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What's 'Rich'? Depends on How Old (and Rich) You Are

Daly and Newton | The Image Bank | Getty Images

Defining "rich" is usually a numbers game. Is it $400,000 a year in income, or $5 million in net worth? Is $250,000 rich in New York? In Peoria?

But wealth is just a vehicle for greater ends. So when asked about their broader definitions of wealth, a majority of investors surveyed in a recent study by the Spectrem Group said wealth meant "greater security." Ranking a distant second place was "more happiness," followed by "more responsibility" and "more fun." Ranking last was "more stress."

The results, however, differed by age and net worth. Older respondents were far more likely to say that being rich meant security, while younger investors were more likely to associate being rich with happiness and fun.

(Read more: Where Do the Happiest Millionaires Live?)

Older investors were also more likely to say wealth brought more responsibility and a more complicated life.


The richer you are, the more likely you are to associate being rich with security and responsibility. And corporate executives were more likely to associate being rich with "more stress."

What does this all tell us? That Americans have a pretty good sense of what wealth can – and more importantly – cannot buy. Yes, it brings a certain form of security and fun. But it also brings more responsibility, stresses and complications. Wealth doesn't erase life's problems: it just replaces them with more expensive ones.

(Read more:Rich Want to Give Kids Values, But Spoil Them Too)

In my experience of reporting on the rich, being rich seldom means "less work." Except, of course, for lottery winners.

To me Warren Buffett just gave the best definition (and motivation) of being rich: "To allow me to do what I want to do everyday." Even if that means spending your days reading balance sheets and quarterly earnings reports.