The following article appeared in the August 15, 2006 issue of USA Today.
By Edward Iwata, USA TODAY
Call it millionaire mania, the get-rich-quick syndrome gone wild.
What’s with our obsession with bagging that magic $1 million? Ever since money became our mantra, dreamers and schemers have fixated on a million bucks as their most-prized jackpot. If you land that elusive fortune, or even come close, you’ve truly made it.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, having a good job and owning a home was the American Dream,” says Loral Langemeier,author of best seller The Millionaire Maker and head of financial consulting firm Live Out Loud in San Rafael, Calif. “Now, being a millionaire is the new status symbol. It means you’ve arrived.”
Millionaire madness fills our popular culture, literature and business lore. Just look around:
•TV hits and best sellers. NBC’s Deal or No Deal and America’s Got Talent, plus other shows with $1 million prizes, are among the biggest hits in recent years, as a nation of couch potatoes live out the fantasy from their living rooms.
How-to investment books tell readers how to attain the moneyed life. Long-running best sellers include: The Automatic Millionaire by David Bach, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker and The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko.
•Get-rich-quick seminars. Starry-eyed fans fill convention halls and sports arenas to hear success secrets from business and motivational speakers. This year, 119 investment shows will draw 16,000 exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of people, says associate publisher Michael Hughes at Tradeshow Week magazine and custom research.
Among the most popular: the Real Estate & Wealth Expos by The Learning Annex educational firm, which spotlight Donald Trump, Anthony Robbins and other big names. “One Weekend Can Make You A Millionaire!” blares a recent newspaper advertisement.
•Casinos and lotteries. Casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, plus online gambling sites and casinos on Native American reservations, entice people to drop their hard-earned cash in the unlikely crapshoot to become millionaires.
Government lotteries encourage folks to dream of becoming multimillionaires. In the popular Mega Millions game, a dozen states from California to New York offer a current jackpot of $31 million. Last year, according to this sweepstakes company, U.S. lottery sales hit $53 billion, reports the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.
Even politics isn’t immune from the millionaire mystique. In Arizona, one lucky voter in each general election might win $1 million if an initiative to boost interest in voting wins on the November ballot.
“We’re enthralled and spellbound by wealth,” says sociologist Paul Schervish,director of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and author of The Modern Medici. “We all aspire to be prosperous, to go from rags to riches, to attain the American Dream.”
Some call the quest for $1 million the classic Horatio Alger tale. Others call it a lottery fantasy, a gambler’s delusion. No matter to millionaire wannabes, who have chased wealth since the late 1800s, when the Carnegies and Rockefellers ruled the Gilded Age.
It’s no wonder the dream has such staying power. The U.S. economy, stock market and family inheritances have spawned a record number of millionaires.
The number of people with $1 million or more in net worth in the USA grew 7% to 2.7 million in 2005, says the World Wealth Report by investment firms Merrill Lynch and Capgemini. During the Gilded Age, there were only 4,000 millionaires.
Not surprisingly, many say the media feed much of the public’s wealth fantasy.
In Deal or No Deal, the No. 2 TV show last spring, contestants play for $1 million in briefcases toted by models. One of this summer’s top shows is America’s Got Talent, which offers $1 million to the victor of a variety talent competition. Five years ago, ABC’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire ruled the ratings, and the 1950s hit show The Millionaire featured an anonymous tycoon who gave $1 million to strangers.
Network executives and producers say viewers love rooting for the common man or woman struggling to make it financially.
“We cast people who don’t have a lot of money or property,” says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, the production firm that created Deal or No Deal and other hits. “They can come on the show and, in the course of an hour, go home a millionaire. That appeals to something very basic.”
In April, Thorpe Schoenle, a 37-year-old Chicago firefighter, came the closest to snagging $1 million, leaving the show with $464,000.
Dubbed “the ultimate gamer” by family and friends, Schoenle likened the show to playing blackjack, Risk or Monopoly, where statistical probability plays a role. Before a wildly cheering studio audience, Schoenle coolly calculated the odds of winning big money.
“It’s been a godsend,” says Schoenle, who used his winnings to splurge on home landscaping and a swimming pool, before sinking the rest into conservative investments and college funds for his three kids.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the well-to-do aren’t all jetsetters or rich kids born into money. Most are hardworking, self-made entrepreneurs from all walks of life who’ve steadily built their wealth, say scholars and financial advisers. Look at:
•The ferret guys. In 1994, Joe Palko and Scott Sanfilippo were toiling as a high-tech salesman and a United Parcel Service manager. One day, the ferret owners realized that few pet stores carried food and toys for their furry creatures.
So they launched TheFerretStore.com, an online retailer that quickly took off. They started several more pet-related online stores and a Web design firm called Solid Cactus. Last year, their companies — Neeps and Solid Cactus in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — hauled in $7 million in sales.
“Everyone wants wealth. Everyone wants to live on Wisteria Lane,” says Sanfilippo, referring to the fictional street on ABC’s Desperate Housewives. “They don’t realize that money isn’t handed to you. Money is earned.”
•The Mormon investor. After art school at Brigham Young University, Ken Starks lived in an artist’s loft in a gritty part of downtown Los Angeles. Tiring of poverty, he worked as a mortgage lender and became a top salesman, earning a six-figure salary.
But after checking out a financial seminar by Langemeier three years ago, Starks got religion. He renovated and resold old homes. He invested in oil wells. He began a financial-planning firm for people in debt, and offered them the best iva in the region. Starks says he’ll hit $1 million in net worth next year.
“This is capitalism at its best, but you can’t become pompous and egotistical about it,” says Starks, who gives 10% of his income to the Mormon Church, drives old cars and wears faded jeans.
•The furniture brothers. Darrin and Jeff King, brothers from Corning, N.Y., dumped their sales jobs eight years ago to start Clubfurniture.com, a retailer of high-quality, handcrafted furniture in Charlotte.
Competing against Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel, they offer goods at lower prices with faster deliveries. Now, Clubfurniture.com is growing at a 20% clip and will hit $7 million in sales this year.
Says Jeff King: “All the sweat equity, enjoying the fruits of your labor, is more gratifying than millionaire status and material things.”
For these business folks, the millionaire phenomenon is about good, old-fashioned capitalism and the entrepreneurial spirit. For others, though, it’s about the greed-driven pursuit of riches.
Joan DiFuria, a psychologist and co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif., says our overachieving society continues to blindly worship wealth, chaining people’s identities and self-worth to it.
“Everything is about making money,” says DiFuria.
The good news, she adds: More rich folks are questioning the meaning of their lives in an era of terrorism, wars and corporate scandals, and they hope to put their money to more altruistic uses.
Reinier Evers, director of Trendwatching.com, a business trend consulting firm in The Netherlands, says that consumer-driven societies adulate status and luxury goods and services, what he calls the “über premium” market. “With the U.S. the most consumer-focused society on Earth,” Evers writes in an e-mail, “it is not surprising that the obsession with wealth is reaching an all-time high.”
Not peanuts, but …
The big irony? Today, the millionaire club isn’t as exclusive as in years past. It’s almost pocket change for some Wall Street bankers, Hollywood stars and Fortune 500 executives.
Nor does it go nearly as far as it used to for middle- and upper-middle-class wage slaves, given inflation, the roller-coaster economy and the higher costs of living and retirement. For house hunters in pricey markets from San Francisco to Manhattan, it’ll barely get you a two-bedroom home.
“Way back in Rockefeller’s era, a million dollars was serious money,” says Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University and author of Money and the Meaning of Life. “It was a symbol of a new nation’s optimism and capitalism.”
He’s right. When philanthropist and Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, $1 million was worth $14 million in today’s dollars.
Nor does $1 million guarantee long-term happiness beyond the initial euphoria of the newly minted rich, say scholars and psychologists. Needleman calls it “a cheap symbol of success” that pegs everything to the bottom line, while not feeding one’s inner life, moral values and spirituality.
The entrepreneurs agree. “Money is very important, but only enough of it to live comfortably,” Palko says. “Without great friends, co-workers and family, all the money in the world means nothing.”
Many lottery winners and gamblers who gain sudden wealth cannot handle the glaring fame and pressures, say psychologists and investment pros. The media are full of cautionary tales of such people who fail to invest wisely and squander millions of dollars.
Langemeier, who advises professional athletes on money, says it’s tough to teach football and basketball players about finances. Many blow their cash and have nothing left when they leave sports. When she asks athletes whether they’d rather buy a $180,000 Ferrari or a $1 million office building in a boom economy, nearly all pick the Ferrari, even though the office would be worth millions more in a few years.
“With money comes greed, new cars, new homes, new lifestyles,” Langemeier says. “People want the overnight success but not the responsibility of it.”
Despite the long odds against striking it rich, many millionaire wannabes remain deluded by the lottery fantasy, believing that wealth will fall their way if their luck stays golden.
Why? Schervish calls the fantasy “a mass mirage that’s not grounded in statistical reality. It happens often enough to be reinforced in people’s minds.”
In short, don’t expect many to kiss off millionaire mania anytime soon.
“A million dollars represents the American Dream,” says NBC Senior Vice President Craig Plestis, explaining the wide appeal of Deal or No Deal to all ages. “A million dollars changes your life.”