In 1998, Dr Thomas J. Stanley of Georgia State University, published his best-selling book “The Millionaire Next Door,” in which he reveals two decades of research into the character traits of America’s wealthy. Many were quite surprised by his findings at the time, especially when compared with go-go stock market attitude and eternal optimism of the late-1990s, in which many pundits suggested that fortunes could be made in stock market speculation alone. Since it’s initial publication the book has been revised and updated several times, but none of the core findings have changed. The characteristics that made people wealthy two decades ago still apply today. The truth, according to Dr. Stanley’s research, is that the typical wealthy American isn’t a celebrity, doesn’t drive a expensive Italian sports car, and generally doesn’t “look” wealthy. Instead, he or she might be your next-door neighbor and you would never know it. The book identifies seven key traits that these wealthy people almost universally have in common.
Now, I haven’t conducted decades of rigorous, scientific research, but after nearly 15 years working with high net worth individuals and families, certain characteristics begin to appear almost universally among them. The truth is that while there are many paths to creating income, the essential qualities needed to convert that income into real wealth are pretty much the same from person to person. So with a little thought, I’ve identified a few key characteristics that we see commonly among wealthy individuals and families. These crucial character traits are so ingrained in most of them as to be part of their financial DNA, and they are essential parts of what has made them successful with money.
Today, I’ll focus on just five attributes that we commonly see.
They Invest in Themselves and Focus on Maximizing Their Income
Successful people often spend more time early on focusing on bettering themselves, which then leads to a higher income over the remainder of their lives. They view themselves and their careers as an investment just like a business owner would view his or her business, investing time and resources in upfront to maximize their “return” in the future. They understand that simply going to college, for example, isn’t always enough. The goal is to develop valuable skills by increasing their knowledge about whatever profession they have chosen. They recognize that higher pay in a competitive economic system comes from having skills that are both in high demand and short supply, so they focus on getting those skills and thereby mastering their craft. Then, even when they have obtained a good, secure job, they are constantly “reinvesting” back into themselves to increase their income.
They Pay Themselves First and Automate their Savings
When it comes to budgeting, saving money, and building wealth, successful people realize that if left to a conscious decision at the end of each month, it will probably never happen. Think for a minute about all the decisions that you actively have to make to save money each month: first, you have to tally up all your expenses and subtract that from your income. Next, you need to pick the “right” investment, open an account (if one’s not already established), write a check, find a stamp, and mail it (or do all of the equivalent steps online, if you’re technology-savvy and so inclined). Finally, you need to follow up with the financial institution to confirm that your instructions were followed. Successful people realize that after balancing their work, family, and other priorities, it’s just too much to expect themselves to do all of this as well. That’s why they “automate” the process, whether that be setting up automatic salary deductions into their retirement plan, or an automatic draft from their checking account into savings. They realize that by using systems to automate their financial habits, they can make steady progress towards their goals over time .
They Don’t Leave Money on the Table
It always amazes me to read the statistics of how many people fail to contribute even the most basic amount to their 401k, and thereby miss out on the FREE company match. This is 100% free money that the company offers you for simply putting a small amount into your plan. Wealthy people pay attention to important details like these, and make sure that they take advantage of them. Another good example of “free” money is contributing to an employee stock plan with a generous purchase discount, or taking advantage of tax-deferral opportunities, which are basically a form of free “matching” provided by the U.S. government. Maybe your employer will even fund a Health Savings Account or a Flexible Spending Account on your behalf, or pay for you to earn an advanced degree. Opportunities are out there, and wealthy people keep a watchful eye out and take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
They Live Below Their Means
You might think it’s just common sense to know that building wealth requires living below your means, but the statistics say that, common sense or not, very few people do so. In America, we live in a consumerist society, which powers our economy and consumes the paycheck of the average American. But for people on the path towards financial independence and building wealth, living below their means is a lifestyle. They realize that while income is important, it’s also vital to avoid the temptation of “lifestyle creep,” which is what happens to most high income earners when they finally reach their peak earning years. Basically, each year as they get a raise or a slightly larger bonus, they begin to spend more and more, and then grow so accustomed to that lifestyle that it becomes impossible to change. One huge problem with “lifestyle creep” is that the amount you need to save to reach financial independence is a function of the amount of income you need to replace your lifestyle. The bigger your lifestyle, the more you need to save, but the less you are actually able to. And so lifestyle creep causes you to grow accustomed to a standard of living that is harder and harder to replace. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to live below your means to begin with.
They Hire and Follow the Advice of Good Advisors
While it may seem a little self-serving to include this last trait, it is nevertheless very important. Most wealthy people are accomplished professionals who are focused on their careers and maximizing their income, and therefore don’t have time to research investment products or tax law changes. They value the fact that as experts in their own fields, they are paid for adding value to their customers’ lives and therefore spend their time focusing on improving their ability to do that. Therefore, when it comes to important areas of their lives that are outside their own area of expertise, they seek out advice from experts that have similarly dedicated their professional careers to a particular subject area. This is true from the doctors they choose to car mechanics to attorneys, CPAs, and of course, financial advisers.
Because they value the advice of these experts, wealthy individuals take the time to research the right attorney, CPA or adviser for their situation. They find out which industry credentials are important, and which are purely a marketing strategy. For example, there are over 300,000 financial advisers working in the US currently, but only about 25% of them currently hold a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation, the most respected credential for the financial planning profession. In addition, there are many compensation models that financial advisers use, but only “fee-only” advisers can claim to be completely unbiased towards the best interests of the client, and probably less than 5% of all advisers are fee-only.* (All of the advisers at JPH Advisory Group are CFP certificants, and the firm has been 100% fee-only since 1998.)
The Bottom Line
While there are several other traits that I could point to, these are just a few that stick out. And while many of these are simple, common sense ideas, it’s amazing how few of us actually do all of them consistently. That’s the advantage that those that are on the path to financial independence have. In the end, wealth isn’t created by those who make a lot and flaunt it; wealth is created one day at a time, by simple everyday decisions to spend less than you make and wisely invest the difference.
*While there are no published statistics on the percentage of fee-only advisers in the US, we can estimate it based on the combined memberships of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) and the Garrett Planning Network, the two main fee-only financial adviser organizations in the country. Their combined roster currently totals about 2700 advisers, some of which are undoubtedly firms representing multiple advisers. So, even if we assume that each firm represents five advisers, which has to be on the high side, it is probably safe to conclude that the total number of fee-only advisers nationwide is less than 5%.
image credit: Corey Balazowich