• She's found that after nearly 10 years working with clients, wealth is about money not stuff.
  • That might seem obvious, but many Americans equate wealth with spending, and mistakenly look to flashy cars and big houses as signs of wealth.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

Flashy displays of wealth do not impress me.

That's probably because, as a financial planner in New York City , I get to see behind the curtain of people's finances all the time.

After nearly 10 years working with some of the brightest people in this city from social workersto lawyers to Wall Street pros I've realized almost everyone gets the same thing wrong about money:

Stuff doesn't equal wealth. Money does. And it's not the same thing.

I've worked with teacherswho have bigger savings accounts than doctorswho earn fivetimes as muchper year. High salaries can lead to wealth, but not if you burn through every last penny buying luxury cars or filling the closet with designer clothes .

How much wealth could your savings build? Find out with this calculator from our partners:

Still, in most corners of the US, we define wealth by how much people spend. It's easy to do. We typically can't see our friends' bank accounts or retirement accounts. But we can see the jewelry they wear or the vacations they take.

When asked how they define wealth, almost half of Americans used measures of spending on both experiences and things toanswer the question, according to the Schwab Modern Wealth Survey . Only 27% said 'having a lot of money' makessomeone wealthy.

Yet, the same survey found that to be viewed aswealthy, you need to have a net worth of at least $2.4 million. In the US, fewer than 1% of the population 1.84 million people according to the most recent IRS data have a net worth that exceeds$2 million. But chances areyou've seen far more than 1% of your social circle spend on expensive things.I know I have.

Skye Gould/Business Insider
Savings Capacity by age

But buying stuff doesn't make someone wealthy. Many of my clients who have beautiful homes or send their kids to the best schools are struggling to keep up with their expenses. Even high earners can live paycheck-to-paycheck .

The pressure to spend in New York City is particularly egregious. Small talk here often begins with: 'Where do you live?' or 'What do you do?' Both are questions that seem to get at another question: 'How much money do you have?'

Whether or not someone else is wealthy or financially independent doesn't matter.But it starts to matter if it impacts how you think about your own financial situation, or if other people's spending habits begin to influence your own choices.If I hada dollar for every time I met someone whobuys nice things yetdoesn't max out their retirement accounts I'd probably have enough for a trip to St Bart's .

At the end of the day, anyone has the capacity to build up a sizeable net worth. You don't have to earn a ton of money (though it does help). It boils down to one simple and not very flashy truth:

You have to have money in the bank. And to do that, you have tospend less than you earn .

Those who dothat are the ones who are truly impressive , if you ask me.

Need a better place to grow the money you earn? Consider these offers from our partners:

Lauren Lyons Cole is director of personal finance at Business Insider. She is alsoa certified financial planner .

NOW WATCH: Warren Buffett lives in a modest house that's worth .001% of his total wealth here's what it looks like

See Also:

SEE ALSO: I'm a financial planner here's the single best piece of advice I can give you about money

DON'T MISS: 5 things to do now so you don't have to think about money