Well-educated people can lag behind in the wealth race

Imagine that you go to your 20-year school reunion and are catching up with old school friends. You speak to John who says that he got a three-year qualification in mechanical engineering and now owns an engineering workshop.

You also speak to Steve who studied for 14 years and is now a specialist physician with his own medical practice. John was an average scholar and Steve was the Dux in your matric year. Who is likely to be the wealthier of the two by the time you see them at the 20-year reunion?

Studies have shown that John, with his mechanical engineering workshop, is likely to be the wealthier of the two. There are a number of reasons for this interesting situation. The first is that John, after getting his three-year technical qualification, started generating an income while Dr Steve still had another 11 years to go before he started generating the income of a fully qualified specialist physician. While John saved money during those 11 years, Dr Steve spent most of what he earned as he worked and studied to complete his qualification.

Let’s say that, once fully qualified, Dr Steve ultimately generates an income three times the income of John the engineer and they both save 10% of their respective incomes. Once he starts working, it would take Dr Steve 10 years to catch up to John with the engineering business. They would have been out of school for 24 years before Dr Steve caught up to John the builder’s wealth position.

In reality, though, it would probably take longer. Dr Steve would not be able to save 10% from the start of his career because of student debt and he would probably incur even more debt to set up his private practice. Ultimately, in this story, Dr Steve’s superior income would give his wealth the potential to catch up and overtake John the builder’s wealth. But there is another obstacle lurking out there for Dr Steve to overcome before he achieves that.

This hurdle has to do with the status ascribed to Dr Steve. Doctors and others with advanced degrees are expected to fulfil the role of an upper-class citizen. John the builder would not be out of place in a modest home with a non-descript bakkie or sedan. The cost of setting up and maintaining his domestic situation is much lower than servicing the high status lifestyle that Dr Steve would expect.

Professionals often say that society expects them to live in expensive homes, dress in expensive clothes and drive expensive cars. We judge a book by its cover, often judging professionals by their outward appearance rather than their net worth. And unfortunately for them, the pressure to maintain an impressive outward appearance can restrict the growth of the professional’s wealth.

Another disadvantage of living in affluent neighbourhoods is that you are bombarded with cold-calls from so-called investment experts. In a survey by the authors of “The Millionaire Next Door” some professionals said they had bad experiences with these cold-callers to the point where they will no longer invest in equity investments, thus further impeding their wealth.

By Paul Leonard, regional head: E Cape, at financial services group, Citadel.

Read: These are the 10 best economists in South Africa

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