When The New York Times hired Paul Sullivan to write his “Wealth Matters” column 13 years ago, Americans’ views on wealth and wealthy people were changing quickly.
“In 2008, when I interviewed for the job, Bear Stearns went out of business. I was told I could create the ‘Wealth Matters’ column when Lehman Brothers collapsed,” he says. My first column came out the weekend that Bernie Madoff was taken out of his apartment on Park Avenue.”
Between then and October 2021, when his last column came out, Sullivan had what investors might call a “strong track record” of writing about how people’s ideas about what it means to be wealthy in this country changed over time.
Grow caught up with Sullivan as he started his next project, The Company of Dads, an online community for fathers who take on primary parenting responsibilities. They talked about what it really means to be wealthy, how the rich and famous spend their money, and which billionaire extravagance is worth the money. “I’ve always been able to tell the difference between people who are rich and people who are wealthy,” he says.
You can be wealthy “whether you’re a schoolteacher or a billionaire.”
Some of Sullivan’s readers didn’t like how he came to define wealth not by how much money you have but by what you can do with the money you have. “I think someone is wealthy if they can do X when they want to, whether they are a schoolteacher or a billionaire,” he says.
He mentioned billionaire businessman Jon Huntsman, whose company invented, among other things, the plastic clamshell containers that Big Macs used to come in, as well as his aunt, a retired schoolteacher whose savings allow her to buy whatever she wants for herself and travel whenever she wants to see family.
Sullivan says that there are likely to be a lot of hedge fund managers among those who are rich but not rich. “They make a lot of money, but they may also be highly leveraged,” he says. This means that a lot of their money on paper may come from investing money they borrowed.
He also says that the fact that they don’t have control over their financial decisions is a key sign that they are not wealthy. “Life will decide for them what to do.”
Does he think the billionaire’s wealth is worth splurging on? Flying on your own
Most of Sullivan’s columns were either about financial news that people in high tax brackets could use or about money lessons that middle-class people could use. But the third type of story by Sullivan, which he calls “voyeuristic,” got him up close and personal with the 1%’s hobbies, which were so expensive that they made his eyes pop out.
In a world of five-figure workout plans and private sports car racing clubs, Sullivan found one luxury that was definitely worth the money (if you have it). “Flying private is the only one I would definitely want to do and dream about,” he says.
“This story was written at the Gulfstream factory, where I paid a lot of money to do it. Even worse, I wasn’t going anywhere. I went to Savannah, came back, and went home. It was great.”
Sullivan didn’t say much about whether or not he’d want to own a jet, but his reporting on the subject shows that billionaires who want to save money fly charter. It’s hard to justify the cost and labor that go into the rest of the rich guys’ hobbies, though, if you’re not passionate about them, Sullivan says.
“I talked with Stuart Sternberg, who went from working at Goldman Sachs to owning the Tampa Bay Rays, and you think, ‘That must be great.’ But there’s so much involved in owning a team.”
“It takes some of the romance out of it,” he adds. “Even the guys with the huge yachts Unless they’re superwealthy, they were trying to charter it out, ensuring they had the right crew. Instead of a 300-foot yacht, I think I’d rather have a friend with a 300-foot yacht.”
The No. 1 money habit of wealthy people
Throughout his tenure writing the column, Sullivan talked to nearly 5,000 sources about wealth in America. Unsurprisingly, his No. 1 piece of advice from this pool of collective money wisdom boils down to a relatively simple idea. “Have a plan. Write everything down,” Sullivan says.
“As simple as it sounds, it’s important to know how much I’m making, how much I’m saving, and how much the house costs,” he points out. “It’s a tedious exercise, but people are always shocked.”
That isn’t to suggest that Mark Cuban and Jeff Bezos are donning a little green visor and getting a piece of graph paper out to crunch the numbers. “Superwealthy people have someone write it down for them,” Sullivan says.
“But they read it. The wealthiest and most successful people have a plan. And it’s not necessarily rigid. They’re regularly looking at it, revising it, and they know where they stand.”
By writing everything down, Sullivan says, you can establish the beginnings of what he calls a “locus of control”—the intentionality around money that is common among people who have the wealth to spend freely on the things they want.
“Taking a nuts-and-bolts approach to your money is a pretty good indicator that someone is going to be successful,” Sullivan says. “If you know how much you earn, what you need to live on, and where your money is going, you have a foundation on which to build your financial future.”