Fewer Millionaires Than Thought in U.S.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe a lot more people than you think.

A new study shows Americans overestimate the number of millionaires in the United States, but they also underestimate the number of "affluent" households, defined as those with net assets of at least $100,000.

Four percent, or 4.6 million U.S. households, had net assets of at least $1 million in 1998, according to the study commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America and Providian Financial, a bank card provider.

However, survey respondents believed that 15 percent of all households fell into the millionaire category.

Conversely, more than 43 million American households, or 42 percent, were considered affluent, while respondents thought only 36 percent of Americans possessed this much wealth, according to the study. Some 56 percent of U.S. households headed by someone 45 years or older had net assets of $100,000 or more.

Blame Robin Leach

CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck attributed the discrepancy between the perception and the reality of the number of millionaires in the United States to intense media coverage of the wealthy, which makes people believe that there are more wealthy people in the United States than there are.

"Their perceptions may well be unduly influenced by the portrayal of American wealth in television ads and programming," Brobeck says.

Those most likely to overestimate the number of wealthy Americans include respondents between the ages of 18 and 24, the poor and minorities, concluded the study, which was put together by Professor Catherine Montalto of Ohio State University.

Brobeck adds that the misperception about how many affluent households there are reflects many people's pessimism over their ability to build wealth. By far the greatest source of wealth for all affluent households was the value of their homes — 34 percent of the wealth these households was in their primary residence.

"Some people are not aware that they're worth $100,000," says Brobeck. "They don't see their home as wealth, but it really is."

Home Is Where Wealth Isn't

Meanwhile, the two most important sources of wealth for millionaires were stocks, bonds and mutual funds, and business assets. Equity in their residence represented only about 13 percent of millionaires' wealth, the study found.

Inherited assets were also an important part of the millionaires' get-rich plan, as 45 percent of these respondents had received an average inheritance of $125,000. Only 30 percent of affluent families had inherited assets.

The survey was done June 21-24 by CARAVAN Opinion Research Corp. International, which conducted telephone interviews with 1,022 adults living in private households in the continental United States. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percent.

At a press conference, Brobeck and Providian CEO Shailesh Mehta stressed saving, home ownership and contributing to a retirement plan as the three keys to helping Americans build wealth. Providian also pledged at the conference to contribute $200,000 over the next two years to the CFA's "America Saves" campaign, which assists low- and middle-income Americans to save and build wealth.

Providian Financial, the fifth-largest bank card provider in the United States, does not provide home mortgages.

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