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For its recent Insights on Wealth and Worth report, U.S. Trust asked 684 high-net-worth individuals with at least $3 million in investable assets how they built their wealth and what behaviors they attribute most to their financial success. I've boiled down their responses to three practical tips that even regular Joes can use to enhance their financial security:
1. Focus on building wealth slowly, not getting rich quick. Although many people think of the wealthy as trust-fund babies raised in privileged backgrounds, 58% of the wealthy individuals surveyed said they came from a middle-class background, and 19% grew up poor. And when asked how their wealth was accumulated, respondents estimated that they acquired just 10% on average through inheritance, while 52% came from earned income and 32% from investments. (The remaining 6% was from unspecified other sources. Vegas? The lottery? )
Thus, for the most part these wealthy individuals acquired the bulk of their fortune not from windfalls but the old-fashioned way: by working, saving and investing over time, in many cases a long time. On average, those surveyed said they began saving money at the tender age of 14, and started working for money (outside the home) at 15.
I don't want to suggest that building a seven-figure nest egg is a cinch. For most of us it's not, and many people won't be able to retire with an account balance of six, let alone seven, figures for any number of reasons (low income, no retirement plan at work, to name just two). Still, with an early start and persistent saving, accumulating $1 million or more over the course of a career isn't a Mission Impossible either. For example, a 25-year-old who earns $40,000 a year, gets 2% annual raises and contributes 12% of salary to a 401(k) would end up at age 65 with an account worth just a few thousand bucks shy of $1 million, assuming a 6% annual return. Throw in an employer match of 3% of salary per year, and the balance grows to more than $1.2 million. To see how much you would have to save each year to accumulate $1 million by a given age, check out this Becoming a Millionaire calculator.
2. Go with the basics over fancy-schmancy investments. There's no doubt that many wealthy people own non-traditional investments, including hedge funds, private equity, timberland and art (which the U.S. Trust report, bizarrely in my opinion, devotes five pages to). But when the nearly 700 wealthy individuals polled for the survey were asked what best describes how they made their greatest investment gains, 89% said they did so with traditional stocks and bonds. Only 11% attributed their best success to alternative investments.
To me, this validates what I and others of the "less is more" school of investing have been saying for years: You don't need to stuff your portfolio with "sophisticated" (and often expensive) investments to earn solid returns and accumulate a sizable nest egg over the course of your career. (In fact, by doing so you may be more likely to "di-worse-ify" your portfolio than diversify it.) Simpler is better: A well-balanced portfolio of stock and bond mutual funds that jibes with your tolerance for risk and is consistent with financial goals will work just fine. For help with assembling such a portfolio, go to this risk tolerance-asset allocation questionnaire. And to the extent you stick with low-cost index funds, so the much the better as you'll be giving up less of your return to management fees.
3. Ride the market, don't try to outguess it. With investment pundits constantly rattling on about whether stocks are heading up or down and which sectors will sizzle and which fizzle, you can easily get the impression that investment success lies in being able to nimbly shift your money in and out of or around different parts of the market. To their credit, the overwhelming majority of the rich don't buy this. Just 14% said they made the bulk of their investment gains by timing the market; the other 86% credited their success to good old buy-and-hold investing, or investing in a diversified mix of stocks and bonds and participating in the long-term upward sweep of the market as opposed to the vain exercise of trying to predict its movements.
That said, the report also found that wealthy millennials (who account for just 13% of those surveyed) are far more likely to trade in and out of investments than their older counterparts, with 36% saying their biggest gains came from market timing. Far be it from me to nitpick their success. But I would note that research by University of California Berkeley finance professor Terrance Odean shows that frequent trading is more likely to erode one's returns than enhance them.
Clearly, there are other paths to wealth. If you're able to develop a killer app or start a business that has profit-generating potential, by all means go at it. But if you're looking for ways to accumulate wealth and enhance your financial security over the course of lifetime, the three tips above offer you your best shot.
Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at email@example.com. You can tweet Walter at @RealDealRetire.