Becoming a millionaire used to mean you were on top of the world. Nowadays, it means you are climbing up the ladder. While a million dollars is completely out of reach for many people, it's just a step along the way for many others. Why? Because it doesn't go as far as it used to.

The term millionaire has been synonymous with being rich ever since we became a country. The person most often credited to be the first American millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, made his fortune as a privateer during the American revolution. Back then a millionaire did really mean rich.

Also, we all love round numbers. We love to see 1999 become 2000, and our odometer roll over to 100,000 miles. So it's only natural we would fixate on $1,000,000. It's a milestone with a lot of zeros. It's even got an additional comma. Now that's rich – having two commas in your net worth! But what does that get you? Not as much as you would think. (Learn more in Retiring: Is $1 Million Enough?)

Housing
Housing is where most people hold their largest chunk of wealth and with real estate falling considerably in many areas, some might think that the lifestyle a million dollars would provide would be luxurious. But that depends on where you live.


There are plenty of nice places to live that don't cost very much, but according to the California Association of Realtors, the median house price in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Manhattan Beach and Cupertino is over $1 million. The median price for the entire San Francisco Bay Area tops $500,000 and Orange County is right behind at just under that. And those are just averages, not even something special. While other areas of the country aren't nearly this expensive, being a millionaire in some areas just means you paid off the mortgage.

Retirement
Another aspect of becoming a millionaire is not working. If you had a $1 million right now, could you retire and would your money last? This is a simple calculation. If you want to try to live off the interest and you invest the money in tax exempt municipal bonds that pay 4%, then you would have $40,000 a year to live on. (Learn more in What's The Minimum I Need To Retire?)

But that doesn't account for inflation going forward. If $1 million today doesn't feel like much, imagine what it will feel like in 30 years. At 3% inflation compounding for the next 30 years, $1 million dollars will have the purchasing power of $412,000 today and your $40,000 income will feel like $16,500. So retiring when you have $1 million may sound nice, but it's likely that it won't be what many people have in mind when they think of retiring a millionaire.

Instead of living on the interest, you could tap into the principal as well. Those are slightly more difficult calculations. For example, if you were 50 years old right now and wanted to plan for your money to last until you were 95, then you need money for 45 years in retirement. If you stick with the 4% return, then you could withdraw about $48,000 a year. Again this doesn't account for inflation going forward. Each year if prices rise, your standard of living would fall. In this example, you have 45 years of prices going up at 3%. So that last year will feel like $12,600 does today.

Combining Retirement and Real Estate
If we factor in a house, this gets even worse. If we take the price for a house out of the $1 million, even in a reasonable area and not San Francisco, it's going to be a big piece of your net worth and cut into your funds for retirement. For example, if you bought a nice $250,000 home, you would only have $750,000 left to live on. At 4% that would be $30,000 a year or $2,500 a month. That's before inflation takes a bit every year.


These retirement calculations show that even if your house is paid off, that living off a million dollars isn't what it's cracked up to be. And if your house isn't paid off, it's probably not even close to what you want to do.

Bottom Line
So the bad news is that even if you fall into a million dollars, you probably aren't set for life, especially if you are young. But the good news is, you'll still be a millionaire, and that's better than the alternative. (Learn how to make it happen, read 10 Steps To Retire A Millionaire.)

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