Lately, I’ve come across a few articles online about the terms rich vs. wealthy, what they mean, and what the difference might be between the two. Some people think of “rich” as having a big house and fancy cars, while “wealthy” is more about having a lot of savings and investments. Others consider “rich” to be a short-term status, while “wealthy” is more likely to last for a lifetime and can be passed down between generations.
As a writer, I’m interested in the meanings of words and perceptions people have about them. And personally, I’m not sure there is much of a difference between the words rich vs. wealthy, at least on a technical level.
Let’s consult the experts!
The Financial Definitions of Rich vs. Wealthy
First, let’s look at a couple different dictionaries and narrow in on their financial definitions of rich vs. wealthy.
- Rich: “Having abundant possessions and especially material wealth.”
- Wealthy: “Having wealth; very affluent.” (Their definition of “wealth” is “an abundance of valuable material possessions or resources.”)
Oxford English Dictionary
- Rich: “Having much money or abundant assets; wealthy, moneyed, affluent. Opposed to poor.”
- Wealthy: “Having wealth or abundant means at command; rich, opulent.”
- Rich: “Having wealth or great possessions; abundantly supplied with resources, means, or funds; wealthy.”
- Wealthy: “Having great wealth; rich; affluent.”
- Rich: “A rich person has a lot of money or valuable possessions.”
- Wealthy: “Someone who is wealthy has a large amount of money, property, or valuable possessions.”
You’ll notice a common theme here! Most dictionaries consider rich and wealthy to be synonyms for one another. On a definitional level, there isn’t a distinct difference between rich vs. wealthy.
Other Meanings of Rich vs. Wealthy
There is one argument for a difference between rich vs. wealthy. When you consider all the different definitions of the words, it’s clear that “wealthy” is almost exclusively used to refer to money and material possessions.
“Rich,” meanwhile, has alternative meanings that expand beyond the financial realm. You might say a person is rich in friends, or a color is rich and deep, or a country is rich with history and culture.
Ultimately, “rich” is a better catch-all term, while “wealthy” is typically reserved for someone with a lot of financial success. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can still be rich in other ways.
How Do You Know if Someone Is Rich or Wealthy?
Unless you personally know someone’s financial situation, there’s not a good way to tell at a glance whether they’re rich/wealthy.
Going back to the idea of rich people having big houses and fancy cars—you can’t know whether they’re actually comfortably affording those expenses. A person who appears rich could be barely keeping up on their mortgage and car payments while racking up credit card debt. You could say that they’re living richly, but aren’t actually rich.
On the flip side, a person could be wealthy without looking like it. The guy down the street mowing his lawn in stained jeans might be the richest person in the neighborhood. Your coworker who drives to work in an old car might be getting ready to retire 20 years early. The book The Millionaire Next Door is all about this idea, looking at the actual habits of wealthy people instead of the flashy stereotypes about being rich.
As you progress along your own financial journey, you probably aren’t even going to notice when you become rich or wealthy. There isn’t a defined milestone or net-worth number for you to achieve before you can say you’re rich. But you might wake up one day and realize you haven’t worried about money in a long time, or you’re accomplishing your savings and investment goals faster than expected, or you could take a year off work without stressing about making ends meet. Those all sound like success in my book.
Whatever “rich” or “wealthy” mean to you, it’s time to get clear on your financial goals and start working on them! Check out these 7 steps to financial freedom.
Kate is a writer and editor who runs her content and editorial businesses remotely while globetrotting as a digital nomad. So far, her laptop has accompanied her to New Zealand, Asia, and around the U.S. (mostly thanks to credit card points). Years of research and ghostwriting on personal finance led her to the FI community and co-founding DollarSanity. In addition to traveling and outdoor adventure, Kate is passionate about financial literacy, compound interest, and pristine grammar.