Are You a Thrillionaire or a Realionaire?
The five kinds of rich people.
By Daniel Gross
Pity the poor American millionaire. Retailers and financial institutions look at him and see only a giant pile of money, not the living, breathing, laughing, loving person buried in it. Admit it, even you have cruelly judged plutocrats by nothing more than the content of their wallets.
This must end.
In 2004, there were some 8.9 million households in
us to Larry Samuel, who aims to do for the American wealthy what Margaret Mead did
for the Samoans. He is the anthropologist of plutocrats. Samuel, who has a Ph.D.
in American studies from the
Samuel has thus classified American millionaires into five archetypes, each with its own Passion Points, consuming habits, and style, as follows:
Thrillionaires. These are Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumers: generally insecure people
who thirst for privacy and exclusivity, and for whom objects and a first-class
lifestyle are a constant reminder of status and success.
Well-known exemplar: Donald Trump. Natural habitat:
Coolionaires. These rich aesthetes may not work in creative fields, but
they view creativity as the essence of life. They plow cash into fine art, cool
architecture, and benefits at the New York Public Library. Money is, in Samuel's
words, an "opportunity to express one's status as a person of refinement
and sophistication." Well-known exemplars: disgraced opera impresario
Alberto Vilar, money manager/utopian community developer
Boykin Curry. Natural habitat:
Realionaires. Practical, unassuming types.
These people like to live under the radar and stay out of gossip columns. While
they hate to spend money unnecessarily, "they're willing to splurge on things
that matter to them," said Samuel. "Ivy League Schools,
Stickley furniture, professional appliances."
They have an affinity for big-ticket, brand-name items because they deliver value,
not status. Well-known exemplar: Warren Buffett. Natural habitat: The
Spiritual rich folks who view life in holistic terms. They're willing to splurge
to make sure they look good, feel healthy, and stay in good shape. They're open
to therapy, New Age thinking, and alternative medicine. Well-known exemplars:
disgraced former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson,
Oprah. Natural habitat:
What used to be known as Old Money. These are people
who recognize their privilege and responsibility to leave the world a better place
than they found it. Social entrepreneurs, they're interested in their legacy and
maintaining traditions. They view philanthropy as a way of life. Well-known
exemplars: David Rockefeller, Bill Gates. Natural Habitat:
archetyping is a fun enterprise. Most anthropologists
conduct research while living in a hut in rural
But Hirshman says Samuel's distinctions are meaningful. And not just because a JPMorgan adviser will think to offer a coolionaire advice on how to choose an art consultant rather than how to trick out a Ferrari. "It's about dealing with them and connecting with them on a personal level," says Hirshman. "The overall goal is to bring up the satisfaction level of your service." If a thirsty thrillionaire comes into your office, you better serve him bottled water in crystal. By contrast, a realionaire won't be fazed if you present him with tap water in a paper cup.
Samuel doesn't make any moral distinctions among the archetypes. But it's pretty clear there's a hierarchy, from a social perspective and from a business one. If you're in the asset-management business for the long term, you want people who are going to save and invest for the long term (realionaires and willionaires) rather than ones who are going to blow their cash on Maseratis and young third wives (thrillionaires), Jeff Koons sculptures (coolionaires), or personal yoga instructors (wellionaires).
Samuel first identified the five archetypes in 2000. And he notes a change in the mix since then. As baby boomers age and their minds become filled with thoughts of mortality, we're starting to see more wellionaires and willionaires, and fewer thrillionaires.
Samuel and Hirshman note that the archetypes aren't mutually exclusive. And of course, the truly outstanding millionaires—i.e., billionaires—can transcend the categories. Larry Ellison of Oracle, with his giant yachts and Japanese-style compound, is clearly equal parts thrillionaire and wellionaire; Bill Gates, with his Friday-casual khakis and massive foundation, is a little bit realionaire and a little bit willionaire.