What Would Happen If Everyone Could See Your Wealth?

A genius by the name of Carl Richards recently posed this question in a New York Times piece, and I can’t stop thinking about it:

What would happen, I asked, if we had to walk around with our true wealth flashing as a number above our heads? It would be the end of consumerism, he replied. Why would you need to buy something to represent wealth if everyone knew exactly what you were worth already?

Imagine that? If your net worth number showed above your head when you walked around town? Or in business meetings or at Starbucks or while hanging out with friends?

I’m not sure I’d agree that it would ruin consumerism and people would stop buying expensive stuff (there is something to be said about some luxury and quality – it’s not always to just “show things off”), but I do know it *would* affect your habits for sure. And I’d posit mostly for the good too. Who wants the world knowing you suck with money?

I also love that he specifically mentions “wealth” and not “income.” ‘Cuz as we all know those can be *completely* different things. How many of us know people making $100k+ year with nothing to show for it? Or the opposite – people making $20k-$30k with hundreds of thousands banked away? There’s not as many in that latter group unfortunately, but you get the point.

It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save.

And I’ll tell you this much too – people sure would TALK ABOUT MONEY MORE if it were floating all over our heads! Whether you had a lot or a little (or worse – negatives) people would be asking for advice and generally helping each other out. At least that’s what I’d like to believe :)

It would also affect things like crime (less mugging of poor people but more of the rich), more segregation maybe (poor vs rich), the job interview process (would it help or hurt if you had tons of wealth? Maybe better to have less since it shows you *need* that job?), and of course your upbringing (you’d know right away what your parents are worth and plus you grew up with these numbers bobbing on our heads your entire life). The world would be completely different, no doubt about it. You could even make the argument that it would be WORSE than it is now, too. If we’re competitive by nature, wouldn’t everyone be trying to up their #’s to beat out everyone around us? And in which case, we’re constantly chasing money but for the wrong reasons?

Life would be different, until one day when someone would inevitably invent a way for the numbers to be turned off. They’d make billions of dollars and claim the #1 Money Man/Woman title in the entire world. And of course would leave their own lights on to prove it ;) If only we could see what would happen in reality!

That’s sorta what Carl prompts us to do at the end of the article:

Maybe this idea is too radical, but for the next week, I’d love for you to test this theory. Try living as if everything you did financially was public information. How does it affect your decisions? Do you find yourself still doing things that just look good, or are you doing things that actually are good for you? Do you find it easier to be your authentic self?

I’m gonna take on this challenge myself over the weekend. I hope many of you do the same. I don’t plan on hitting up any stores over the next few days, but we will be attending a wedding tomorrow which will make for some great pretend-scanning of people’s heads to see what their numbers would show, haha… And then tonight while trick-or-treating too ;) I guarantee a handful of kids would have higher net worths than their parents if we could see! There are a ton of “Joneses” out there, right in our own backyards… Or, as I like to call them, “The Bookieboos”. ‘Cuz you know, the real Joneses always get a bad rap. (Or maybe we should say the Boo-kie boos? Cuz it’s Halloween? Get it?)

In fact, perhaps I’ll take this one step farther and actually DRESS UP as a guy with flashing wealth over his head! That way I could continue passing on the good word when everyone and their mom (quite literally!) asks me what the hell I am for Halloween, haha… And you know they would ;) Trick or Sneak! Here’s a financial lesson!

Anyways. Good stuff to ponder over the weekend, and really, for the rest of our lives. We may never get to see any real numbers flashing in our lifetime, but it’s always smart to be aware of your ownΒ wealth and even more so that your actions are aligned according to your priorities. If we don’t hold ourselves accountable, who will?

Hat tip to my man Derek for first passing this article my way. He liked it so much he dedicated an entire podcast to it! Check it out if you’d like to hear another perspective on this cool idea.

[Also, if you’re wondering, those people up there are Jennie LeAnne, Joe Taxpayer, Ashley Barnett, Me, and Ninja from Punch Debt in The Face at a conference… Net worths may or may not be correct.]

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  1. Charles@gettingarichlife.com October 31, 2014 at 5:37 AM

    Even if we saw people’s net worth many would count their material items as assets. Your stuff is only worth what you can get for it, not what you paid for it. Garage sales are perfect examples of this, so we might not really get a true picture of net worth.
    Is it wrong if I walk around and admire another man’s larger number.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 12:56 PM

      Hah! That’s a whole other meaning of “flashing wealth” ;)

      I think the article alludes to “true” wealth though. Like, real wealth that the world magically knows about all of us – not one we can manually tweak or else it’s the same situation we’re in now.

  2. Jennifer October 31, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    People might think we are cheapskates but you don’t become financially independent without working towards it (aka, having a sexy budget) and we’re not even close to FI yet. Also J$,you need to add real/faux net worths for the ladies in your photo!

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 12:57 PM

      There was no room!

  3. Mrs. Frugalwoods October 31, 2014 at 6:47 AM

    I do like this idea, but I think for the wrong reasons. It would actually be a way for us super frugal people driving Franken-caddys and Frugalwoods-mobiles, eating rice-and-beans for lunch, and wearing thrifted clothes to kinda show off, which I’m not sure is a good thing for me.

    For me, it wouldn’t change how I operate in daily life, but it would turn me into a terrible voyeur… . It’s an interesting experiment, but I wonder if it has a current analogy–I’m thinking of say, smoking. We all know it’s bad for you, yet people still smoke in public all the time. The fact that people see them smoking doesn’t change their behavior. To ponder.

    P.S. would hounds have their own net worths? ’cause frugal hound is definitely in the negative…

    1. Josh Collar October 31, 2014 at 8:40 AM

      Hi Mrs. FW,

      I have to agree with most of your points. Hmmm, however, on your smoking analogy…smoking in public may not deter them from smoking. But if we could see the condition of their lungs in public, perhaps then it will have an effect on others?

      What do you think?

      1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 12:58 PM

        YES! Seeing lungs would have to have some sort of effect – well played :)

        (And I agree – F’woods, it would be more beneficial to those who currently suck with money)

        1. Mrs. Frugalwoods October 31, 2014 at 1:43 PM

          Oh the lungs! Good call. That’s the better analogy indeed! Ok, J Money, now your costume needs to include healthy lungs along with money flashin’

  4. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life October 31, 2014 at 7:18 AM

    I think about this stuff all the time, haha. Except I want to see it all above their heads- profession, life story, weird habits, and any scary stuff I should know about, haha.

  5. jestjack October 31, 2014 at 7:29 AM

    Hmmmm….DW and I realized a looooong time ago things aren’t always what they seem with folks and their wealth. The term we use is…”BIG HAT….No Cattle”….when folks give the appearance of wealth and they really have none. Kinda like the guy in the commercial telling how he maintains his lifestyle by “being up to his eyeballs in debt”. If I could readily tell someones monetary worth at a glance, it would make landlording a whole lot easier!
    OFF TOPIC….Gonna be shopping for new computer…your advice? Do I go for the “tried and true HP” at a reasonable price? Or do I pay the premium for the Apple? To be clear not a big computer user, not a gamer, basically web surfing with a bit of lease writing and record keeping. Your input is appreciatted as the ads for these devices is mind-numbing….

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:01 PM

      I usually just go with whatever I can find that seems decent in terms of both quality and price tag. I always assume my laptop will explode every few years anyways so I tend to not think too hard on it ;) Then again, maybe that’s *why* my laptop crashes all the time?

      I will say it’s always best to wait for holidays to buy one for yourself though if you can hold off long enough – so many deals going around!

      1. jestjack October 31, 2014 at 5:44 PM

        Thanks for the input “Money”….I’m a “fish out of water” with this stuff…They have come down in price….Just dreading shopping for the deal …. feels like buying a car!

  6. Will @ First Quarter Finance October 31, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    If people had the wealth number above their head, I think people would avoid debt. Part of why debt is so prevalent is because no one can actually see who is carrying the burden. It’s like why most people pay attention to their body image more closely than their finances – everyone can see if you’re carrying extra fat. So if everyone saw your debt, you’d likely work to get rid of it much faster.

    I agree people would still buy Ferrari’s. I’m sure some guys would looooove to have a shiny red car to accompany their high net worth.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      Orrrr it would have the opposite effect – everyone would see everyone else has debt so then it’s “OK” and they keep continuing as normal! Perhaps?

      This game sucks cuz there’s just so many variables and we’re never gonna find out what would REALLY happen, haha… But if i were creating my own new universe w/ people and money, I would make it a mandatory thing from day 1 and put it to the test ;)

  7. Chenell Tull October 31, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    I love this article. I’ve thought about this before and think it would be a neat idea. I feel it would completely smash the “Joneses”. We are (mostly) competitive by nature so it would likely then be “cool” to have a higher number than your friends, as opposed to the higher cost items.

    Aside from the frugal people getting pick-pocketed more often, this would be pretty funny to see. Even just for a day.

  8. John C @ Action Economics October 31, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    I think the major change that this would bring about would be that individuals would actually know their net worth every time they look into the mirror. This alone would cause action. I would venture to guess that you could ask 10 random people what their net worth is and at least 7 would honestly have no idea…

    The public aspect of wanting to increase your number to keep up with or get ahead of the bookieboos would be excess motivation, and of course cause privacy concerns as well. I think one of the major reasons people who do know their net worth don’t share it very willingly is because they don’t want to be judged on it. Have a net worth substantially higher than your family members and friends, and moochers may very well come out of the woodwork, have a lower net worth than expected and people may start treating you differently and giving you handouts…I would expect a lot of people to walk around wearing masks lol.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:04 PM

      Or secret underground clubs and societies :)

  9. EL October 31, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    That number over the head thing would be a game changer for sure. People would act completely different around everyone. I think it would do more bad than good. Isolation everywhere and crime would definitely spike. A bad tradeoff for improving peoples choices around how to handle money. Good article but I’m glad this is not the case, even though some bloggers already live like this in the online world, http://rockstarfinance.com/blogger-net-worths/.

  10. Shannon @ Financially Blonde October 31, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    I say this ALL the time to clients that they need to stop assuming people’s worth and understand it probably isn’t what they think it is. I was shocked at how many people I met with as a financial advisor who may 6 and 7 figure salaries but 5 figure net worths. It’s why I wrote my post about running your own race, you just have to focus on your own numbers because other people’s is probably not as great as you imagine in your mind.

  11. Josh Collar October 31, 2014 at 8:49 AM

    I really like this take on personal finance. The reason why a lot of us spend frivolously and go into serious debt is because we always fall on the notion that “others wouldn’t know”…”they can’t see my debt”.

    I think this idea is parallel to the concept in the movie ‘In Time (2011)’ where we’d all be measured by time as the ultimate currency.

    Something to ponder upon, nonetheless.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:05 PM

      YES! Great movie! I don’t know why it got so many bad reviews as it was so intriguing! And different!

  12. Christa@ObjectWealth October 31, 2014 at 8:51 AM

    I think about this all the time. I’m a pharmacist and have a good income, but I also have massive student loan debt, which is typical in the medical professional fields. I hear over and over “you can afford it. You’re a pharmacist.” People always assume I must be “rich” since I am a pharmacist. I always tell them that while I have a high paying job, I also have high student loans.

    Sometimes, if me and my coworkers go out, a tech will say “which pharmacist is picking up the tab?” Then we are called cheap if we don’t. I bet many of them have better net worths than I do.

    I also dated a guy that didn’t have much money and thought I should pay for most of the stuff since I was a pharmacist. That relationship did not last long at all. Maybe I am ranting but I want people to stop assuming I have a bunch of money just because I have a good income.

    1. Scooze October 31, 2014 at 10:02 AM

      I hope you don’t cave to that financial exploitatiom!

      1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:06 PM

        Well, fortunately one day you WILL be rich cuz of all the hard work and profession you chose down the road. So I’d concentrate on that perk coming your way – esp now that you’re rockin’ money and a sexy blog :)

  13. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 31, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    WOW. What a concept! I do think consumerism would drop tremendously in a case like this though, but I wonder how much life would really change. Most of us judge people now based on what we think they have or are worth, now we’d still be judging them, only based on more “accurate” information, or so we think. :-)

  14. Brian @ Debt Discipline October 31, 2014 at 8:58 AM

    I think you might find a few more shut-ins, embarrassed of their number. :) And call the “Jones” bluff. Big numbers might be targeted. I got Hunger Games type stuff going on.

  15. Financial Samurai October 31, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    Spending would go down for sure. Stealth Wealth for life, baby! Lol

    1. beth October 31, 2014 at 10:39 AM

      I agree with the Samurai. Stealth Wealth is the way to go.
      I would be chasing the men away with a stick with a sign that said $200,000 above my head.

      1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:07 PM

        Stealth Wealth is pretty awesome – I’m not gonna lie.

  16. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply October 31, 2014 at 9:35 AM

    It seems that many people want to buy luxury items to make it APPEAR that their number is bigger. I’m the opposite and kind of follow Sam’s “stealth wealth” philosophy. While I’m not wealthy, I’m probably doing a lot better of many consumers…but you’d never know it cause I don’t flaunt it. I actually prefer to fly under the radar.

  17. Tiffany A. October 31, 2014 at 9:37 AM

    I actually had this thought just the other day… I swear. Somehow your posts always address stuff that’s been on my mind… weird? I’m always curious because I know people who are huge consumers but don’t have the net worth to back it up. I work part-time at a fast food restaurant and I always wonder about people… the ones that come through driving the fancy cars, or the ones who literally eat here every day (at $10-$12 a pop, that sh*t gets expensive!) Even some of the big shots that come through in their Beamers and can’t tear their ears away from the phone. I’m willing to bet my net worth is higher than 75% of them (and I think that’s a conservative estimate). But of course, I’m the one working at a fast food restaurant, driving a <$10K sedan, getting my food for free (which means significantly less $ spent on food every month). I don't know… sometimes I wish I could just pull them aside and have an honest money convo with them. Is that weird?

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:10 PM

      No, not weird – fun! Just tell them you’re doing an anonymous poll and wondering if you could ask them a few questions for a school project :) But not the “regulars” as it may scare them from coming back and then you’ll get fired, haha… And then you can report your findings to me which I’ll post up thus making your “project” a real one!

  18. Dee @ Color Me Frugal October 31, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    I think life could get pretty scary for those who may have big numbers over their heads! Especially on the street. I think I’m kind of glad that this isn’t the case-as Sam says, stealth wealth is the way to go!

  19. Tonya@Budget and the Beach October 31, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    I do like what he prompts us to do at the end, because you would be exposed for all to see. Would you still be buying this, this, or that? Maybe not. I’ll try to keep that though in the back of my mind going forward!

  20. Zee @ Work To Not Work October 31, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    that would be very interesting to see how it would change peoples money habits. If people actually cared what they were worth people would get better at it. I bet if people all started saving more then it would start to cost more to retire since everyone would suddenly have more money saved. Also the economy might slow down because people wouldn’t be spending as much since people would cut out a lot of the unnecessary spending for no reason… Interesting idea.

  21. Trea October 31, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    I actually love this idea, but I can be a bit extreme :) I can see how net worth could be misconstrued as people would count items others wouldn’t. But I do like the idea of simplifying it and having your spending vs. earnings public. Most people who excessively spend on expenses without regard for their future don’t really have this view, public or private. Great post!

  22. Joe October 31, 2014 at 10:32 AM

    I’d probably get asked for money by a lot more panhandlers. Now, I rarely ever get asked because I dress like a poor student.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 1:12 PM

      Most of those panhandlers are technically wealthier than people walking by them too who are in debt! Having $0 sucks, no way around it, but at least it’s not negatives eh? (I remember a quote from Donald Trump telling his daughter once that the homeless person down the street had more money than he did at the time – pretty fascinating to think about when put in that perspective)

  23. SavvyFinancialLatina October 31, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    Hah I don’t know. I would be cool just to see people’s net worth, but then, I wonder if I would be viewed differently.

  24. Gretchen October 31, 2014 at 12:59 PM

    One things that I love about the personal finance community is how open people are about money! My family and my husband’s family are very secretive about money – and that doesn’t lead to good financial education. I think if everyone walked around with a flashing neon sign of their net worth, a people’s spending habits would change :-)

  25. Nicola October 31, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    I think it would be good, but not for people who have large numbers over their heads – it could get ugly!

  26. Merrin October 31, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    I know this is a finance blog and i love the concept of people being more open about money – but I do hope that our worth is not only based on wealth.

    1. J. Money October 31, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      Of course… Though it would be equally interesting to have hearts or emoticons flashing above our heads with how we see our inner worth too ;)

  27. Brooklyn Money October 31, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    Um hello?! Most important topic of all. Think what it would do to the dating world! Mayhem would ensue.

  28. Pengepugeren October 31, 2014 at 9:43 PM

    I think I’d have a hard time falling asleep with a big, bright sign hoovering over my head.

  29. Jason @ Islands of Investing October 31, 2014 at 11:29 PM

    I’m not sure I’d like to partake in this with my $$ flashing above my head, however I would LOVE to see it for all the big hot-shot partners at my firm. I’d love to see how many of those huge money earners actually keep some of it and put it to good use, but I also enjoy telling myself (and my wife whenever she says ‘wow they must be rich!’) that just because they look like they’re rich doesn’t mean they are. I could become very envious if it turned out they all did actually have huge net worths :)

    1. J. Money November 3, 2014 at 2:50 PM

      Haha yeah, better to just assume they don’t to make you feel better ;)

  30. Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income November 1, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    My dad would stop paying for dinner that is for sure. He’d be pissed. You have how much and still let me pay!

    I guess if I really cared what people thought then I would already be living differently, but I think I am the abnormal one trying to live within my means and save up and be rich. The “normal” or accepted way of living is basically to live a lie and a life of debt to make yourself feel better around others.

    Once you stop caring what other people think life sure gets a lot easier.

  31. Nina November 1, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    I would feel very unsafe with my neth worth floating above my head! I would be afraid to step outside my door! i wouldn t be able anymore to go thrift shopping because people would stare at me and tell me its not ok for someone like me to buy things cheaply….
    I do think,I would get lots of proposals though, but not for the right reasons I guess. So I dont think it would be a good situation for the thrifty but whealty people…

  32. Prudence Debtfree November 1, 2014 at 8:29 PM

    I feel comfortable saying how much debt we’ve paid off (nearly $100,000 btw), but I don’t feel comfortable revealing our net worth or our income. I think it’s because I’m very aware that there are so many people struggling financially because of things outside of their control – like job loss, divorce, and illness – I’d want to avoid “rubbing salt in their wounds.”

  33. Stephanie November 2, 2014 at 1:51 AM

    Great thought experiment! I think it would be very interesting. I’d like to think I’m doing an excellent job building up my net worth, so maybe friends would see it and ask for advice? And it would also be weird for some people I know who live beyond their means to see just how much their out of control spending is hurting them!

  34. Kenny Schneider November 2, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and the more and more I think about it, the more I want to include a Net Worth section on my website. It would provide INSTANT accountability and, as an agent, I think it might actually help my street cred. Most people think we make money hand over fist, but if I showed them what my net worth really is, maybe they wouldn’t feel so threatened?

    Then again, if I start making six figures and become a millionaire by 40, would people hate me? Therein lies my conundrum…

    1. J. Money November 3, 2014 at 2:58 PM

      Yup! It can go both ways for sure… Guess you gotta decide what your target demographic is and if the upswing as much more potential than the downswings. I can tell you that I’d personally be much more drawn to you seeing how transparent you were online as I feel like I’d be able to trust you more and you won’t be hiding anything during the real estate transactions, even if that weren’t the case ;) Let me know if you end up posting it up! Would love to check it out if so…

  35. Kasia November 2, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    If everyone could see my wealth on my head then I’d be making a stronger effort to reduce spending and grow my net worth. I’d be embarrassed if people I know knew my current net worth.

  36. How To Save Money November 3, 2014 at 2:50 AM

    Ooh this is a curious thing to happen. I guess would affect me in a way that I’d be more conscious of how I act, where I eat, what I buy. But I guess this would up my confidence more ‘coz I know it will be bigger than most people my league.

  37. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank November 3, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    There would be bias and inequality among people! Those with high amount of money would definitely prioritized; those with less we all know what treatment they would get.

  38. LeRainDrop November 3, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    I would HATE it because I think people who are financially responsible would get alienated and penalized for their success. Jealous friends, family, strangers would put unrealistic and unfair expectations on the “wealthy” person, lots of talking about how greedy so-and-so is behind their back, etc. Equally bad, lots of people would make unsubstantiated assumptions and judgments about the “poor” person. As the world is now, we already struggle to convince folks that all human life is sacred, one person not more important than another, but with this added numerical tag being exposed to the public, we’d have greater difficulty with people judging another’s “worth.”

    1. J. Money November 5, 2014 at 8:43 PM

      Great insight indeed…