Guide to New Money vs. Old Money

By Timothy Moore · November 21, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Guide to New Money vs. Old Money

Maybe you’ve heard people mention new money vs. old money in conversation, perhaps in a whisper. Old money and new money both refer to wealthy groups of people. The key difference between old money and new money is how a person obtained their wealth.

In short, old money represents generational wealth — money that has been passed on from generation to generation in the form of cash, investments, and property. New money refers to self-made millionaires and billionaires, those who earned their money (or lucked into it, like in the lottery).

Pop culture and literary references to new vs. old money abound. For instance, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) includes a depiction of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” as new money, shunned by some snooty old money types. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby puts new money (Jay Gatsby in West Egg) and old money (Tom and Daisy Buchanan in East Egg) at odds throughout the course of the novel.

Key Points

•   Old money refers to generational wealth passed down through families, while new money refers to self-made wealth.

•   Old money is often associated with traditional investments and long-standing traditions, while new money may spend more lavishly and take riskier investment decisions.

•   Lessons from old and new money include the importance of protecting wealth, analyzing spending, and avoiding stereotypes.

•   The distinction between old and new money may be relevant to the wealthy class but does not affect the daily lives of most people.

What Is Old Money?

Old money refers to people who have inherited significant generational wealth; their families have been wealthy for several generations.

In the past, old money would have referred to an elite class: the aristocracy or landed gentry. In the U.S., families like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers represented early examples of old money. Today, old money families include the Waltons (Walmart), the Disneys (The Walt Disney Company), and the Kochs (Koch Industries). Should families like the Kardashians continue to generate and pass down wealth, they could one day be considered old money as well.

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What Is New Money?

New money then refers to people who have recently come into wealth, typically by their own labor or ingenuity.
Common examples of new money include tech moguls and self-made billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Someone who wins millions of dollars in the lottery or becomes famous from a reality TV series (like the cast of Jersey Shore) would also qualify as new money.

You may sometimes hear the French term “nouveau riche,” which means “newly rich.” This tends to describe people who recently became wealthy and spend their money in a flashy, ostentatious manner.

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Differences Between Old and New Money

So what is the difference between old money and new money? There are quite a few distinctions, but remember that these are all generalizations. Each person who obtains wealth is unique.

Source of Wealth

The most obvious difference between new money and old money is the source of wealth. Old money has been passed down from generation to generation. Each member of old money typically feels a fierce responsibility to protect — and increase — that wealth.

Members of new money have earned that money in their lifetime, whether for building a tech empire, becoming a famous actor, making it to the big leagues as a sports player, or even making money on social media as an influencer. Some new money members might come into money through a financial windfall like winning the lottery or a major lawsuit.

Long-Standing Traditions

Inheriting generational wealth comes with a responsibility: Old money recipients usually must protect the family’s wealth to pass on to future generations. For that reason, those who come from old money may stick to their traditional investments and ways of life. Many inherit their parents’ business and then pass it on to their own children.

Those who are self-made or come into money quickly do not have long-standing traditions to fall back on. They are often the first in their community to make multimillion dollar spending decisions. This can mean a steep learning curve and the need for guidance, which could make them vulnerable to poor advice and unscrupulous hangers-on.

Spending and Investing

How old and new money generally approach wealth management is one of their starkest contrasts.

Though they do live lavishly, members of old money can be more frugal (or calculated) with purchases than you might expect. For members of old money, spending is often more about investing than shopping for pleasure.

People who are a part of new money may feel more entitled to and excited by their funds. They may spend it more lavishly (and publicly). Some might feel that they worked hard to earn their money — and they’d like to enjoy it.
They might want to show off their newly achieved status with designer watches or mega mansions.

That’s not to say that members of new money don’t invest. Famous celebrities, athletes, and businesspeople often invest in real estate or buy companies to increase their wealth. Generally speaking, new money might make riskier investment decisions for faster yields. They’re not thinking about generational wealth to protect with tried and true investment methods.

Taken to its extreme, this can have disastrous results. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of people who make a lot of money for the first time and spend it all, leading to bankruptcy and even mental health issues.

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The stereotypes might be a little tired, but in general, people associate old money with traditional activities like golf, skiing, horseback riding, and polo. On the flip side, members of new money might buy courtside seats to a basketball game, a garage full of shiny new luxury cars, or even a rocketship for a joyride into outer space.

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Social Perception

Interestingly, some of the richest people in the world come from new money. They’re today’s self-made tech giants. Yet some members of old money may consider themselves to be a higher class than the likes of Gates and Bezos.

We’re speaking in generalizations here, but old money often perceive themselves — and are perceived by outsiders — to be more educated and refined.

On the other hand, the public may view members of new money as harder workers and more innovative — clear examples of the American dream.

Old and New Money Lessons

What lessons can we learn from old and new money? Even if you are not wealthy, you can learn some valuable life and financial lessons from considering the difference.

•   It’s hard to protect generational wealth. Old money is very privileged; there’s no denying it. But most families lose their wealth in just a few generations. Old money families do work hard to maintain and grow their wealth for their future generations. They are able to avoid seeing their fortune dwindle.

•   It’s important to analyze your spending. Many people who come into wealth quickly don’t take adequate steps to protect their funds and invest it wisely. Horror stories of lottery winners losing everything should be enough to remind us that — if we come into a large amount of money suddenly — we should take the time with a finance professional to build out our money management goals. Doing so may ensure your wealth grows, rather than runs out.

•   Stereotypes aren’t everything. Reflecting on the differences between old and new money, it’s important to note that these are merely stereotypes, and not everyone fits the bill. Just as one hopes that others don’t judge us before they know us, the discussion of old vs. new money is a reminder not to form assumptions about someone until you get to know them.

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The Takeaway

Old money refers to families who have maintained wealth across several generations. New money, on the other hand, refers to someone who earned their wealth in their lifetime. Key traits typically differentiate old vs. new money, but at the end of the day, both refer to members of a wealthy class that most people will not ever be a part of.

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Is it preferable to be from new or old money?

It depends on whom you ask. Old money members often regard themselves as a higher class, but they also have less agency to spend their money on “fun” things, as they have to guard their wealth for future generations. While members of new money might feel freer to spend on things they want, they can be more likely to run out of money if they don’t follow good financial planning.

Does new vs. old money matter?

If you are a member of the wealthy class, the distinction might matter to you. Those with old money might feel it’s superior to new, but those with newly minted wealth may well be proud of their success in building their fortune. However, most people are not considered to be new or old money, and so this shouldn’t affect their daily lives.

How has old vs. new money changed since the terms were first coined?

Old money once referred to the landed gentry in Europe, but in today’s world, it might refer to a few families who struck it big a century or more ago in the U.S. New money is more common nowadays, with the advent of television, sports, and social media as the source of riches.

Photo credit: iStock/South_agency

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