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The 8 Most Common Secrets of Self-Made Millionaires



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Since 2004, I’ve been immersed in studying what to do and what not to do in order to become wealthy and avoid poverty. Thanks to my research, I’ve made two monumental discoveries:

First, your daily habits have a great deal to do with your financial circumstances. Some habits lift you up and help you grow wealth, while others drag you down and could put you in the poor house.

And second, there are four paths to wealth: the Saver-Investor Path, the Big Company Climber Path, the Virtuoso Path and the Entrepreneur Path.

Read Common Mistakes Business Owners make and how to avoid them

When you choose the path that is right for you and install what I call “Rich Habits” to reinforce you on your journey, building wealth becomes almost automatic. Conversely, if you choose a path that is not right for you, building wealth becomes almost impossible.

The most common path people take to wealth? It’s the Saver-Investor Path, which has created more millionaires than any other. I’ve spent quite a bit of my time learning how the Saver-Investor Path works for my latest book, Effort-Less Wealth. What makes this path so special is that it is available to almost everyone. It requires no special set of skills or particular education. It doesn’t demand significant risk, long working hours or isolation from friends and family.

There are just a few basic things you will need: 1) at least a middle-class income—it’s hard to save when you have to scrape by to cover the bills; 2) Discipline; 3) Consistency; and 4) Time—the typical Saver-Investor in my Rich Habits study was at it for 32 years, but accumulated north of $3.2 million.

Those are the traits of a Saver-Investor millionaire. But they’re just the starting point. To leverage those traits, you’ll need to cultivate the eight common habits I observed the most during my study.

1. Be frugal, not cheap.

Being frugal means spending your money wisely. Frugal spenders make a habit of buying the highest quality product or service at the lowest price possible. They focus on quality first and cost later.

Cheap spending means buying the cheapest product or service, with little regard for quality. Cheap products break down after just a few years, forcing you to replace them over and over again. Cheap services are typically provided by those who are either inexperienced in their field or who are not very good at what they do. This can result in mistakes that cost you money down the road.

2. Keep your spending in check.

The Saver-Investor self-made millionaires in my Rich Habits study accumulated their savings by sticking to the following guidelines for spending their net, or take-home, pay each month:

  • Housing – 25 percent or less. Side note: The wealthy tend to buy, not rent.
  • Cars – 5 percent or less. This includes not just the monthly payment, but also insurance, gas, tolls, registration fees and maintenance.
  • Clothing – 5 percent or less. Refer to the frugality habit here: Invest in quality, not quantity.
  • Vacations – 5 percent or less. The Saver-Investor Millionaires in my study took modest, inexpensive vacations and found bargain travel deals for their families.
  • Entertainment – 10 percent or less. This category includes bars, restaurants, movies, music, books, gifts and so on.

Getting control of your spending is not an easy task, and it might challenge your vanity—many of the wealthy are not afraid to bargain shop or use coupons. Once smart spending becomes a daily habit, however, it gets much easier.

3. Surround yourself with fellow Saver-Investors.

The Saver-Investors in my Rich Habits study intentionally surrounded themselves with friends who shared their savings mindset. Why is this important? Habits spread like a virus throughout your social network. If your inner circle includes too many spenders, you will eventually become infected by their spending habits and will be unable to save.

4. Understand need vs. want.

People who overvalue their wants will surrender to instant gratification, eschewing saving in order to buy things they crave right now: 8K TVs, glamorous vacations, expensive cars, bigger homes and flashy jewelry.

Want-Spenders routinely incur debt in order to finance their standard of living. They are undisciplined with their money and create their own poverty. They have been brainwashed by advertisers and a consumerist society to think that it is perfectly normal to buy in excess of their needs.

When Want-Spenders are no longer able to work due to old age, they live out the remainder of their lives in abject poverty, becoming dependent on others.

5. Avoid emotional purchases.

When you are feeling overly optimistic about your future income, you can fall into the trap of spending money you have or spending future money you expect to receive by incurring debt.

When you feel sad or depressed, emotional purchases can act like a quick fix, temporarily lifting you out of sadness. The remedy is to be constantly vigilant regarding your emotions and look for healthier ways to address them.

6. Eliminate spontaneous spending.

Everyone has about three hours of willpower energy, and it is greatest after a good night’s sleep. When willpower is high, your prefrontal cortex is in control of your brain. You make good decisions. When willpower is low, you lose discipline over your spending and other things.

This is why supermarkets place products at the checkout lines. Their hope is, in your weakened state, you’ll make a spontaneous purchase of a sugary soda, a bag of chips or a tawdry tabloid.

The remedy is to do your shopping immediately upon waking up from a night’s sleep, after taking a nap or after a light meal. These three things restore your willpower reserves.

7. Avoid lifestyle creep.

When you increase your spending to match your income, you are falling victim to lifestyle creep. It’s the explanation for why so many people continue to live paycheck to paycheck even as they make more money.

Lifestyle creep is typically incremental. It happens over many years without you consciously realizing it.

The remedy is to fix your savings rate, taking a certain—perhaps climbing—percentage off the top regardless of how much you make. This acts as a buffer, preventing you from spending too much and keeping you on track with growing your wealth.

8. Don’t supersize your life.

When Connor McGregor boxed Floyd Mayweather in 2017, he received a $30 million guarantee for the bout. Upon receipt of his guaranteed money, he purchased a $17 million yacht. Because he didn’t have enough money left over from the guaranteed money to pay his income taxes, he had to withdraw money from existing wealth to pay the tax man—talk about a punch to the gut.

Supersizing your life is driven by excessive optimism about a sudden increase in income or wealth, such as a large bonus, significant raise, inheritance or other windfall.

The remedy? Same house, same spouse, same car. Refuse to upgrade your lifestyle when your income or wealth rises significantly. Have a plan and stick to it.

Becoming wealthy as a Saver-Investor is not an event. It’s a process. By adopting financial growth habits, building wealth is put on autopilot.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.