Richer than Rockefeller: Putting wealth in perspective

John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil company in 1870. He was the first American billionaire and one of the richest men to ever live. I am sure many people today wish they could have walked in his shoes. If, somehow they could, I think some would find it to be eye-opening.

Are You Richer Than John D. Rockefeller?

As wealthy as he was, Rockefeller might have had anything that money could buy. But what a few hundred dollars may buy today, couldn't be bought with millions 150 years ago.

Today, we have central heating and air conditioning, cars, planes, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, iPods, and millions of other gadgets. Even Rockefeller in his day couldn't buy air conditioning. Maybe he had fifteen people fanning him on a hot summer's day (because he could afford it), but I would rather have air conditioning. He probably had chauffeurs to take him by horse and buggy all around town, but I would much rather be riding in a ten-year-old Chevy. Wouldn't you?

If we change the way we think of “wealth” and compare our standard of living to Rockefeller's, we're doing pretty good. In fact, I would go as far to say the majority of Americans live an all-around more “comfortable” life than Rockefeller did. Who then, is actually richer?

How Much Do We Really Need to be Happy?

If your household annual income is over $50,000, then you are in the top 1% richest in the world. (See for yourself at the Global Rich List.) And if we can agree that most of us are living a more comfortable life than a billionaire at the turn of the Twentieth Century, then shouldn't we be happy with what we have?

Should the fact that someone is living a more comfortable life than we are make us less comfortable? Or couldn't we be satisfied knowing that we live a more comfortable life than 99% of the world's population, or the richest man 150 years ago?

And maybe we aren't complaining — maybe we are just using our credit cards instead. Do we really need all the junk we are buying or are we forgetting how good we actually have it?

Why Not Keep Up With the Joneses?

What's the point with all this? Why spend energy trying to be grateful for the things we have? Why not just try to keep up with the Joneses? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Life is far more enjoyable when you are grateful. Grateful people divert their energy to seeing the good things they've been given rather than focusing on what they don't have. This alone makes them much happier and far more enjoyable to be around.
  2. You can save a lot of money. When you are thankful that you have a car rather than having to ride the bus everyday, it makes it a lot easier to break the habit of buying a new car every year. This can apply to anything — HDTV is great, but so is color TV. Remember when that was the new break-through technology?
  3. Forgetting about the Joneses can set you free. Doing things to impress and appease other people is a dangerous trap. So many people voluntarily become “puppets” to those they are trying to impress — trading control of their lives for temporary social approval. Having been enslaved by it for years, I suggest forgetting about what the Joneses think. They're overrated anyway.
  4. You can actually enjoy the things you have. Everything loses a bit of its appeal as we get used to it. From a new pair of shoes, a new car, a spouse, or anything else — they are all really exciting while we are anticipating them. But, once we have them for a while, they just aren't as exciting as they once were. By truly appreciating it and focusing on the benefits of it rather than the “greener grass” elsewhere we can truly enjoy what we have.

I don't say all this to suggest that we all should live like we are hovering around the poverty line. I merely want to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we have it a little bit better than we think. Regardless of whether you have 60″ HDTV and new BMW or a 19″ Sanyo and a 10 year old Chevy — be grateful. Either way, Rockefeller would be jealous.

“It's not having what you want, It's wanting what you've got.” — Sheryl Crow

More about...Psychology

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Thomas Murphy
Thomas Murphy
12 years ago

People should aspire to live happy rather than wealthy lives, because with this kind of thinking they could more easily achieve their goals in life, and most importantly be happy.

Michael Miles
Michael Miles
12 years ago

I think this is a great article! We do need to stop comparing ourselves to others and be grateful for what we have.

April D
April D
12 years ago

I like this post a lot. Really liked the stat on $50000 per year putting you in the top 1 percent of the world. How’s that for some perspective?

I just started a personal PF blog about the Joneses (http://forgetthejoneses.wordpress.com/) and breaking out of that keeping up appearances mentality, because I know that falling prey to it hasn’t brought me anything but grief.

r k
r k
12 years ago

really puts things in perspective, I used to ride the bus for a very long time before I got my vehicle.

Emily H.
Emily H.
12 years ago

I really dislike the way these sorts of articles force you to compare apples with oranges. Yes, it’s more convenient to travel by car than by horse, but automobile culture has proliferated to the point where the minimum standard for mobility requires a car (plus gas, insurance, repairs…) in most of the US. Yes, we have technological luxuries that people couldn’t have imagined a hundred years ago, but Rockefeller’s society was built around the technologies it had, and our society is built around the technologies we have. (For example, when we didn’t have air conditioning it was a lot more… Read more »

Pete
Pete
12 years ago

Why should I try to keep up with the Joneses? Why can’t I *be* the Joneses?

Matthew-L
Matthew-L
12 years ago

# 4 about keeping up with the joneses is my Everything loses a bit of its appeal as we get used to it. From a new pair of shoes, a new car, a spouse, or anything else – OR SPOUSE!!!

handworn
handworn
12 years ago

In fact, I would go as far to say the majority of Americans live an all-around more “comfortable” life than Rockefeller did. Who then, is actually richer?

Rockefeller. Because he was in control of his life. There’s too much “material-comforts=wealth” thinking in the world. How ’bout “independence=wealth”?

seawall
seawall
12 years ago

Keeping up with the Joneses is so last year. This year, modern people keep up with the Jameses 🙂 I did look up to my peer group when I was in high school and university, but over the years I’ve developed my own tastes. I run my own small company and decide what I want and need. Thank you for posting this article JD, indeed gratitude is an important quality to develop and behold. The Global Rich List is sobering indeed. Each of us has a hand in our fates, when it comes to running our own finances – but… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a consultant
Andrea >> Become a consultant
12 years ago

Anyone else notice that $2 annual income on there still puts you ahead of 1/5 people?

Char
Char
12 years ago

Beautiful article! I don’t think it is apples to oranges either – Rockefeller was human wasn’t he – wouldn’t he have enjoyed what we have. I don’t think this proliferates lower class either it demonstrates being happy. Those that want to go on to make mountains of money still will and we need those kinds of people. But there are statistics that show wealthy MBA stars drowning in debt just a few short years after their career ended because they did not have the ability to be grateful for what they have. This article also demonstrates that we who chose… Read more »

Tziporah
Tziporah
12 years ago

2. You can save a lot of money. When you are thankful that you have a car rather than having to ride the bus everyday, it makes it a lot easier to break the habit of buying a new car every year. Hmm. I am one of those people who ride the bus everyday because I can’t afford a car. I don’t have any debt, but I’m aged in the upper 50s and had to take whatever job I could get in order to have health insurance. Well, at least I serve the purpose of having a lifestyle my friends… Read more »

victoria
victoria
12 years ago

Chiming in to say I also enjoyed this article.

The first thing that came to mind after reading it is that this is the sort of mindset I’ve been trying (with very limited success) to encourage in my preschooler.

MissPinkKate
MissPinkKate
12 years ago

I like this post a lot! Always important to remember to count your blessings. Makes for a happier and more content soul!

CB
CB
12 years ago

I remember two quotes:

“I am as weathy as Rockefeller because I have everything I want.”

Thoreau: “A man is wealthy to the extent that he has the fewest needs.”

[Both probably paraphrases, but I think of them often.]

creamcitian
creamcitian
12 years ago

Emily H – well thought out. i enjoy your point of view.

ChristianPF
ChristianPF
12 years ago

@Emily H

“the minimum standard for mobility requires a car (plus gas, insurance, repairs…) in most of the US.”

This was kind of my point in writing this, most of the US does have it pretty well, but a lot of the rest of the world would gladly take a lot of things that are well below our “minimum standards”.

I do agree with your point about the societies being shaped based on the technology available, but it only goes so far. My goal in writing was just to encourage (myself mostly) to be thankful for what I have.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

i’d kill for a $3000 monthly pension… i wouldn’t know what to do with half of it except save it!
at any rate, the recent troubles in my life have led me to be grateful for what i have and cut myself off from the materialist “friends” i once had.

that last part is what made a big difference in my perspective. i talked to one of them just the other day and couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and be annoyed at the same time.

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

thanks for this JD.. i’ve had the new car itch lately.. and this just reminds me that i have everything i need right now.. i am thankful for what i have already

no need to go back into debt just for a new car.. i’ll wait until it is really necessary

Alex
Alex
12 years ago

“Money, like good health, is desirable; but is not the object of life”

I don’t remember where I read it but it has always come to my mind every time I start to become a little stressed about my money

Another Ed
Another Ed
12 years ago

Ahhh, the miracle of free-market capitalism!
And to think, there are those among us who think that it’s a bad thing!

Joseph Alvarez
Joseph Alvarez
12 years ago

There was a feeling of emptiness fifteen minutes ago, it sprang from boredom enhanced by loneliness fueled by the desire to be out spending income that doesn’t exist. I googled “obtain wealth” for obvious reasons. I clicked on the link which led me here and I read the posting then followed to the comments. In those 15 minutes I smiled, laughed and was calmed. I scanned my living room and saw the walls of my confinement or small apartment. The walls had openings in them, doors some people call them, and past those openings I knew there to be beds,… Read more »

N.
N.
12 years ago

Great post and very true!

I have also been thinking about what was brought up in the post. These are things that many Americans don’t realize. If you really want to reflect on American wealth/happiness vs. what exists in other countries I would recommend the movies City of God and Manufactured Landscapes. The book Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon also drives home this point and is a great read. These really put things in perspective.

dave
dave
12 years ago

Rockefeller did have it better than us(average person on the net) because he had the world at his fingertips. To imply we have it better than him is like comparing apples to oranges. IMO

fs
fs
12 years ago

Totally agree with the Sheryl Crow quote at the end of your post.

“It’s not having what you want, It’s wanting what you’ve got.”

One of my favorites about “satisfaction” (even though I disagree with about everything else SC stands for.)

John Egan
John Egan
12 years ago

Articles of this nature seem to be written by people who have never actually known a “Rockefeller” or a “Trump” and don’t seem to understand what makes them tick anyway. The morals that are drawn from them are so tangental to what they were.

Thx jegan 😉

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

“Rockefeller did have it better than us(average person on the net) because he had the world at his fingertips. To imply we have it better than him is like comparing apples to oranges. IMO” Hardly. When I go to the Doctor I now have access to technologies that Rockefeller never dreamed of. If I save even a little bit ($1500) I can travel, literally, around the world in 1.5 days. Rockefeller indeed had certain portions of the world at his fingertips–the point is, however, that wealth has dramatically flowed “downward.” And, an extended point of this point is that we… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn
12 years ago

I like this post. And why does it say, “from a Christian perspective”, when the principles are universal? This applies to everyone, of every (or no) creed, religion, or belief. A real eye-opener that I couldn’t agree with more.

Jenn
Jenn
12 years ago

Also, another thought: I’m from India, where often some wealthier families that could afford more, don’t, so that they can save for their great great grandchildren, who in turn splurge when they are young, and when they are older save for theirs… but in any case, those who choose to save live to a much lower standard of living than the average American by choice, but are often much happier. Why? Because they are grateful that their life is better than their parents, and relish the opportunity of living a life that, while well below their means, is more than… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn
12 years ago

Of course, there is a growing number of Indians who choose NOT to live below their means and, well, splurge like crazy, including some who make it to America *cough* myself *cough*

zach @ Pennywise
zach @ Pennywise
12 years ago

freedom for me was ditching my car in favor of a bicycle. Even if it took-literally- 5 – 7 more minutes to get somewhere, the ride is far more enjoyable.

It’s a LOT more enjoyable now that I know that I’m not burning gasoline and very- VERY- small amounts of petroleum products (a tire tube every few months and the plastic and shipping fuel that goes into some of the products).

For me, freedom comes knowing that I can use the power of my body to get me somewhere or accomplish something.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

Great post. That also reminds me of something else I once heard: that we can get a $20 bottle of wine that is better than anything King Louis XIV could ever have drank. I think those commenters who have said that it is like comparing apples to oranges are missing the point. The whole point is to make this apples to oranges comparison and see that you have (except maybe relative to one’s peers) much more than Rockefeller could ever have had. Here’s a list I can think of: Air conditioning, better medicines and antibiotics, fresh fruits and vegetables all… Read more »

Mike Bahr
Mike Bahr
12 years ago

If this blog did nothing more than publish advice like “Be happy with what you have before you buy more stuff,” it would already be a net positive before even advising further.

One of the happiest things I’ve done lately is go through closets and such and discover things I own that I have not recently enjoyed. Books I always meant to read, DVDs still in their shrinkwrap as-yet-unwatched, etc.

r k
r k
12 years ago

India is a poor country. Its a fact. Intreastingly the further you go from the country, the richer it seems to become. I have a people in the US who think India is the richest country in the world. There are many places in the country where the only way to get internet is via a wireless mobile phone. Plus other places have intermittent electricity. Intreastingly cell phones work almost all over the country, but landlines dont. Some places do not even have that(no electricity and no wireless coverage either). There is an email “Bus”(actually passenger bus with a small… Read more »

john
john
12 years ago

I’m not so jazzed by this article. On one had you say that Rockefeller wasn’t so rich since he wasn’t afforded the conveniences we take for granted 100 years later, yet we should be happy with color TV (from the 1960’s) since it’s good enough.

That aside, there’s no reason that this same article couldn’t be written 100 years ago or 100 years from now.

db
db
12 years ago

Hmm — not a fan of this article. We’re supposed to feel richer than Rockefeller because we have air conditioning and ipods, and can fly to Europe in a few hours, but he didn’t? I don’t think so. Those things don’t make us “richer.” Rockefeller enjoyed a standard of wealth beyond what most of us know. For his times, if he wanted it he pretty much could have it. And he lived surrounded with a luxury that we really don’t. If Rockefeller wanted to he could travel to Europe at the drop of a hat. Who cares if he was… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

Oh — and as for unprecedented mobility — between 1900 and 1910, just one set of my great-grandparents and their children lived in the following places: two different cities in Italy (Palermo and Milan), New York City, three different towns in southern Colorado (Trinidad, Hezron and Walsenburg), and Chicago. They were mobile. They also went from having access to nothing but walking or trains to having animals for transportation to having their own truck all within the years between 1900 and 1920. The truck wasn’t a luxury vehicle — by then they were established as a major grocery in their… Read more »

Martin
Martin
12 years ago

It’s nice to be happy to some extent with what you have. But you also need to keep looking to the future. The emphasis should shift from wanting something because you think it’s needed to keep up with some imagined norm versus wanting something because it brings good value to your life. In other words, define your goals and pursue them, rather than have others define them for you. Also, I’ve always felt that if you become perfectly content with everything you have or have done, there would be a tendancy to stagnate and live in the past. There is… Read more »

ChristianPF
ChristianPF
12 years ago

@Jenn On my blog I write from a Christian perspective, but you are absolutely right – these principles are universal. @db Personally, I agree that I would like a lot of things the old-fashioned way, but my reason for writing this was to point out that even some people at the poverty line today can have some of the luxuries of the past. I like how Daniel put it that, “wealth has dramatically flowed “downward.” – To me the whole idea has been helpful because it changes my perspective from looking at what others today have that I don’t to… Read more »

icup
icup
12 years ago

I understand the point of the article, and in some ways agree, but let’s turn it around for a moment and compare the little people today with the little people of Rockefeller’s generation: Sure, they didn’t have ipods, air conditioning, computers, and cars, but they also didn’t have crushing debt to get these things (although they did have different kinds of debt). A lot of the flippant things they just did without though, not just in Rocefeller’s day, but right up to the age of credit too. In alot of ways, we have returned to the indentured servitude of the… Read more »

Emily H.
Emily H.
12 years ago

I don’t have more than Rockefeller had. I don’t have a secure retirement. I don’t know whether I’ll have a job next month. I don’t have enough money to live by myself rather than with strangers. I don’t know whether I will ever be able to afford to buy a house or have a family. You know, I don’t even have air conditioning. 😉 An iPod is not going to make up for this. I recognize the value of gratitude, but it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth to hear someone else telling me to be grateful. It’s… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

I like the idea of being grateful, and of asking whether the currently available product/technology that I own meets my basic needs before I go buy something newer/fancier/more stylish. IMHO that doesn’t cause me to be lazy or overly content with my lot in life. It does help me make sure I get the most value for my money, minimize expenditures so I can maximize my savings, and lower my stress level.

Bringing Rockefeller into it seems to detract from the idea, though.

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I enjoyed the global rich list tool. Being thankful for what we have is something that my husband and I try to do regularly. Its easy to see others with nicer cars or hear about vacations to Europe and want, want, want. But each night, I try to remember to be thankful for a roof over my head, food in my belly, pretty good health, a loving husband and a fuzzy dog.

Michael
Michael
12 years ago

I would expect a Christian PF article to mention the Beatitudes or the difficulties of passing camels through needles as points against Rockefeller, not his want of air conditioning.

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

I always find articles that suggest a “frame shift” interesting — looking at things from a different perspective from the typical American one. I think part of the reason I enjoyed this article is that I spend last night watching a Nova program about poor Ethiopian women who often live their lives as outcasts because there aren’t enough doctors or money to treat childbirth-related injuries that render them incontinent (fistulas, etc.). I’m fine — thanks. My life is easy and very good in comparison. Do we have more physical comforts at our disposal than Rockefeller did? Sure. And I would… Read more »

Becky@FamilyandFinances
12 years ago

I also greatly enjoyed the Global Rich List. It really puts things into perspective. Looking at where we are on the list made me very glad that my husband and I make donations to charities that help people less fortunate than ourselves. It also made me think that we should do more…

Beth@paydaytree
12 years ago

I actually came to terms with this just the other day. My car is a ’96 Taurus and it runs great, but as the years go by it has been spending more and more time in the shop. I got the thing when I was in high school (I just graduated from college) and I started wanting a new car right after the new-ness of my Taurus wore off. But while I was driving the other day it occurred to me that I don’t need a new car. Sure, my Taurus may not get more than 30 miles to a… Read more »

ChristianPF
ChristianPF
12 years ago

@Michael
Sorry that I failed to meet your expectations 😉 I guess I will have to save that for another day.

Keith
Keith
12 years ago

“If we change the way we think of “wealth” and compare our standard of living to Rockefeller’s, we’re doing pretty good. In fact, I would go as far to say the majority of Americans live an all-around more “comfortable” life than Rockefeller did. Who then, is actually richer? How much do we really need to be happy? If your household annual income is over $50,000, then you are in the top 1% richest in the world. (See for yourself at the Global Rich List.) And if we can agree that most of us are living a more comfortable life than… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

While I agree with the idea of reframing, I’m also not so sure that change is always for the better. Some of what we have now isn’t better than what it replaced, and while we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the too-many-choices aspect of this culture, there’s also ways in which this culture narrows the choices available. I’m not looking forward to a time when there aren’t any more printed newspapers, to take a minor example, and I’m not going to be enthusiastic if physical checks (and someday, I suspect) physical money disappears… or, at a greater level, I’m already sad… Read more »

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