It’s Time To Retire The Term “High Net Worth”

Person opening a door

Phila Engaged Giving’s Stephanie Ellis-Smith and Nancy Reid outline the benefits of changing “worth” to “wealth” in the term “high net worth.”

This piece was originally published by Phila Engaged Giving and is re-published here with permission.

Here’s something radical for you to consider: let’s retire the phrase “high net worth” (HNW), and the even more obnoxious, “ultra high net worth” (UHNW). Despite their ubiquity in the wealth advisory industry, it’s time to move beyond them. As an alternative, let’s name it what it is: wealth instead of worth.

Our team is dedicated to the proposition that all lives are inherently worthy and have equal value. We envision a world in which a person’s “worth” is independent of their balance sheet and where individual sovereignty is conferred by a person’s humanity, and not by their assets.

Given that vision, should we allow our language to suggest that the world’s poor are of less worth than the rich? Of course not, and we know that anyone reading this is probably having a visceral reaction to that thought experiment. Conversely, by that same logic, should we allow our language to suggest that the value of a wealthy person is equal to, or enhanced by, their money? That is not specifically what we want to impart when we say “high net worth,” but our language, to say nothing of our culture, suggests this implicitly.

So it’s not a leap to understand why many people in wealthy families, especially the rising gen, have struggled with their self-worth. For many of our clients, to be treated with inflated importance because of their wealth feels inauthentic and hollow. Who among us loves to be praised for something that has little to do with who we truly are?

Moreover, these terms are imprecise. Some organizations define HNW as having assets between $5 and $50 million, and UHNW as assets north of $50+. Others define those categories completely differently. These strata help the wealth advisory community organize themselves and communicate among each other around service offerings. But those euphemisms are not client-centered. It’s more comfortable for some folks to hide behind shorthand euphemisms rather than speak openly about what wealth is and its purpose. Aren’t we all better served by more precise language?

And in a line of work in which we counsel the wealthy to distribute or reinvest their money in ways that are transformative to the people and issues that matter most in the world, we’d be doing a disservice to our clients if helping them reduce their net-wealth resulted in their experiencing a diminished self-worth. To our ongoing delight, the opposite is quite often what happens. Clients are happiest even––and especially––when they can reduce their taxable estate AND have a significant social impact. In fact, they end up with a GREATER sense of self-worth.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.