it for what's it worth? There are always things in life that you can whine about...you just have to suck it up and go on.

Ashley said...

I agree with you. Trying to pass off very obvious inequality as an optimistic sign of economic opportunity is foolish and ignorant. It's very easy to ignore, to respond to them by moving on to other more palatable issues or simply, as an author, refusing to address them completely, but that doesn't do anything to change the fact that that inequality exists.

PS: "Some of My Best Friends are Black but Of Course None of Them Live Next Door or are Millionaires" is totally brilliant.

Miguel said...

Thank you. I've been trying to explain to just about anyone who will listen what a load of crap that Millionaire Next Door series is. The data and assumptions are practically pulled from thin air.

I think it's a bunch of stuff the authors figure people want to hear: Millionaires are frugal, millionaires don't like to drive flashy cars, etc. Heeelllooo... I know plenty of millionaires who drive flashy cars, eat out all the time, take exotic vacations, etc., but the author skips right over them and focuses on the "other" millionaires. WTF, gee I didn't realize it was possible to make sweeping statements with such limited data.

I'm impressed it only too you a few pages to catch onto this sappy load of crap.

Caitlin said...

Between your alt titles, your use of "Panglossian gushing" and of course...the point of your post...well, you're just rocking my world. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Miguel,

I do think you missed the point. The authors clearly explain you can do all the things you described and still be a millionaire (and most people would think you're doing pretty well), but compared to your *potential*, what you *should* be worth, you're way over par.

Anonymous said...

millionare next door is not " a load of crap" besides your observation, the other points in the book are very good

Anonymous said...

A "millionaire" look alike maybe cash flow rich but asset poor. They may own a lot of stuff, but are highly leveraged doing it using high cash flow. This is the mentality of many people, live for today in a materialistic way. The people who are true millionaires tend to be more modest and got that way by using debt correctly and other tools to reach there. I think that portrays the person who saves 10 to 20 percent of their income and trying to get an 8 to 10 percent return on their money over 35 to 40 years. That is how most of us have to do it. We can't afford to be flashy because the debt eats away our savings. I do agree that a lot of these books selectivly use data to prove a point (I'm not advocating it).

Jonathan@MyMoneyBlog said...

You make some interesting points. I didn't read it that way myself though. The book is a marketing tool for the author as well, as he is a consultant for marketing to the rich. To me, he glosses over the race issues as fast as he can, so he can get to his other more attention-grabbing points like the fact that most millionaire drive trucks. He's not actively saying that the world is one peachy fair place.

DSD said...

You admit you haven't read more than a small section of the book, and claim that the author's data is flawed without providing any sources for such an assertion...sounds like a rant to me.

Madame X said...

DSD-
I've read the parts of the book I commented on and skimmed the rest.
On page 250, the methodology is (sort of) explained by the authors: they sent out 3000 questionnaires to households in neighborhoods that were identified as having high net worth. Of those, 1115 were completed and analyzed. Of those, only 385 even had a net worth higher than $1 million. That is a pretty small sample, if about 3.5 million households in the US have over $1 million net worth. The authors also say they supplemented this with data from alternate surveys. They don't explain the methodology for how they found those people, only that they were people htey spoke to over a period of 20 years, and that only another 500 or so of those people had over $1 million net worth. On page 11, they also say that the people they interviewed were paid $100-250, so they might be skewed towards people for whom that amount of money is a bigger incentive.
Since their average millionaire is 57 years old, I'm not sure their profile adds up to that of a "wealthy" person. A 57 year old guy with a net worth of $1 million may be way ahead of the average American, but still seems more like "upper middle-class with decent retirement savings" than "wealthy" to me, so it's not exactly a shocking revelation that he wouldn't wear expensive designer suits or drive a Lamborghini.
They also think they are making a big point by saying that a millionaire is more likely to have a Sears credit card than a Brooks Brothers card-- 43% have Sears and 10% have Brooks. Given that Sears has 2300 locations and Brooks Brothers only has 170 locations, if anything, their millionaires might be more likely to have a Brooks card than you would expect! (Especially since the data is from 1996 when web shopping was not at prevalent) I am not a professional statistician, but how could these guys ignore something so basic in interpreting their data?! They are selectively using numbers that fit their message.

DSD said...

Your response was much more reasoned than your original post and provided the detail I was looking for...thanks.

Anonymous said...

WHITE POWER!

Anonymous said...

if you took the time to read the book rather than revert to a socioeconomic rant you would discover that it was based, as I recall from a random sampling (about 700) questionnaires responded to by persons residing only in certain neighborhoods which the author pinpointed as being likely to contain high net worth individuals. though i am not qualified enough to determine whether this is a scientifically responsible sampling, if "minority" individuals, at leas the ones whom you likely define as minoriites, did not answer said questionnaires or, do not inhabit these locales to an extent satisfactory to you, that does not detract from the author's statistics. I ask that you divluge which publisher you work for so i can avoid purchasing those publications b/c to find racial enmity in something as benign as the Millionnaire Next Door, you must be psychotic.

Anonymous said...

I'm just going to say Madame X has plenty justification for pointing out the lack of racial detail in the book. People who strive to be successful especially minorities will see plenty of barriers that keeps them from their goals. It's difficult for caucasian Americans to understand the struggles any ambitious minority has to go through. For you to be upset that she brought up the topic is unwarranted.

Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed this blog until this last post. Why does race always have to become a central issue in conversation? Who cares about whether the authors of an insightful book failed to characterizes the African American segment of the population of millionaires? I didn't get any real value from the racial/ethnic segmentation discussion in the book other than to suggest that people who are native-born Americans are less likely to carry on the entrepreneurial spirit required to obtain or sustain millionaire status. I don’t see how including the African American population segment would have helped their discussion much since much of the African American population is as much a native-born American as I am. We don’t know how many of the author’s survey respondents were African American, I do see Egypt, which is in Africa. I don’t think the book was suggesting anything further about you as a person or your potential than to say here is what our data shows us about the wealth accumulation habits of people who come to America from another country. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. The central premise of the book is dead on accurate, regardless of what your ethnic background or social status is, if you spend less than you make and own assets, over the course of your lifetime you will likely accrue wealth.

As I read this blog, I realize it is a very courageous and insightful presentation of one person’s pursuit of financial understanding. It’s great because I am learning something from a person I know nothing about other than their innocuous use of everyday life examples demonstrates experience or principles that I might relate to, whether I am black, white, Asian, Italian, male, female, rich or poor. Why should this be spoiled by bringing such pointless fodder for debate of an issue that is ineffectual in helping me achieve greater financial understanding? Shoot, look how much time I wasted getting riled up about this commentary.

Regardless, I still like the blog, great job! I admire your commitment and your dedication.

Anonymous said...

"People who strive to be successful especially minorities will see plenty of barriers that keeps them from their goals."

Bullcrap. How do you account for the success of asian americans. They're "minorities" too. If you do not succeed in these here United States, I have no sympathy for you. Colleges and Universities, and, I might add, high-paying employers, such as law firms, are bending over backwards to find qualified minorities, particularly blacks, to fill positions. If you aint man enough to take advantage of or to recognize opportunities presented, I again have no sympathy for you. As a white man who grew up in a predominantly black inner city area, I was a "minority" (come to think of it, I still am). Oh, I know, I made because I'm white. It was all just handed to me, right? Please. The author of this blog is doing okay for herself. There are probably close to or more than a billion human beings who would change places with her in a heartbeat.

CollegeGrad said...

hehehe, there's always a knee-jerk reaction whenever race is inserted into any equation. I happen to find that fascinating!

In addition, the anonymity of it all... amazing!

Thanks for the link and interesting post.

--CollegeGrad

Anonymous said...

I think the basic premise of the book is being missed. The author is merely presenting data he was retained to assemble by people who wanted to market to the affluent.

Certainly, when one undertakes this sort of venture, they're looking to maximize their responses by mailing to high probability areas.

While this may generally skew the data away from certain ethnic groups, this really has little or nothing to do with the basic messages of the book - not so much that the typical millionaire is a certain race, but how he/she was able to reach this stage based on what the data from the surveys and interviews revealed.

No where does Mr. Stanley say that he feels this is an all-encompassing model. He is merely presenting the story of what his small sampling found, and in turn breaking the stereotype that the average millionaire is the high-rolling, jet-setter.

Certainly the message is not being sent that for any minority to be succesful, they must follow these rules. There is no one-size-fits- all template, but there are some general commonalities which these affluent people share that ANYONE might consider emulating to enhance their wealth - and they have nothing to do with race.

As to what constitutes 'wealthy' - one has to bear in mind that the data from the book is over a decade old. $1 million now, is not $1 million of 1996. I always get a kick out of reports in the news that say 'The is a record number of millionaires in the US this year'. Duh. And next year, and next year, and at some point, they better change the heading to billionaires.....

Steven Burda said...

Good books these were...

-Steven Burda

steven.burda.mba[at]gmail.com

Anonymous said...

You're right. Non-Caucasian Americans are all victims who can’t overcome the circumstances that the white male has imposed upon them. Poor, victimized, can’t-catch-a-break, no-matter-how-hard-they-try, non-whites. No rational human being could possibly suggest anything other than taxing the “rich” middle and upper classes (since they’re predominantly white) to continue to subsidize the lifestyles of the less fortunate.

Victims can’t change because they blame someone else for whatever circumstances they find themselves in. Responsible adults actively work to achieve their goals and don’t let excuses (like “I’m a victim”) stand in their way.

Great blog, just don’t play the victim/race card. Even if there’s a smidgeon of factual basis, it’s unbecoming and terribly self-defeating.

Anonymous said...

Why in the world does everything have to do with race who gives a care. We as americans all have the oppertunity to be successful no matter what the color of your skin. I ask again, Why does everything have to do with race? Minority ha ha, I will be the minority in a couple of years being that I am a white male. Am I going to get any special treatment because of that heak no. Is that fair? Yes it is. No one should get a hand out because of their skin color. The right man for the job is how it should be. Owners should be able to hire and fire any employee if they want within reason. It does not matter if u are black, white, hispanic etc. So the guy did not hit on all races maybee he did not intend on it. Who cares u are just a racist idiot. Everybody and anybody can become successful. All it takes is making the right connections and walking in a place of itegrity. If u are a bum and dress like crap and can not speak correctly you will get no where in the buisness world. Hold your head up high no matter your color. Set your goals have a five year plan and stick to it. If u want to be successful u must not give up on your dreams. Even if u fail. if u look at all the millionairs in the world they have failed more than once. It takes learning to be successful, so get linked up with a mentor and learn from their mistakes by talking to them, So u can learn a from them on a personal level. Success is what u put into it if u give nothing u get nothing. If u can not sacrifice things and give much time to your goal, u will not be successful. A lazy man profits nothing, remember that

Anonymous said...

You can always tell the whiny 20something white boys who respond -- they're 1)illiterate, and 2) react with anger whenever Race is brought up. They also don't like to be reminded that white males make more money as high school dropouts than blacks or women with Ph.D.s do.

I also noticed that MND requires you to be a Male if you want to be a millionaire. If you're female you're graciously allowed to *marry* a guy who can make millions. Every item of his survey showing that female professionals make 50% of their male counterparts for doing the exact same work...get dismissed with "Well, their parents are spoiling those women and that's the only reason they don't make as much money, there is NO gender discrimination in the business world, nope, no way, uh UH, there is NO old-boy-network that keeps white males at the top of the pay charts."

There's good info in MND. But it is definitely a carefully-selected group of people Stanley used for his book.

James & Miel said...

The main issue with the Millionaire Next Door is not that they talk about race, but the survey methodology the authors used.

Of the questionniares they mailed out, only 20% were returned. If you know anything about survey methods at all, you'd know that 20% is an exceptionally LOW response rate. This raises serious questions regarding the quality of Stanley&Dankos data and accordingly of their ability to draw conclusions about millionaires.

Kimsta said...

Great work!
Cheers,
theKimsta

Anonymous said...

Gime me an f-ing break. This is total garbage.

muse700 said...

the millionaire next door is great, in that it shows what millionaires really do, in fact they do many of the things u mention in your blog,
so it looks like u r on track

however, if its the 1st book u write then u'll have my reaction, if ur already rich and moving to millionaire like u
then it has little to offer