donald-trump-je-nanuk-zmrzlina_v1Donald Trump wants everyone to know that he’s a billionaire. He’s suing an author who dared claim that Trump was worth as little as $150 million. That won’t get anyone on the Forbes 400 list , and Trump has to be there in order to be Trump. The surest way to make the list is to be the founder of a huge and successful public company, a la Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, because then the value of the person’s stock holdings is known to the world. Of those with private wealth, some desperately want to make the list (like Trump), while others would just as soon stay as low profile as possible.

Trump’s case is wending through the courts, and, well, his method of valuation isn’t like that that taught in business schools. At the same time his lawyers have been arguing, several college fundraising offices were contacted by bank officers offering checks from an anonymous donor that the colleges could keep if they agreed to not only keep the donor anonymous, but also not make attempts to find out who the donor is. Almost $20 million has been donated so far. And, thousands of people who thought they were millionaires, or even billionaires, have found that they have little left, thanks to Bernard Madoff’s massive fraud.

Although money is how we keep score in our culture, not everyone with money wants the world to know how much they have. They don’t want to alienate friends and relatives with less money, be easy targets for criminals or ne’er do well relatives, or receive charitable solicitations. In some cases, they own their own businesses and don’t want their employees looking for raises! In 1996, Thomas Stanley and William Danko published their book The Millionaire Next Door, in which they reported that the average rich person looked a lot like the average person, only more likely to own a business and less likely to buy new cars.

People who are public about their money tend to lose it. Models and actors have to fly first class or everyone will know that they are on the decline. Socialites have to go to expensive benefit parties, wearing a new dress every time. They will probably be photographed at these events, so they have to keep their faces and hair up – and I’m talking plastic surgery here, not the Walgreen’s knockoff of Oil of Olay. Athletes buy new cars for themselves, and their mothers, and their best friends. CEOs decide to upgrade their wives, and that gets mighty expensive.

Wealth is not a function of income; it’s what you have left after you have spent your money. Some people make their own wealth from their work; others inherit all or part of it. The more you spend, the less money you have. We think that rich people are profligate with their money, when really, profligacy at any income level is a sure way to become Not Rich. (I hesitate to say it’s a way to become poor, because the problems of poverty are deeper than overspending. I’m not sure anyone can become rich working at a minimum-wage job.)

In 2002, the most recent year of Census data, 8.5% of American households had a net worth of more than $500,000, including home equity and retirement savings plans. That number is probably lower now. Americans have never been great savers, and real estate prices and investment accounts have been hit hard at the same time that a ridiculous number of financial frauds have been uncovered.

I would not be surprised to find that Donald Trump isn’t a billionaire, nor would I be shocked if Anonymous Donor turns out to be a quiet person whom no one would have suspected of having millions to give away. That’s how the math works.