The Wealth Effect | What it is and How to Avoid it

by RJ

in Psychology

In economics, the wealth effect is used to explain the increase in spending that results from an increase in perceived wealth.

In easier to understand personal finance language, the wealth effect occurs when your net worth increases due to an increase in home or stock prices. This increase makes you feel richer, and therefore causes you to increase your spending.

For example, if your home was worth $200,000 last year and home prices rise 10% the following year, your net worth increases by $20,000. The increase in net worth, makes you feel $20,000 richer. Unfortunately, you begin to spend like you’re $20,000 richer.

The wealth effect is a potential pitfall of choosing to calculate your net worth on a regular basis.

How to Avoid The Wealth Effect

Common sense tells us that spending should rise only with an increase in income, rather than in increase in net worth. Here is how to avoid this trap:


Problem # 1 – You think you’re richer from an increase in assets that you can’t live without and/or would never sell.

Solution – Don’t include any assets that you can’t live without or would never sell in your net worth calculation.

Previously, I used to include my home’s value as an asset while calculating my net worth. However, I started to think of the purpose behind performing a net worth calculation – I wanted my net worth to be an accurate measurement of my wealth.

If I were to sell my home today, it would require a major lifestyle change. One that for me personally, I don’t want to go through. Since I wanted my net worth to be an accurate measure of my current wealth, it made sense to no longer include it. (Of course, I still include my mortgage as a liability)

The same can be said for my car. I need my car to drive to work each day. I live in an area and have a job where taking public transportation isn’t an option. For my situation, I couldn’t live without a car and maintain the same lifestyle. Therefore, I don’t include it in my net worth.

Last, I could pad my net worth by including assets I would never sell such as my wedding ring or furniture. Again, since I would never sell these items, I don’t include them in my net worth.


Problem # 2 – You feel richer from an increase in your portfolio.

Solution # 2 – Separate and track changes in current and long-term assets.

The value of your 401K and IRA increasing should have no effect on your spending today. Yet, the wealth effect has shown that there is a correlation between stock prices and an increase in spending.

While calculating your net worth, it’s important to separate current and long-term assets for an accurate reflection of your wealth.  Now, if there is an increase or decrease in your net worth, you can identify where it came from.

The goal is to see consistent growth in both asset categories.

Going Forward

The freedom to increase your spending shouldn’t come from an increase in assets such as your home and investment portfolio.

Next time you calculate your net worth, make the above changes. Does it give you a more accurate measure of your wealth?

Related Posts on Gen Y Wealth


Steven | The Emotion MachineNo Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 8:09 am

Very important advice. How we perceive our wealth plays a crucial role in how we behave with our assets.

One thing you didn’t mention, it is actually a little more economics related, but when the government inflates the currency (by pushing more dollars into the system) we also perceive ourselves as being more “wealthy,” but really the value of each dollar has gone down so we haven’t increased our wealth at all. It is important to watch out for this. Over the past year, the United States has almost doubled the amount of dollars – MANY Americans are going to think they have more money but its just a facade.
.-= Steven | The Emotion Machine´s last blog ..Mindful Risk-Taking: In Life And In Business =-.

RJNo Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm

@ Steven – Great point. High inflation can also cause to perceive wealth in a different way. Economics isn’t my best asset. Thanks for bringing that up.

CraigNo Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 11:05 am

Agree, that money should not even be looked at, same with long term savings. I don’t even consider that real money, more fictional paper money that means nothing right now unless it was actually in my bank account.
.-= Craig´s last blog ..Interview about BudgetPulse with Mr. CC =-.

WalterNo Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 6:29 pm

The wealth effect, I’ve always been victimized by this and I have to lend money to pay for this mistake. It took me time to realize this error. Now, through experience, I know what it means. :-)

Kyle C.No Gravatar February 3, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I agree completely. I also choose to exclude my home from my net worth, mainly because it really produces no income and therefore has no real worth to me. Other than being a place to hang my hat.
.-= Kyle C.´s last blog ..Review – Crush It! (VIDEO) =-.

RJNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Agreed Kyle. It makes you feel good at first, but in the long run it’s more accurate not to.

KenNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Just like the recession caused folks to start saving (for a change) increase in wealth can lull one into overconfidence….I hope what I’ve learned during the recession continues as it moves behind us. Live on less than you make…a simple directive.
.-= Ken´s last blog ..Weekend Roundup =-.

SlinkyNo Gravatar March 5, 2010 at 10:17 am

I also do not include assets like cars and homes for the reasons you listed. What is something worth if you refuse to sell it? Nothing!

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