What Is The Real Meaning Of Wealth?

Fisherman Over Bosphorus BridgeAuthor bio: The following is a guest post from Steve the Money Infant. There he blogs daily about money; how to save it, make more and avoid wasting it. You can also find him on Twitter every day sharing great posts from all around the PF blogging world.

Do you think you are wealthy? In fact, what is wealth really? The Free Dictionary defines wealth as follows:

  1. An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources; riches. The state of being rich; affluence.
  2. All goods and resources having value in terms of exchange or use.
  3. A great amount; a profusion: a wealth of advice.

I think that many and possibly most people focus on the 1st meaning of wealth. We are so concerned with material wealth while there are many other kinds of wealth that we should be striving for. It hasn’t always been this way though. The word “wealth” actually comes from two Old English words; “weal” (meaning well-being) and “th” (meaning condition of) which when combined means “the condition of well-being”. That is significantly different when compared with the common usage of the word wealth these days.

While I certainly wouldn’t try to denigrate the usefulness of material wealth, in many ways my life has become a striving for wealth in the Old English sense of the world. I do not claim to have a great deal of wealth. Much of what I owned was sold before our move to Thailand. My investments are sorely lacking and my income, while sufficient to satisfy our meager needs, is certainly not that of what you would consider a wealthy person. What I do have on most days though is what I would call inner wealth; a great sense of well being or inner peace.

Outer Wealth

I am not going to deny that I do enjoy some of the trappings of wealth. 5 star hotels, Michelin restaurants, exotic travel and luxury items are all very nice. The thing about all of these outer wealth manifestations is that they are fleeting and in some ways illusory. That is, they don’t stay with you in any meaningful way other than as pleasant memories or items that once cherished become taken for granted among your day to day life. It may bring you momentary happiness when you purchase a Cartier watch, a Benz or those to die for Jimmy Choo’s, but the happiness doesn’t last long and soon you are once again searching for something to bring you peace.

Some even try to amass wealth simply for the sake of wealth. They claim a sense of security and safety comes from the knowledge that their wealth is there to back them up. This begs the question; How much wealth is enough? I continue to see wildly different amounts thrown about. There was a survey done on the super wealthy (those with net worth over 25 million dollars), finding that even among this group they do not feel financially secure and would need an additional 25% added to their already considerable fortunes to feel financially secure. Some claim they wouldn’t feel secure until they have 1 billion dollars. I wonder if they would even be satisfied then?

One other common theme I see among those striving to become wealthy is the trade off in terms of lifestyle, health and family connections. Is it worth it to lose the joys of watching your child grow up. What type of connection are you making with your family when you are gone or sleeping 85% of the time? And what lessons are you teaching your children. Those who live this type of life are almost sure to become wealthy by most standards, but at what cost?

I will be honest with you and admit that while still living in the U.S. I was as guilty as anyone regarding the need for outer wealth. I spent way too much time at work, focused more on my finances than my family and never felt that we had enough. Enough in those days was enough to leave my job and move to Thailand. It turns out I was richer than I once thought and since making the move my focus and priorties have shifted dramatically.

The beginning of the shift was making the actual decision to move. Up to that point I was always focused on having more money, feeling that we wouldn’t be able to afford everything we wanted (note I said wanted) once we arrived in Thailand. My figures for the move ranged anywhere from $60k to $90k at that time. My wife didn’t feel the same way, but went along with me for some time, I think she was just waiting for the right moment to strike :)

If we had followed our plans back then we would have waited a minimum of 8 more months to move, but life doesn’t always wait for your plans. Changes at my work, additional responsibilities in an already busy schedule and a feeling that the company didn’t value me as a person led to the early decision to finally call it quits and move on to another phase of life. I was considerably shy of the $60-90k I “thought” we would need and my income was just barely enough to cover our living expenses (based on my projections). Even so, I quit that job, we bought tickets, sold our stuff and said goodbye to life in the U.S. I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it, but this was a dream we had shared for almost 5 years and it was time to finally make it a reality.

Inner Wealth

I would like to tell you that once we arrived in Thailand all my troubles melted away, but that would be a lie. The first month was great, we were constantly busy, looking for a place to stay, catching up with friends and family and traveling. My personality was still the same as when we were in the U.S., stressed, demanding and always pushing for more. Over the following 4 months this would almost lead to my downfall and the end of our dream of living in Thailand.

I’m sure you have all heard of culture shock. Put simply it is a state of loss and disorientation predicated by a change in one’s familiar environment which requires adjustment. By the end of the first month I was definitely in a state of culture shock and my life was full of stress and anger. Thankfully I had made many trips to Thailand over the years and was able to go through the negotiation and adjustment phases fairly quickly. When I came out the other side I noticed some fundamental differences not only in how I viewed my life in Thailand, but in how I viewed life in general.

It Is Already In The Past So It Does Not Exist

For those who haven’t visited Thailand it might help to know that the population is 99% Buddhist. This combined with the fact that Thailand is still by in large an agrarian society means that the Thais are a very non-confrontational and family oriented people. It is unusual to see arguments among Thais and they have a very flexible and laid back attitude to life in general.

One of the most infuriating phrases for a foreigner in Thailand can be “mai bpen rai“, which we often take as meaning nevermind or even sorry. In reality the phrase translates literally as “no is nothing” and the Thais really do mean it literally. One of the main tenents of Buddhism is to live in the present and when a Thai says mai bpen rai to you they mean something like “it is already in the past and so it doesn’t exist“. Just as if it never happened.

When you are used to the typical control most Westerners try to place on their environment mai bpen rai can become infuriating. How can you plan for the future or correct what you see to be as past transgressions when everyone around you claims that past and future don’t truly exist? However, once you begin to embrace that mindset you start to see the benefits. I certainly did. Once I dropped my attempts to control everything, to plan for every possible scenario and to dwell on past transgressions my life improved, even though my finances had not.

After that 5th month I saw my weight dropping (I’ve lost over 20 pounds since moving here), my stress levels dropping (I no longer have the knots in my neck and back that I thought were normal) and my relationship with my wife and daughter improving dramatically. How wonderful it is to spend time with your loved ones without any sense of rush or guilt because you “need” to be doing something else.

How relaxing to spend your day doing the things you want to do and interacting with those who bring you happiness. And surprisingly, even though we are still living almost paycheck to paycheck here I have very little stress over my finances in the future.

I am content with what we have and while I would like to have more I know it will take time, but even so we have pretty much everything we need right now. I honestly don’t think that if you gave me 1 million dollars our life would change all that much. I would continue to work on what I love, spend time with my family and seek out new connections. I don’t fret much about our future so I can’t even say that the money would give me any sense of security.

Truly we have just this moment. You have no idea what the next moment will bring, so why not be content and happy with what you have and enjoy it to its fullest rather than focusing on what you don’t have and a future that may never come.

Balance and Understanding

I don’t mean any of this in the fatalistic sense of “we are all going to die”, but more in the sense of why not find the joy in your life as it is. Of course I still plan for the future. While I might die tomorrow it is just as likely that I will live for another 50 years. I would like to be prepared for either eventuality, but I don’t want to put more energy into one over the other. What I think I have finally found here in Thailand is balance and an understanding of how important relationships and experiences are versus material things and future possibilities.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned since moving to Thailand is to live life on my own terms. I’m no longer struggling to meet the demands of others who don’t have my best interests at heart. I’m not financially secure (whatever that means), however I am financially stable. And I am quite happy with this stability, especially knowing that for most people no matter how much they save they always feel as if it isn’t enough. Some might disagree with me, but life is not meant for amassing a bunch of stuff or for sacrificing connections and experiences in order to gain security.

When all is said and done, you can’t take it with you, not a single penny of it. I don’t think I will ever regret not making enough money, but I would definitely regret not spending time with my daughter, not connecting more with my wife and not at least trying to find peace within myself. This is what I call true wealth, happiness within yourself and the love of your friends and family.

Readers, what is the real meaning of wealth to you?

Photo: Fishermen Over the Bosphorus, SD.

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. says

    Steve,

    I think you and I have a lot in common. It’ll be fun following your blog a lot more.

    First, it’s very important (in my opinion) to have perspective. Most Americans are only consumed with their lives and ignore the reality of the rest of the world. As Americans, what we define as a “need” and things we take for granted are things that the majority of this world couldn’t dream of having.

    It’s undeniable and unbelievable how materialistic we are. We sacrifice so much for the sake of material gain and the “perfect life.” The luxuries brought on by money is how Americans define happiness – the more you have, the happier you are.

    I’m very thankful that I’ve realized what you’re realizing now. My wife, friends, and family (and time with them) are worth so much more than material things, wealth, and working my life away to gain it. Sitting on the back porch reading a book is so much more peaceful than any nice house or new car.

    • says

      I didn’t leave the US for the first time until I was 30. That trip was like taking blinders off. Prior to that I had no idea what people in other parts of the world lived like. And so like many others I assumed that our materialistic society was the norm. It truly isn’t. It is so ironic to hear about the 1% protests living here in Thailand because the very people protesting probably have no idea that they are actually in the 1% of the world.

      We have very few possessions here in Thailand and yet my days are fuller than ever and my relationships are much improved thanks to being able to focus on actual people instead of things. I am truly blessed and if you’ve realized the wonders of life balance then you are too.

  2. says

    Hi Steve,

    Having spent 6 months in Thailand over the past year I echo your sentiments.

    We have experienced some *interesting* financial situations on this trip. In so doing, we were in the best environment to ride a rollercoaster. The Thais are big on acceptance of things as they are, and just being content with what you have. This is true wealth; being in the moment, being accepting, and being fully appreciative of all that comes your way.

    Wealth is more of an inner feeling than anything else. The outside stuff is nice. The inner stuff creates the outside stuff though, and if you keep a wealthy mindset then things will flow to you with greater ease. On top of that, when things flow away, you can release them, as those with a wealthy mindset do not attach themselves to any particular vehicles of wealth.

    I simply am grateful for all I have, and for the neat stuff on the way, too ;) This is wealth.

    Thanks for sharing with us Steve!

    Ryan

    • says

      I have to agree with you Ryan. Material wealth is for pleasure, not happiness. If you want to be happy that comes from within. The Thais seem to understand this very well though.

  3. says

    Having spent much of my life chasing “more wealth” through my career, I eventually woke up to the fact that more financial wealth does not equate to a better life.

    After a certain point the quest for more financial wealth comes down to an exercise in trading some of my very limited life for something that is not going to improve my enjoyment of that life and, therefore, has little meaning.

    • says

      I think it is true that your time is way more valuable than most people give credit. At a certain point the extra money doesn’t help you become any happier. I’m glad you woke up to that fact and I hope you are becoming happy living a more balanced life.

  4. says

    I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on my patio with my wife this morning.

    We all have opportunities to live in the moment. We just need to take a deep breath and then do it (nothing….)

    • says

      That sounds absolutely wonderful. Spending time with my wife and daughter are the two best things about being out of the corporate lifestyle. Doing nothing can sometimes be the most difficult thing to (not) do.

  5. says

    Hi Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It must be quite an adventure moving back permanently to Thailand as a foreigner! You’ll have to share more pictures of your time there. I’d love to see the new town and the new lifestyle. Maybe even some videos too?

    I’m so pumped to learn about the phrase, Mai Bpen Rai! Is the second word pronounced BEN or PEN? The meaning, It is already in the past, so it does not exist is music to my ears. There is a lot of hardship and stresses we all endure. But each day we wake up, if we can let go of the past and our suffering, how beautiful it is.

    Let’s not dwell on the past, but keep on appreciating the present instead!

    • says

      Pictures definitely. I’ve thought about doing video, but I’m not sure I can actually capture what Thailand is like. I’ve seen so many videos that disappoint and I don’t want to be another in that long list. Unfortunately part of the magic lies in the smells and sounds and the slick sweat on your skin. Hard to capture that in video, but I will give it a try.

      It is pronounced “pen” as far as we foreigners can pronounce it, but when Thais speak it really is pronounced “bpen” because “bp” is one of the sounds in the Thai alphabet. So is “ng” which is damn near impossible for me when it comes at the beginning of a word like “ngai” or “ngam”. My wife always gets a good laugh.

      Because Thailand is 99% Buddhist it isn’t strange at all to know that their language and culture have evolved in such a way that they reflect the teachings of The Buddha very strongly.

      • Mike Hunt says

        Sam,

        In Thai there is a consonant for the sound ‘B”, and one of “P” which sound just like they do in the English language. In addition there is another sound that is between a “B” and “P”, often romanized as “BP”- it sounds a bit like the ‘P’ at the end of the word ‘Bump’.

        The consonant ‘ng’ sounds like like the ‘ng’ in the middle of the word ‘singing’.

        -Mike

        • says

          Thanks for adding the great explanation Mike. You forgot to mention that for Westerners it is quite difficult to hear (and often pronounce) the ‘bp’ sound at the beginnings of words and (for me at least) the ‘ng’ sound at the beginning of a word is almost a tongue twister. Strange that because ‘ng’ is easy in the middle and end of words.

  6. says

    Extremely well written article. It was a pleasure to read. I use think that what mattered was the wealth that people saw. Now I see that wealth is created by ourselves through relationships with people and the area around us.

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing Steve. I agree that life is fleeting and we should make the most of it while we are here. I don’t like the corporate struggle where you are pitted against everyone else either. It’s great to hear your move to Thailand is turning out very well.
    I like Mai Bpen Rai too. I try to learn that phase in various countries when ever I travel. In the US, it’s – that’s all right. In Italy, it was Va bene. I try not to stress out too much and let the little things go. ;)

    • says

      It is so hard to just let go sometimes and yet that is exactly what many of us need. We are so controlling and I think it is unnatural for us…just look back into the past and you can see how little control humans had. And yet we made great strides even so.

      I doubt us farang can truly understand mai bpen rai, but I think you’ll agree with me that the connotations are much more than just “that’s all right”. You could probably use “That’s ok” or “no problem” in the US as well. In Australia I think the closest saying would be “no worries”.

    • says

      Thanks Nick. Maybe you do and you just haven’t realized it yet. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be living in Thailand I would have told you you were crazy or some other phrase I can’t say in polite company. Life is a strange thing sometimes. As a huge Grateful Dead fan I always come back to “What a long strange trip its been”.

  8. says

    Fascinating insights on Thailand and I really like that phrase you mentioned. One of my goals this year is actually to learn a few words and phrases in Thai so the timing is neat. I agree there are many ways to look at wealth and focusing just on money is too narrow minded.

  9. says

    Money Infant my friend,

    A very nice post indeed!! :) No wonder you had no trouble getting FS to publish it for you, as it is indeed an excellent post. So well done…

    I think everyone here undesrtands that millions of dollars will not buy you happiness if your not happy to begin with on the inside. Easier said than done isn’t it? Anyone who really says they are indeed truly fulfilled and happy is either BSing you for sure, or has stopped growing and learning – that’s my take anyway.

    What I will say is there is a certain amount of income we all need for our basic needs, and I’m not talking about wants – I’m talking about the basics of food, shelter and some basic fun. For people who are below that line there really is a certain amount of stress that I think most of us here probably take for granted.

    As someone who works in healthcare, what I will say is your health is more important than anything money can buy! If you don’t have your health then what good is your wealth?

    Cheers
    The Dividend Ninja

    • says

      Thanks DN, that means a lot to me.

      It is amazing the small amount of money people around the world live on. Here in Thailand the median income is just $400 per month! And for those people that covers the basics and some entertainment. And as far as I can tell the stress levels are are much lower than back in the States. I think it is quite a statement regarding money vs lifestyle.

  10. says

    It is quite a long post. Well, it is very worthwhile to read. Most people already know this, but how many actually apply these concepts? Just a few. That is why we need constant reminders such as this post to keep going, to keep pursuing the path to real wealth. Health is really important, health is the first wealth as Emerson had said. Without the good health, how will you supposed to acquire wealth in the first place?

    • says

      Yes I tend to get a bit wordy sometimes :)
      Glad you took the time to read through the entire post though. We all have a tendency to have short memories, especially for certain subjects and a well timed reminder is often a necessity to keep us moving forward on the right path.

  11. says

    It’s good to see that you are more content with your change of scenery. Sometimes we need to stop and take a deep breath and find the right balance between money and inner happiness. Stay young and thrifty :)

  12. says

    The change of scenery was definitely needed. It has given me the chance to reflect and develop a better balance in my life. Of course everything isn’t perfect (it never will be I think), but it is a vast improvement over 12 months ago.

  13. says

    I’m so glad we’re getting to know you better Steve! The journey that your family has taken sounds like it has made you consider many of your perceptions and closely-held beliefs and that in turn led to some tension knots disappearing. Nice! I have at times lived a very stressful life and then a very stress-free life. Now I’m somewhere in the middle, but I think I’m headed in the right direction towards balance and understanding. Great post!

    • says

      Thanks ADP, glad to share with everyone in the hopes that something from my life can also help others. There’s no doubt that getting out of your comfort zone can create some amazing tension (in a good way) and help you to re-prioritize. Glad you are well on your way to a more balanced life!

  14. Janna says

    This was a great post, with important ideas, and very well-written! Sounds like you really have your priorities straight! The rest of us have a lot to learn from this, keeping in mind that we don’t have to move to Thailand to follow the Mai bpen rai philosophy!!

  15. says

    Thanks for sharing your story. I love to travel, but I do not think I could make the leap to actually move to another country. My main reason is I have to two adult children who live in California where I live.

    I always felt that the really important and meaningful things in life does not cost much. Relationships with friends and family are the most meaningful and contribute more to happiness than a lot of money.

    • says

      That is a very good reason to stay where you are, completely understood. And you are right, the best things in life are free (excluding food and shelter of course).

  16. David M says

    “Truly we have just this moment. You have no idea what the next moment will bring, so why not be content and happy with what you have and enjoy it to its fullest rather than focusing on what you don’t have and a future that may never come.”

    You have captured the essence of Wealth and Happiness in the above sentence and other sentences in this post. Thanks!

    This is one of the best posts I have ever seen on the Internet – very inspirational.

    I have been to Bangkok Thailand more than 10 times and have traveled around Thailand on 3 different trips. I have also been to Laos on 3 trips and also to Burma once. All are Buddhist countries filled with wonderful people and wonderful memories – which your post helped me remember today – THANK YOU!

    I have added your blog to my RSS and look forward to looking at what you have written in the past and what you will write in the future – WHILE ENJOYING THE PRESENT – :)

    • says

      Thanks David, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that it resonated with you so much.

      I love it here in Thailand, but Laos is a beautiful, serene and enchanting country. I can see why you’ve been back 3 times.

      Glad to have you as a reader and I will be looking forward to more great comments from you :)

  17. MoneySmartGuides says

    To me wealth is freedom of time. I want to be able to do all of the dreams I have. In order to do them, I need to have the money (wealth) to do so. I just can’t quit my job on a whim and travel the world for two years. I have a mortgage to pay and still need to save more for retirement. Once I have those taken care of (among other things) I will be ‘rich’ in that I can do what I want, when I want. That is wealth to me.

  18. says

    I agree that freedom of time is one of the hallmarks of wealth.

    I certainly didn’t quit my job on a whim, it was a long planned and calculated move. I avoided getting a mortgage because I knew it wouldn’t be long term and I still need to save more for retirement as well (which I am doing here, albeit at a slower rate).

    My decision was made for a large number of reasons, among them:
    – I didn’t want to come to the end of my life and regret not doing this
    – Who knows if I will even live to retirement age or will even want to stop working
    – I don’t have to be in the US to make money, it is a big world out there

    Delayed gratification is a good and necessary thing, I just didn’t want to end up delaying too long and missing an opportunity to experience life.

  19. says

    This is a nice post, something that most people already know but because of circumstances and environment don’t practice. Am I right in thinking that the gist of the message is contentment? Relocating to another part of the world really changes your perspective. If I may add, most eastern religions or philosophy have a circular point of view. The reason why, Thais say “mai bpen rai” is that their world view is circular, everything is in a cycle, very different from the western point of view to having a beginning and an end. They don’t concern themselves to planning a future, or dwelling on the past because the primary concern is with the present. That’s most Asians are not concerned by living from paycheck to paycheck because everything has already been provided. I’m not saying that planning for the future should be disregarded but worrying what tomorrow brings won’t solve the problems of today.

  20. says

    Conceptually, wealth is just a number for all things past and present brought back to today. In terms of having a wealthy, fulfilled life, my view is that wealth comes from doing whatever you want, whenever you want. If you want to live in “a van down by the river,” and you can do that, awesome! You’re wealthy. If you want to arrive to work in a Manhattan office via helicopter each day, great! You’re wealthy.

    Interesting how you talk about dropping control to be healthier and happier but maybe not wealthier. I think there’s a lot of value in realizing that you cannot do everything perfectly, and realizing that some things are simply out of your control.

  21. says

    Hi, Steve!

    This post is very informative and helpful. I would like to share a brief information of how I define wealth itself. For me, wealth is determined by how one sees himself, and how he evaluates his thoughts, which are the prime determinants of his behaviors and actions. With proper thought management, one will be able to succeed in his personal and professional endeavors.

    Thank you for taking the time to write and share this post.

    -Steve White

  22. Julie says

    The Webster dictionary definition is outdated. The true meaning of wealth is an inner experience… If you do not mind me being so forthright in stating my opinion, I believe that you are lost. There’s still time to reverse course; however, the window of opportunity is getting narrower with each turn of the weather vane. Thank you.

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