May 12, 2009, 5:16 PM UTC

Okay, fans of the “who’s rich and who isn’t” debate, consider this young New York City couple:

They are in their mid-20s. Both have jobs. She makes $42,000 per year. He recently got a promotion at his firm, where he sells advertising, and now earns about $70,000. For you big fans of math, this puts their gross household income at $112,000. 

On that income, they live in a small walk-up apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. The neighborhood is very nice, treelined streets, good shoping nearby, museums, parks. Their building has mice, but they haven’t seen one in their apartment yet.  Last night, however, Gregor Samsa made a visit. Big, juicy bug about an inch long, and fat. Fell right out of a hole in the brick wall behind the non-working fireplace.  They now would like to move but really can’t because there aren’t any places around that offer a one-bedroom within their budgets unless they want to move to a rougher neighborhood or a space somewhere in the outer boroughs. That’s their choice, of course, and some of you would be quick to point out. They could, after all, choose to live someplace they don’t want to. But it wouldn’t make them happier. So they don’t.

They have no disposable income beyond that which they spend on occasional forays to burger joints that have a special deal for beer on trivia nights. He has three pairs of pants and two sport jackets. She has a fondness for shoes that finds expression once every three or four months, and is still paying off a youthful accumulation of credit card debt. He has saved a little bit for the future, but not much.

Are they rich? Not by the current working definition. But they do make a lot more, as a couple, than most people, certainly most people their age.

By way of comparison, my father, who was a professor at Columbia University and did some consulting on the side, never earned more than $50,000 in any given year. My mom was a social worker who started at $6000 per annum. When they moved to the suburbs of New York more than a generation ago, they bought a very nice house for $34,500. They traveled quite a bit and never saved more than a couple hundred dollars a year, but everything they wanted to do, they did.

Were they rich? They definitely lived better than most of the so-called rich that I know on a whole lot less money.

I met a guy last night at a bar who pays his ex-wife $1000 per day in support. He will have to do so for the rest of their lives. That’s his deal. This leaves him about the same amount to live on, which after taxes comes to about $240,000 per year. No wonder he’s nervous. By our current standards, he’s $10,000 away from wealth.  

Maybe it’s not how much you make, after all. Maybe it’s all about how much you manage to keep.