This fall’s ongoing financial indigestion is depressing, if not an actual capital-d Depression. The world’s smartest folks are busy asking difficult questions about the billions and trillions of dollars involved. I certainly don’t have the answers.

Instead, I’d like to attempt to answer a question that’s perplexed me for a while: What’s so special about one million dollars?

In movies, TV, and actual conversation it’s by far the most frequently quoted dollar figure to mean “rich,” despite inflation. The top-shelf reality competition shows (Survivor, The Amazing Race) use that as the prize figure. But it’s not just a lot of money. It’s been mythologized as the transformative tipping point between the life we have and some mythological Good Life in which profound satisfaction is possible.

Consider this discussion from Office Space:

PETER

Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.

SAMIR

So what did you say?

PETER

I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.

MICHAEL

No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

SAMIR

You know what I would do if I had a million dollars? I would invest half of it in low risk mutual funds and then take the other half over to my friend Asadulah who works in securities...

MICHAEL

Samir, you’re missing the point.

But he’s not. Samir has it right: the question of what you’d do if you had a million dollars is essentially the same as what you’d do with a million dollars. Sure, you could answer, “If I had a million dollars, I’d light myself on fire and jump out of a tree.” But the question strongly implies “What would you do that you couldn’t do right now if you had a million dollars.” And while rich people often do stupid things, stupidity itself is free.

And Michael is right, too. The question is sort of bullshit. I’d argue that the phrase “and you didn’t have to work” is easy to challenge. Could you really retire on a one-time windfall of a million dollars? Even before taxes and inflation, it’s less than you think:

If you drew down 4 percent of your $1 million nest egg every year, a share many financial advisers recommend as prudent, you would receive about $40,000 annually, before adjusting for inflation — a pretty comfortable salary outside major metropolitan areas, especially if your house is paid off. Of course, how far that $3,333 a month goes depends on your lifestyle, health, and inflation.

Forty thousand dollars is not what most Americans would consider rich. It’s not first-class to Paris.

Of course, this is logic talking. And our mythologizing of one million dollars is more emotional than rational. I have a few working hunches why a million dollars seems so special.

  1. We have no personal frame of reference for “million.” Most Americans earn five figures ($10,000 to $99,999). If we buy a house, we’re likely dealing with six figures ($100,000 to $999,999). But few Americans will ever encounter seven figures in relation to their own finances. So it seems like a magical and unobtainable sum.

  2. All rich people are millionaires, so all millionaires must be rich. This failure of the symmetric property has been pointed out in books like The Millionaire Next Door, which shows that cost-containment and steady investment is a more realistic lifestyle for the average millionaire. Along the same lines, having a million dollars isn’t the same as making a million dollars. It’s easy to confuse assets with income. When stocks and home prices were rising, an increasing number of Americans became millionaires on paper.1 But since that’s not spendable cash, it’s not what most people mean by millionaire.

  3. What matters is the million, not the actual value. Americans would rather have the million dollars than 750,000 euros. And two million dollars doesn’t feel twice as good as one million.

When a million is meaningless

Despite these defenses, I think the million dollars’ cinematic days on top are numbered, and screenwriters would be wise to avoid the figure in scripts. It’s simply not enough money to have a clear meaning. Consider:

EVELYN

Have you met Tom, her fiancé? His apartment in New York cost almost a million dollars!

Is the proper response…

TAMI

I always knew she’d marry money.

or…

TAMI

What is that, a one-bedroom?

(In fact, a million could be as little as a loft.)

If you need to have characters talk about money, you’re much better off referring an object (or service) than its price.

EVELYN

Her ring cost more than my car.

TAMI

She gets her hair done by this woman who flies in from Paris. Can you imagine?

EVELYN

She ripped out the limestone in the bathroom because it wasn’t organic. Turns out they don’t make organic limestone. So she got this stone from Italy. Used to be a church.

Billion is the new million. Sort of.

For now, I think you can safely get away with calling a billionaire rich.2 Keep in mind, it’s a staggering amount of money, so any character thusly defined would have to have a plausible explanation. For example, rich as he is, Will Smith is likely not a billionaire. With rare exception, you become a billionaire though canny investments or lucky inheritance.

Do millionaires dream of being billionaires? I don’t golf, so I haven’t heard this topic come up in conversation. But my experience of earning money in Hollywood has been that one’s financial ambition caps out at a certain point. The dream of a million dollars is a life free from financial worry: paying for the mortgage, college, and retirement. Once those fears are addressed — at a figure likely significantly higher than one million dollars — there is less to reach for financially.

So while I don’t advocate using the million dollar figure in scripts, I think it still has some real-world years ahead of it as a psychological milestone. Wealth isn’t simply what you can buy; it’s how much protection you have from poverty. A million dollars may not be “rich,” but it’s a comforting distance from poor.

  1. “On paper” is really a terrible term, because I don’t know any millionaires who keep a million in gold laying around.
  2. I’m speaking of the U.S. definition of billion, which is a thousand million.