The average American feels they need to rake in $233,000 annually to live in financial comfort, according to a new survey by YouGov for Bankrate that polled over 2,500 people. That’s 310% more than the 2021 paycheck for the average full-time worker—$75,203, per the Census Bureau.
And they think they need to earn twice that to feel wealthy—$483,000. But they would need to save and invest strategically to actually build wealth; respondents to Charles Schwab’s 2023 Modern Wealth Survey, released last month, said the minimum net worth they’d need to be rich is $2.2 million. The eye-popping figures are perhaps no surprise considering that an unstable economy rife with recession fears and layoffs has made many Bankrate respondents feel financially insecure.
Inflation was the number one roadblock respondents cited for their lack of financial security; 63% of them said it’s keept them from a comfortable financial place. They also pointed to the current “economic environment,” their lack of sufficient emergency and retirement savings, and rising interest rates.
“Being capable of paying for ongoing expenses, saving for retirement and emergencies, paying down debt and having a bit more left over for an occasional ‘splurge,’ whatever it might be, is more likely to be aligned with being comfortable,” Mark Hamrick, a Bankrate senior economic analyst, wrote in the report. “Typically, people fantasize about the notion of getting ‘rich,’ but most aspire to get by or a bit better than that.”
Other common culprits for workers at all income levels: Low pay, lack of opportunities for upward career mobility, towering debt, and lack of affordable housing. Nearly three-quarters of Bankrate’s respondents said they don’t currently feel financially secure, but they’re holding out hope; almost half said they expect to reach that milestone “someday.”
The definition of rich is really a matter of opinion
Of course, the concept of being wealthy is all subjective; and a great deal of the definition of “rich” comes from comparison—people tend to assess their own wealth by cross-referencing what their closest friends are working with.
And the more money Americans make per year, the more they’ll end up needing to feel comfortable maintaining the lifestyle—much less to feel like they’re rich, Bankrate finds. (This explains why lifestyle creep can cause so many hard-to-fix money problems; once you elevate your standard of living, it can be near-impossible to winnow it back down.)
It also explains why Gen Xers required the highest salary to feel comfortable and rich, at $273,000 and $575,000, respectively. That makes sense, considering they’re in their peak earning years and likely in a life stage where they can’t help but spend big, with many often taking care of both their parents and children. Baby boomers told Bankrate they needed $240,000 to feel financially comfortable, millennials said $224,000, and in last place, Gen Z said $193,000. A similar pattern followed for each generations’ required income to feel rich. Naturally, parents’ average income needs exceeded that of those without parents, or those with kids older than 18.
Bankrate also found a gender divide, reflective of the pay gap: Women respondents required about $237,000 to feel secure, while men only needed just shy of $229,000. Black Americans, of any ethnic group, by far needed the most—$339,000—to feel comfortable. (White Americans needed only $224,000 on average.)
Financial security may be a pipe dream, even for HENRYs
The survey results go to show that, in today’s economy, $100,000 isn’t the dream salary it once was. It had the same purchasing power in 2000 that $175,000 does today, Nicole Gopoian Wirick, founder of Prosperity Wealth Strategies, told Fortune’s Alicia Adamczyk. Six-figure earners “probably lived very comfortably” back in 2000, Gopoian Wirick said, but today, $100,000 “doesn’t go as far as we feel it should.”
Many young workers, particularly millennials who dealt with two recessions before mid-age and have shouldered massive student debt, have spent their careers scrambling to catch up to a cost of living that only seems to fall further and further out of reach. Many fit the definition of HENRY (High Earner Not Rich Yet), a term coined by Fortune’s Shawn Tully in 2008 to describe well-paid people who haven’t saved enough to build much wealth. Today, the typical HENRY is a millennial with a six-figure income who nonetheless feels like they’re living paycheck to paycheck.
One such worker, Miriam, told Fortune in April that finally earning a $100,000 salary initially felt like an “unattainable, life-changing thing.” Then the other shoe dropped.
“Somehow you just sort of settle in, and that becomes normal,” Miriam said. “Within the first two months I was like, wait what? I thought there’d be a huge pile of money in my checking account. It doesn’t have the staying power I thought it would.”
High six-figure incomes remain out of reach for most American workers, at least in the near term. But the pressure to continue earning more and more just to feel financially comfortable might explain the jump in popularity of side hustles, polyworking, or—when all else fails—marrying rich.