But different generations have vastly different ideas of what wealth really means, per a survey of 3,000 active investors (and 1,000 aspiring ones) by U.S. Bank that zeroed in on the oldest and youngest adult age groups to compare their wealth-building priorities and attitudes. It found that boomers largely have a singular definition of wealth, but that’s not quite the case for Gen Z.
The survey asked respondents to select up to three options on how they define “wealth.” The vast majority of baby boomers (61%) agreed that it meant simply having financial security. Their second-most common answer was “having good health” (33%), followed by “being able to afford what I want, not just what I need” (28%).
But simple security wasn’t quite enough for Gen Z, who was more split on what “wealth” meant. Thirty-eight percent defined it as “having a better quality of life” (38%). Being financially secure came in second place (36%), followed by “living life how I want” (28%).
Granted, what defines “better quality” varies by person. But across the board, the deck is stacked against younger generations as they try to build wealth amid inflation, high interest rates, and recession concerns, Gunjan Kedia, vice chair of Wealth, Corporate, Commercial and Institutional Banking, at U.S. Bank, wrote in the report. College tuition costs have increased by 169% since 1980, home prices have risen by 540%, and the average student loan borrower carries $37,000 in debt, she pointed out.
Amid those macroeconomic forces, young workers are particularly prone to comparing themselves to others—and even going into debt to keep up with their spendiest friends. Only 6% of Gen Z investors told U.S. Bank they don’t compare their wealth and investment goals to anyone else’s (that figure jumps to 40% for more self-assured boomers). Gen Zers are also most likely to compare their finances to their parents, friends, and even strangers on social media, although people of all ages tend to define wealth by observing the finances and lifestyles of their people in their circle.
In the sea of luxury vacation photos and over-the-top weddings, it can be easy to assume most people are well-off, but that’s actually a misnomer; more than half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and many big spenders shoulder thousands of dollars in credit card debt to keep up appearances. Most people regret purchases they make in order to impress others or stay on par with spendy peers—and even more regret neglecting to save for their emergency funds or retirement accounts, which should be a priority when building wealth.
“Being capable of paying for ongoing expenses, saving for retirement and emergencies, paying down debt and having a bit more left over for an occasional ‘splurge,’ whatever it might be, is more likely to be aligned with being comfortable,” Mark Hamrick, a Bankrate senior economic analyst, wrote in a recent report about how much Americans think they need to feel financially comfortable (that would be $233,000). “Typically, people fantasize about the notion of getting ‘rich,’ but most aspire to get by or a bit better than that.”
Indeed, research from Purdue University has found that happiness tends to level off as soon as most needs are met, with some money left over. For most people, that magic figure is around $100,000. “These findings speak to a broader issue of money and happiness across cultures,” Andrew T. Jebb, one of the study’s authors, concluded. “Money is only a part of what really makes us happy.”
That’s one lesson boomers seem to have learned long ago.