The varying degrees of rich

I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in its state. If you told people you were from my town, they’d call you a “Richie.” Nevertheless, many people in my town identified themselves as “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class” instead of as “upper-class” or “rich.” There were many people in my high school who, when applying to college, applied for and qualified for financial aid.

Many times people use the term rich as a monolithic one. The rich are rich and the poor are poor. To a certain extent, that’s true. Even if you’re on the lower end of rich, you are in a very, very small minority percentage-wise of the US or world population. But there are still varying degrees of “rich,” and they do lead very different lifestyles.

What got me thinking about this was a thread on the Ubuntu Forums asking what will happen when Mark Shuttleworth’s money runs out. Mark Shuttleworth is the founder of Ubuntu Linux, and his initial investment was about US$10,000,000. He also spent, before he set up Ubuntu, about US$20,000,000 to fly into space as a space tourist. In 1999, he sold his company Thawte for about US$575,000,000.

Now let’s think about the typical rich town resident (like the people in my town). My parents were both university professors, so we were barely rich enough to live in the rich town, but we did. A lot of my friends’ parents were doctors or lawyers. Doctors and lawyers can make a lot of money—six-figure salaries, maybe eventually a million a year. If you were a millionaire, you were rich, even in the rich town.

But there is a huge difference between being even a millionaire and being a half-billionaire.

If you’re a millionaire, you can afford a nice house in a rich town, but you’re probably still paying a monthly mortgage. You can go out for meals at fancy restaurants every now and then, you probably own a couple of expensive cars, and you can pay your kids’ college (that’s university, for you non-Americans) tuition without taking out a loan. You’ve still got to be mindful of your money, though. You can’t spend recklessly, and you can’t just quit your job.

If you’re a half-billionaire like Mark Shuttleworth, you don’t have to work. You can invest your money, and the interest you earn on that money per year is probably more than most people earn in a lifetime. In other words, Mark Shuttleworth has about as much money as five hundred millionaires. If he lived to be 100 years old, never invested any of his money, and just had the US$575,000,000 from the original Verisign deal, he could spend US$21,288 every day and run out of money only a little after his hundredth birthday.

That’s more than half my yearly salary he could spend every day and not go broke for another 65 years. Do we have to worry about Mark Shuttleworth running out of money? I highly doubt it. And, hey, he set up Ubuntu on the Isle of Man for a reason. The guy is not dumb. I don’t know if Ubuntu will ever be profitable, but I know it’s not going to die in my lifetime for lack of funds.

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