Published On

March 17, 2015

Published In


by Donald Liebenson

What can the super wealthy teach us about having a secure financial future?

There is a fine line between who is rich and who is wealthy, and according to New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan in his new book, “The Thin Green Line: The Money Secrets of the Super Wealthy,”being wealthy is better and earns you a place above that line.

What is the thin green line? It is that distinction between rich and wealthy. “Above thegreen line, no matter where on the chart’s progression, were people who were wealthy, from pensioners to billionaires,” Sullivan writes. “They were living in financial comfortregardless of the balance in their brokerage accounts. Below the line were people, rich ornot, who did not have the security of true wealth. They may have had a lot of money inthe bank, but their lifestyles were so extravagant that their finances were fragile, at best.’

“Wealth to me is security,” Sullivan said in a phone interview with Millionaire Corner. “Being ‚Äòrich’ is a number and as we saw in the financial crisis, sometimes that number doesn’t translate into wealth. A teacher who saved well and who has reasonable expectations and leisure activities can be at the very top of the line along with an industrialist like John Huntsman, Sr. But all along that continuum are people essentially hanging on to that line by their nails. Some are probably in freefall and don’t realize it. That is the culmination of some bad decisions and some bad behaviors that they have.”

Sullivan wrote the book to share lessons and insights he has learned as the writer of New York Times’ “Wealth Matters” column. “With better decisions and behaviors, I like to hope that people can get themselves on the right side of that line.”

The book begins with a bracing wake-up call that Sullivan himself received at a lunch with a dozen members of Tiger 21, an investment group that requires prospective members have at least $10 million and requires an annual membership fee of $30,000. They were to examine the investmentdecisions Sullivan and his wife had made. It did not go well. His goals and income expectations, he was told, did not match his current reality and were unrealistic.

A chastened Sullivan and his wife retreated to their second residence, a condo in Naples, FL (which the Tiger 21 crowd adamantly advised him to sell), where Sullivan reflected on his situation. “I thought that if I write about money and have done this for a better part of two decades, and I’m making these mistakes, chances are other people are making these mistakes as well.

“At least I know the right questions to ask. Let me see if I can write a book that would help me and help readers who are not super wealthy, but middle class and above; that person who has real questions and wants real answers and wants to do a few things different perhaps to make their life more secure.”

Sullivan, whose previous book was “Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Other’s Don’t,” created the “Wealth Matters” column for The New York Times six years ago. His emails chart how attitudes toward money and wealth have changed. In the depths of the economic collapse, he said, “the emails were so angry. People wanted to blame somebody and often I was the target. They went after the messenger. The emails improved in 2011 and 2012 and now, they’re wonderful. They are from people who have questions, people who understand that others make more money but maybe they can glean a few nuggets here and there to make their own lives a little more secure.”

One piece of advice Sullivan hopes readers take away from the book is that it is a titanic waste of time to bemoan something over which you have no control. “The shortest chapter in the book is about taxes,” he said. “You can sum it up by saying, ‚ÄòPay your taxes and stop complaining. What you can control is getting a great accountant or tax attorney to make sure you are paying the right amount of taxes or as little as legally possible.”

On the hot-button issue of income equality, he said, “What you can control is how you save, spend, give away; how you think about money. You can become better with your own finances so that if certain programs get cut, you’ve done what you can to make sure you will live a good life. If it turns out that the worst case scenario doesn’t come to pass, then you will have a little extra money, and nobody ever complained about having a little extra money.”