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Nailing Your New York Number


I also chat with those who seem to have made it over the cusp, including a middle-aged couple on the West Side: Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Amsterdam. Their kids are out of the house. The Amsterdams are still working. After “retiring,” they say, they’ll seek out “occasional consulting.” You hear it all the time; sometimes you find such work, often you don’t. You can’t count on anything here. The Amsterdams live in a nice apartment—nothing luxe, but it comes with a narcoleptic doorman and its value has appreciated like crazy over the past twenty years. The Amsterdams also own a weekend place in the Poconos. They don’t spend much on clothes, drive a sensible car, and when they travel, they go three-star. Invested assets? About $1.5 million, not counting real-estate equity. If they sell one or the other of their properties and invest the proceeds, their Number will approach $2 million. Is the Number enough for them? Probably so, given their lifestyle. Assuming a conservative return, a couple million dollars should yield about $100,000 a year, not counting Social Security and perhaps a tiny trickle of pension money, so long as Mr. Amsterdam’s employer doesn’t implode and take the pension fund with it.

Leaving the Amsterdams, I meet up with a person whose Number isn’t boundless, but it’s way more than plenty. So let’s call this person Plenty. Plenty lives on the East Side, shops on Madison Avenue, weekends in the Caribbean, the whole bit.

“What if something happens to you when you’re in your sixties or seventies and still have 20 or 30 years left to live?” I ask. “Say there’s a market crash. A dirty bomb outside Barneys. What would you be willing to give up?”

Precious apartment space?

“A bedroom, possibly.”

Charitable giving?

“I could cut down.”

Facials? Hot-stone massages? The pink sand at Harbour Island?

“I’d rather swallow a bottle of Ambien.”

I hop a crosstown bus—destination: the lower reaches of the New York Number Stratosphere. I have coffee with a man, a money manager—we’ll call him Deep Pockets—whose current net worth is, well, big. DP’s something of a financial anthropologist. Margaret Mead had Samoa, Deeps Pockets has Wall Street. “Down there, everyone picks a Number, then talks about walking away,” he says. “But almost nobody ever does.” When he started out, he set his own New York Number at $1 million—that’s what it would take for him to be able to flip his boss the finger. But by the time he was 35, the figure struck him as “amusing.” Now, closing in on 50, he views it as “a total joke.”

So how much is enough? It all depends on how you want to live, he says, reaching for a piece of paper. He declares that he isn’t going to talk about people on the low end. “If you’re just trying to scrape by,” he says, “the Number doesn’t apply. It’s obscene even to talk about it.” Nor is he going to discuss those on the highest end. It isn’t that New Yorkers with $100 million don’t think about how much is enough—it’s that they already have everything imaginable, which makes their financial anxieties uninteresting.

Deep Pockets draws four boxes, which a majority of New Yorkers, those living paycheck to paycheck (let alone without paychecks), would consider high end, but let’s move on. The first he labels COMFORTABLE: people who, like the Amsterdams, will scale back some when they retire, dine and travel modestly, yet still have a nice life. To live this way, Deep Pockets declares, your New York Number needs to be between $1 million and $2 million.

The next box he labels COMFORTABLE PLUS. Into this box go the Amsterdams with upgraded amenities: membership in a mid-priced country club, maybe they get to keep their small second home. The New York Number in this case, says Deep Pockets, is between $2 million and $5 million.

Now he draws a box marked KIND OF RICH. Here are New Yorkers—Plenty, for example—who like to put on the Ritz, stay at the Four Seasons, shuttle between a couple of expensive homes. Deep Pockets sets this New York Number at between $7 million and $10 million.

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