MIDWAY: Competitive wealth

At a student party, the conversation moved into competitive poverty: Whose parents were the poorest. There was an implied merit in coming from a background too impecunious to provide private schooling, and yet ending up at the same university as those whose parents had been able to pay. One girl said her parents too were “pretty broke.’’ She was rudely shouted down on the grounds that no one who owned their own home could ever be described as “broke’’. “Well,’’ she battled on feebly, “all I know is, they couldn’t afford to get it decorated.’’

Poverty is in some ways a matter of perception, though if you’re living in squalor with no food, you don’t need to be particularly perceptive to notice. My children are at an age when they are beginning to understand money and have asked me whether we are rich or poor. I try to explain that to a millionaire our modest house, one car and lack of a yacht might seem meagre, but to millions in the world we are rich, because we have a home, plentiful food, clean water, good clothes and more toys. If you have enough money to pay for your survival and a bit left for fun, you should consider yourself rich.

So why Donald Trump has filed a $5 billion lawsuit against a writer for suggesting that he is “not close to being a billionaire’’. Trump owns so many palaces of ostentation that attest to his mind-boggling wealth without him worrying about what people think of him. But it’s hard for us to perceive the gravity of such a slur. Trump once said: “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.’’ I can see that it’s important for someone like Trump to be seen to be rich.

Wealth, like poverty, is a matter of perception.

We live in a world of virtual finance, of credit and debt and loans. Your credit rating matters more than your cash. It doesn’t matter how much money you actually have, as long as you’re seen to be the sort of person who could have lots of it.

I once met a woman with an eating disorder who said that the hardest thing for her was knowing when she had had enough. As she could not trust her instincts, she was having to learn. Perhaps some people would benefit from learning the same lesson about money.