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Let’s get serious: Wealthy people are not evil

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I read this line over at Trent’s blog, The Simple Dollar, where he was talking about people who can afford nice things.

”To get to this point, you either had to make some tremendous sacrifices along the way – often damaging relationships and missing out on life-affirming experiences and going through painful “salad years” without much at all – or simply have had the ability and opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of it – to which I say “good for them” instead of really being jealous of them.”

Anybody see the invisible scripts here?

  • People who have money have terrible lives, including severe sacrifices like “damaging relationships”
  • Or they were simply lucky

As a counterpoint: I have done pretty well in the last few years and, while luck had a lot to do with it, I also worked very hard — and I have not had to go through terrible ordeals or damaging relationships to do so. In fact, I live in New York and San Francisco and go out enough that I can drink most of you under the table on any given Wednesday night.

I’m not picking on Trent specifically, but I want to make a larger point:

Whenever you read pop culture — including this blog — you’ll see implicit biases and invisible scripts appear. They’re often so subtle that you won’t recognize them, and after repeated exposure, you may begin unconsciously agreeing with them.

This is why some people believe:

  • Wealthy people are evil and must have done something bad to attain their wealth
  • Taxes are always bad
  • If someone earns money by selling a product/information, they are out to “get you” and you should try to resist as much as possible…no matter how valuable their product/info is
  • There is no way they can earn more money
  • If only they had [some advantage], they would be able to “really” succeed (this is the Shrug Effect)

Evil money

Here’s a perfect example: a comment from Reddit where the author writes about how evil wealthy people must be.

”The central lie here being getting rich through hard, honest work. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten rich without the determination of screwing other people out of their money.”

How many people do you know that believe this? How successful are they (and I don’t just mean financially)? Or are they simply whiny complainers?

In truth, I can’t just blame them. I understand this script — especially today, seeing crooked politicians and corporations taking as much as they can, leaving ordinary people behind — but that doesn’t mean the “wealthy people=evil” script is correct. Virtually every wealthy person I know has gotten that way through extraordinarily hard work, taking advantage of their social advantage, thinking cleverly to overcome a lack of social advantage, lots of luck…and a clear understanding of what wealth means to them.

These scripts — that wealthy people are bad and must sacrifice their happiness — reinforce people’s implicit beliefs. Those who are struggling in this tough economy read about the evil fat cats making money and it’s understandable that they’re angry. These people have read the frugality sites, done everything they’ve been told — including cutting back on discretionary expenditures and “hunkering down” — but they still can’t seem to get ahead.

Perhaps there’s another way.

Perhaps it’s not just about painting others with a broad brush, but looking at ourselves and automating our finances, not wasting our limited willpower on one-off $5 or $10 purchases.

Perhaps it’s about understanding the psychology of money and then using advanced techniques against ourselves, rather than the illusory satisfaction we receive from judging our neighbor’s $20,000 wedding.

And perhaps it’s about cutting costs to a reasonable extent…and then shifting to the critically important area of earning more.

Here are quotes from my students on how they’ve gotten ahead:

I have secured, as of this morning, better than $10,000 in side income over the next two months from one mega client, with prospects to continue with similar compensation. This is up from roughly $100 per month before. I have not only met my goal for the course, but met my goal for the remainder of the year! I owe this success in no small part to the Earn1k course. I think that once I invested my own money (and more than just $50 for a book), that added enough incentive to get off my ass and make things happen. A 2000% return on investment doesn’t seem too bad to me, either, especially considering the course is only about half over. Thanks, Ramit.
— Ben D.

I just made $100 in a few hours of work thanks to your FREE niche advice. I always see your testimonials of how people went from $8/hr to $50/hr and while I know it’s not b.s., i’ve always been skeptical for some reason but I actually did it myself…I’m ready to move to that next level.

I made my first 1K yesterday. Not only that, I am hired on retainer as well (upselled after the completed project). You were so right about making the fact that I spent time fixing the mistakes that the vendor made a benefit.
–Dean S.

I just wanted to thank you for the earn1k course. I bought the standard course. Without even finishing all the modules yet, I’ve made over $900 bucks in about 6 weeks tutoring accounting students. It paid for itself in less than a month. Good stuff bro, keep up the good work.

You can sit and complain about wealthy people being evil, or…

If you’re interested in seeing how to make money without being evil or “salesy” or sacrificing relationships, I’m opening up my Earn1k course — an online course I hand-crafted to help you earn side income — in a couple weeks. Until then, get free content that you’ll never see publicly on this blog (or anywhere else): Join the FREE preview Earn1k course.

You have nothing to lose and the free material alone has earned some of my readers thousands of dollars. But believe me — I will try to sell you on my course because it’s good. Very good.

Here’s the link.

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  1. I just left my FIRST client and I felt guilty about billing her $35/hour for presentation design. Let me be clear: Guilty, as if I was slapping a baby or kicking a puppy. And my training in Earn1K kicked in.

    I’m worth this (I’m actually worth MORE, but my first client and all.) and I shouldn’t shirk away from it. When she handed me the cash for my first billable hour, I felt like HOLY CRAP, I can DO THIS.

    So what am I doing in my office (instead of watching mindless TV)? I’m getting the next two billable hours done.

    Pfft. Wealthy people are evil. That’s sour grapes baby. Deeply sour grapes.

    Pick your expertise, your passion. Figure out how people can benefit from it, what they need.

    And then bill them for it.

    • I know I’m a little off the beaten path as far as carreers go. I work as a Manager at a fortune 100 company but my wife and have a cleaning business on the side. She/we clean residential and commercial properties.

      I said that to say this. When you go in for the bid, don’t short change yourself. People are either too busy or too lazy to do things for themselves and are willing to pay handsomely for someone else to do it.

      She was laid off from her job about 4 years ago, now we make a quiet $50,000 on the side. Ask people for the money, believe in yourself. It works.

  2. “If someone earns money by selling a product/information, they are out to “get you” and you should try to resist as much as possible…no matter how valuable their product/info is”

    I always found that one to be very interesting because often times, if its free, people assume its worthless and/or just a way to upsell another product. So what products/information are we supposed to listen to?

    I’d guess one of the usual answers would be “experts” on television, who often also have some sort of product to sell in their utility belt of business, but they are on Opera and therefore are right. Another example would be college/university, where you are in fact paying (usually paying would be more accurate when you consider scholarships and the like) for the information you are learning. Clearly the difference is the seller that everyone thinks is out to get them has a long way to get the reputation that a television appearance (often already requiring a reputation) brings and a university has.

  3. What most people don’t realize is that the real wealthy people got that way by having good habits from the beginning. Not living beyond your means and saving money in your 20’s when compound interest is on your side can be a HUGE advantage. (even if it’s just $100 a month) Many people drink/eat/shop their money away in their 20’s and then wonder why they’re broke in their 30’s. Hmm, maybe cause you weren’t thinking about the future…

    Anyway, I fully intend on signing up for Earn1K when it’s open again. I kind of regret not signing up last time, but I was already with work and two night classes… can’t wait. 😀

    • I completely agree with you. I am 24 and I did shop my money away for years. I am more focused now and working towards being as close to debt free as possible by the end of next year. Plus I am spending money on what is much more important to me. Traveling!

      I also found a parttime job for $22/hour. Not much but enough to start slowly getting ahead. I would only work weekends. I will bring in an extra $500-900/month. In the next couple of years I will have a Masters degree and I hope I will be a licensed forensic psychologist.

  4. Hey Ramit,

    I’m curious about your take on San Francisco versus New York in the rich people are evil script. Huge generalizations below, but…

    It seems to me that in SF you’re much more likely to meet people that earned money doing something productive from an economy-wide point of view, for example doing a startup somewhere in the tech space and then selling it to a larger company.

    In NYC you’re much more likely to meet young people who made money as i-bankers and the truly wealthy that either inherited their money and/or moved to NYC from somewhere else. I don’t actually think my friends that went to be i-bankers do that much for the economy (they definitely work hard, though). Because finance plays such an outsized role in NYC’s moneyed-class, and because a lot of finance is about taking a small piece of a big transaction (securitization) or trading equities, it seems sensible to me to admire the wealthy in SF and grumble about the wealthy in NYC.

    Anyway, do you detect differences in attitudes toward wealth on the coasts?
    (As a disclaimer, I appreciate the role of credit in the modern economy, and think folks on Wall Street to important work so I don’t want to diss them too hard, but if I were to estimate their importance economy-wide I would say they deserve like 5% of corporate America’s profits, not the 40% they sucked up at the peak of the bubble).

  5. To me, the funniest thing is that I see so much of our “primate status” instinct in this script. We look to our peers to determine our own place in the social hierarchy. If their lives don’t match our expectations, we come up with rationalizations–they did “evil” things to get ahead, they were just extraordinarily lucky, they had to sacrifice their core integrity/family/health to do that thing. We NEED that rationalization about others’ behavior to make us feel OK about ourselves.

  6. Scripts like these are first a way of justifying our own apparent lack of success compared to Ms. X. I might not be rich like her but that’s because I don’t (insert gross generalization about the rich here). Later, they become internalized and self-fulfilling.

  7. There are a multitude of reasons why some people are wealthy just as there are different reasons people are not. Circumstance is a big factor that we can’t always control, but choices make a huge impact.

    If you’re not where you want to be (financially or otherwise) what choices can you make to improve? If you want to be making six figures and you just started your career, what options do you have?

    Scripts that say the rich are rich because they’re cutthroats are just the easy way out. Focus on what you can control, your choices, and cerate a system to get you there.

  8. What an overly simplistic post. A lot of wealth is effectively evil, and hard work is not a license to enjoy it. The “effectively evil” part comes from the opportunity cost: At what point does someone’s desire for an expensive item trump a kid’s need for basic health care? These tradeoffs exist every single day. (In this case, it’s not the pursuit of lots of money that’s the problem; it’s the sitting on it and thinking that your very marginal enjoyment of the extra $10,000 or $100,000 constitutes a worthy use.)

    Alex F hit the nail on the head about hard work: It’s not clear to me that people who bust their a— working 80 hours per week for in banking, laws, entertainment, etc. are adding as much value to the world as their salaries imply. They clearly might add some, but the actual amount depends in complex ways on the nature of the work and its impact.

    Money can be a highly distorted representation of value, and its pursuit via certain modes can be a questionable use of time. Given the state of the world, it requires an unusual shortage of empathy to argue that wealth in and of itself is morally neutral.

    • So you are saying that a person’s wealth is “effectively evil” if they spend it on anything other than the most needy person or cause? So I can NEVER justify a nice dinner out or massage – no matter HOW HARD I might have worked for my money – so long as there is a hungry child in the world somewhere? Hmm. I’m not saying that shopping for fun is anywhere near as valuable as charitable giving, but it seems a little extreme to use words like “evil” and to assert that hard work isn’t a “license to enjoy” the fruits of your labor. What exactly is your alternative? That everybody take a vow of poverty no matter how much income they make? Ah, but then to whom would we give our money – we’d all be poor! 🙂

    • I agree with Meg. From what I understand many wealthy people give quite a bit of money away to charities. It may not all be just to give from the heart because there is also the perk of charitable donations that are tax deductible.

    • Meg & Quita – I don’t know where the line is either. (For the record, I do generally like markets and am not socialist. I just think markets need tempering.) Everyone has a right to happiness, but there comes a point where I believe it’s wrong for someone to choose a teensy bit of extra enjoyment when the same resources could go a long way to lifting someone from misery. I feel like this is a tradeoff most of us ignore from day to day. “Evil” isn’t really my favorite word, since it’s a term usually reserved for deliberate malice; that said, I think the vast majority of genuinely avoidable suffering in the world results indirectly from apathy. It would be really easy to correct a lot of harms if we donated more to increase literacy, improve health, and improve access to contraception. This is harm through neglect, i.e., opportunity cost.

      Peter Singer sums up the issue nicely by asking whether we’d spoil our nice shoes to rescue a kid drowning in a small pond if no one else (or not enough other able people) were around. Most of us agree it would be wrong not to save the kid, even if we have to sacrifice our shoes. If the kid happens to be on another continent and the shoes are really pretty and on sale, however, the thought usually doesn’t cross our minds.

      George Bernard Shaw said, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.” That’s the “evil” I’m getting at.

    • I really enjoyed reading this. Good points!

  9. I just don’t understand this point of view, but I have definitely seen it. My best friend (I love him to death, but this drives me nuts) firmly believes that anyone who accumulates serious wealth must be evil in some way or a “corporate tool”. I’m not sure where the cutoff is in his crazy theory, but he includes me in this bracket since I made a chunk more than him (however I’m not even in the six figure bracket) and I aggressively save. I told him I work 35-40 hours a week and am very happy with my job (recently got a promotion too), but he insists that I am selling out and am miserable. I rarely do side work because I love my free time, and my wife works so much I like to be available to help or take care of things for her. His theory (especially concerning me) is especially ridiculous because I work for a university and not the corporate world (where I would make more)!

    To elaborate on this, people in my group at work generally make a lot more than me, some in the six figure range. They are not evil. They have spouses with successful careers too. They did nothing horrible to get ahead; none of them went to graduate school even. They simply started working high paying jobs in their late 20s and have since… now they are very comfortable. These people are role models to me, not evil! Many of them consult on the side and are very successful there too- they even charge a very reasonable rate.

    So long story short, I recently wrote something pretty similar to my friend (over IM), and surprisingly enough he actually consented that it was all very reasonable and maybe he was a bit harsh and jealous. Sometimes people who feel this way just need to have some rational discussion.

  10. I would agree that wealthy people are not evil, and I think in todays time, they are not doing truly evil things (as compared with history) to attain that status.

    However, I think in our current society the journey to becoming wealthy (or staying there) is rife with opportunities for moral ambiguity.

    As described in the post, becoming wealthy can be contributed a lot to luck and opportunity, but from an outside observer that doesnt have these things, their conclusion is that person must be morally corrupt.