One woman's goal: looking at a million bucks

Wealthology: Dee Wright defines wealth as a million dollars. She plans to make that amount in the next two months.

March 18, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

In 1984, Dee Wright was reading a magazine article about Michael Jackson when she happened upon this stray fact: While Jackson slept in California, he was making money in Europe. It was as if an imaginary cash register was going ka-ching every second of the day, as dollars, pounds, lira and deutsche marks flowed into Jackson's coffers.

Perhaps you, too, read this article, or a similar one. But the difference between you and Wright is that she underlined the sentences, filed them away, figuratively if not literally. Her career as a wealthologist had begun.

A wealthologist: One who studies wealth and aspires to it. Wright defines wealth as a million bucks, and her goal is to make that amount in the next two months. But we're getting ahead of the story, much in the way Wright got ahead of the curve when she decided three years ago that she wanted to be the millionaire next door.

Wright, who came to Baltimore from her native Cincinnati to study at Morgan State University, has been many things in her life. Teacher, insurance saleswoman, writer, state employee, consultant, office temp -- she has earned as much as $60,000 in a year, and as little as $30,000. Her life has been a comfortable, middle-class existence, which is an achievement in itself for someone born, as Wright says of herself, "with a plastic spoon in my mouth."

She was one of four children, reared by a hard-working widow who divided her meager earnings among envelopes marked "rent" "gas and electric" and "groceries." And if they sometimes had to pad their shoes with cardboard, Wright says, the tops were always shined.

In the early 1990s, this self-described serial careerist began to notice how many people were working two jobs, maybe three, just to stay even. Living paycheck to paycheck didn't seem any way to live, she thought. Why didn't people aim higher, going from paycheck to payoff? (Such phrase-making comes naturally to Wright.)

Inspired, she created National Be a Millionaire! Day in 1997 and acquired a listing in the Chase Calendar of annual events. The day, to be celebrated on the third Wednesday in May, was intended to be a "global celebration of the joys of achieving millionaire status."

Dee Wright and her husband, Sam, even wrote a little ditty, "Be a Millionaire: The Millionaire's Anthem." Sample lyrics include: "See London, See Holland/See Paris and Swiss Alps in the fall./Oh! That Taj Mahal./Get rich. Get happy./Be smart. Look snappy./Each day's a holiday. Be a millionaire/If you wanna live a good life."

The White House, however, declined to issue a presidential proclamation recognizing the day. Wright tabled her plans, using her apparently boundless energy on other projects. And then Regis Philbin came into her life.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Philbin asked on ABC television last summer, and the rest was history, if one considers Nielsen ratings to be a part of history. Wright realized her only problem was being too far ahead of the curve. The public was not ready to embrace millionaire-hood in 1997. Now it was.

She spreads her research on a table -- heavily underlined issues of Newsweek, Time and Forbes. She shows copies of the letters she has written to Oprah Winfrey, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the Mall of America and the New York Stock Exchange. (She wanted to ring the bell on May 17, this year's National Be a Millionaire! Day, but the NYSE said no.) She speaks knowingly of IPOs, dot-com kids and Martha Stewart, who did get to ring the NYSE bell.

And, as of yesterday, she was ready to start sharing her "greenprint" -- another Wright phrase -- for how to become a millionaire. Just watch her, via the Internet (www.beamillionaire2000.com). She's going to do it by May 17.

How? She won't say, other than to speak generally about "royalty-based income" and intellectual property. Manufacturing, making goods, was the old way to wealth. Ideas are the new way, says Wright.

She invites people to take the millionaire pledge, to aim as high as she is aiming. "A millionaire in every family," that's her motto. Her three-point plan is: "Do it, prove it, teach it."

Statistics show, Wright says, that "we're creating 62 millionaires a day." She'd like that number to jump to 75, 80. (In fact, the number of millionaires in the United States has doubled in the last five years, with 7.1 million households at the $1 million mark.)

And if she's not a millionaire by May 17? She'll just keep trying. The one thing she won't do is marry for money, says Wright, who is separated, amicably, from her husband. "That's Rick Rockwell and all that kind of stuff."

She invites you to her Web site, asks that you share your own dreams of wealth. What's the downside, Wright asks, of everyone being a millionaire? Why can't we talk openly about money?

Yes, Wright will show you her wallet. But don't ask her age. "I find when women are involved in divine missions, people ask their age, and there are two schools of gossip." One is: Boy, does she look great. The other is the obvious corollary.

So, Wright's age remains off the record. But if we had to put money on it, our guess is that she would inspire the first school of gossip.

Have a million bucks? Not yet.

Looks like a million bucks? Yep. Or at least $750,000.

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