We woke up on Wednesday in the Palm Springs Motel 6. After three days of hiking and exploring in Joshua Tree National Park, we were covered in an uncomfortable mix of sweat, dirt, and Coppertone, and it felt like time to book our first hotel room of the trip and enjoy the modern magic of a hot shower. Working to stick to our travel budget, we chose the least expensive not-completely-disgusting lodging in town. It’s been a while since I stayed in a cheap motel (I’ve been spoiled with work-paid Westins and Marriotts these past few years), but it was fine: only the essentials (bed, shower, sink, mirror), nothing even remotely superfluous (shampoo, coffee maker, iron). A few guests sauntered the hallways shirtless. The receptionist chain-smoked Marlboros behind the office.
Three hours later, we found ourselves in a completely different world – lounging by the swimming pool on a patio overlooking a golf course in an exclusive gated community in Palm Desert.
We had met up with a couple Seattle friends in Joshua Tree, and one of them invited us to stop by his grandparents’ winter house for a few hours. Our friend is a kind, down-to-earth, modest guy who works at a brewery and spends most of his time in the great outdoors, so his grandparents’ accommodations came as a bit of a surprise.
First came the raised eyebrow of the community’s gatekeeper as we rolled up in our dusty 20-year-old minivan. Then came the quarter mile-long entryway and its rows of perfectly manicured date palm trees. And finally, after scores of mansions and plenty of golf course views, there was the façade of a stunning home complete with massive iron gate, towering stone columns, and multiple water features.
We rang the buzzer (apparently one gated entrance was not enough), and our friend emerged and led us through the front door and into the living room, which was by itself larger than any apartment I’ve ever rented. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out at an infinity pool, a golf course, and the mountains in the distance. A planter in the middle of the room had previously housed a tree (inside the house!), but it had since been removed. The imported doors were at least two inches thick, and each had its own unique handle. We sat in double-wide wrought iron chairs that were surely more expensive than our vehicle. And, of course, a housekeeper was hard at work cleaning the already spotless kitchen.
There was the garage, too, with its high-end sports car and SUV, along with multiple golf carts for roaming the neighborhood. Across the street, a neighboring home was in a flurry of activity as housekeepers prepared for the arrival of the household-name billionaire owner. And throughout the day, dozens of service vehicles – painters, roofers, gardeners, cleaners – all sped by en route to other residences.
As we spent the day in awe of the wealth and grandeur all around us, a thought occurred to me: “I could have all of this.” Not right now, of course – but with a few more decades of high-income work and modest living, the math is pretty clear. I could afford all of this.
Let’s look at a simple example:
In my former field (business strategy and consulting), entry-level salaries start in the mid-five figures, with meaningful raise opportunities for strong performers. Assuming we’re putting in regular 60+ hour work weeks and sacrificing our weekends here and there, $10,000 annual raises are completely within the realm of reason. For the sake of conservatism, we’ll cap our annual earnings at $200k, though in reality they could be even higher in a senior role.
To keep our savings rate strong, we’ll assume a frugal spending level to start but allow for a moderate amount of lifestyle inflation along the way. We’ll assume the difference each year is invested in the market and earns a 7% average annual return.
The resulting wealth is pretty staggering: Dos commas at 32. Multimillionaire status at 36. Eight-figure wealth at 52. Pushing $30 million at traditional retirement age. All this wealth with no big inheritance, no Silicon Valley buy-out, and no get-rich-quick scheme – just a monthly paycheck from a high-income job and modest spending along the way.
“Yeah, I could have all of this,” I chuckled to myself. There’s a painful price to be paid for all that money, of course: decades of stressful, life-controlling work. And is it really worth it in the end?
I’ve had exposure to one other ultra-wealthy person in my life: one of the board members of my last company. If not a billionaire, he was worth at least high nine figures, and he maintained a half dozen or so grandiose homes around the country. One that I visited, in Connecticut, was an opulent palace. As he led us on a guided tour of the expansive rooms and traditional New England design, I sneaked a few iPhone photos and took note of the carefully placed coffee table books – one of which was a “who’s who” type tome of the most influential 100 people in his industry in which he was prominently featured.
The house was lovely, sure. But the place also felt eerie and empty. With no one to fill the dozens of rooms with life, it was more like a museum.
Several months later, we had a dinner meeting in his five-story cliffside home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. He welcomed us in the immaculate outdoor marble entryway, shoulder-to-shoulder with a Venus de Milo lookalike and a ten foot-high fountain. We visited the garage to see the Rolls Royce Phantom (I promise I’m not joking), though he freely admitted he felt self-conscious driving it anywhere.
The cherry on top was our walk to one of the four adjacent coastline homes he and his wife had purchased. Though said board member traveled so frequently he was rarely “home” at all, they were apparently not satisfied with a mere 30,000 square feet of living space and felt the need to add neighboring homes to the estate. We walked through room after room of unopened mail order boxes from all the highest-end retailers and boutiques. “A work in progress,” his wife told us.
That’s what all those millions had bought them: A network of mansions rarely visited. Vehicles so high-end they didn’t want to be seen in them. A hobby decorating new room after new room, ad nauseam.
Wednesday night, Daniel and I drove our van up into the San Jacinto Mountains outside Palm Springs. We settled down in a $4/night campsite, where we were the only visitors that evening.
We don’t have marble columns and stone walkways in our lives. We don’t own a water feature. We don’t use “summer” as a verb, and there are no foreign antiques, five-figure living room sets, or six-figure sports cars, either. Half of the power locks in our van don’t even work.
But as the sun set over the desert valley below and our propane stove burned brightly in the darkness, I didn’t feel even the slightest hint of desire for all those possessions. We have something better – something even my board member friend will never have: