We all know that we need to spend less than we earn in order to build wealth.
But how about something more specific? Exactly how much do you need to save, and at what rate do you need to compound it at, in order to reach your goals?
Here’s a wealth matrix to help answer those questions.
If you have a certain level of wealth that you would like to achieve in the next 25 years, this chart shows you the combo of the monthly saving amount and the rate of return on your wealth that you’ll need to achieve that target:
Levels over $1 million are highlighted in green. Click here for a bigger image.
I made the matrix inflation-adjusted, using an assumption of 2.5% annual currency inflation over the period. For context, the US Federal Reserve aims for 2% inflation per year.
So when you see a million dollars on the table, it means a million dollars in terms of today’s purchasing power rather than like, the less-valuable inflated Monopoly-money of the future.
The monthly savings numbers are inflation-adjusted as well, so for example if you look at the row for saving $1k/month, it means continuing to save an inflation-adjusted $1k each month for the 25 year period.
How to Build Wealth
As the chart shows, if you want to build wealth, there are really only two things to get right:
- Increase the difference between your income and expenses
- Save that difference and grow it exponentially over time
And yet, the vast majority of people never build any serious wealth. Rather than getting rich over time, they just stay afloat decade after decade, moving through life spending as much as they make. At most, they build a small nest egg, and rely on the government or a pension to support them in retirement.
This article breaks those two key parts into smaller pieces, and provides a ton of detail on how to do both of them, starting today.
Continue reading from here, or jump to the section you want:
- How to increase your income and save more money
- How to achieve a high growth rate on your savings
- How to produce passive investment income forever
- Three specific wealth-building examples
- Five tactics to become wealthy fast
- Financial freedom calculator
How to Increase Your Income and Save More
Worrying about whether your wealth is growing by 6% or 8% per year won’t matter so much if you can’t make enough money to reliably save and invest each month.
Here’s an overview of three ways to earn enough income to start some serious wealth accumulation.
Option 1) Pick a high-paying job
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a nice database of occupations that you can rank by median pay. If you click on individual professions, you can get detailed breakdowns of their median pay, including the pay associated with different subsets of those professions.
Over 100 professions pay more than $80k/year. Physicians, lawyers, actuaries, nurse practitioners, engineers, managers, financiers, and other technical professions can easily break into the six figure range.
You also have to take into account the costs of education.
Surgeons and specialist physicians top the list of high-paying professions, but they require 12+ years of postsecondary education and fellowships before they start getting paid big money. MBAs and lawyers earn a lot of money too, especially from a top school, but those schools will cost $150k+ for the program, plus the opportunity cost of missing wages if you attend full-time.
Getting a bachelor’s degree in a technical profession like engineering (or an accelerated 5-year master degree), and then eventually getting a graduate degree or MBA part time on the job is one of the most efficient routes. You get to start making money early with less student debt, but can still eventually transition into management or project leadership.
Option 2) Make money with side hustles
Do you have a hobby or talent? If so, you might be able to do it as a side gig and earn an extra $5k-$50k or more on the side to complement your day job and increase your overall income.
Suppose someone makes $40k per year after tax, and has expenses of $30k per year. This only leaves her with $10k per year to save and invest and pay off debts.
However, if she can earn just $5k per year in side income after tax and keep her personal expenses the same as they are now, it would only boost her total income by 12.5% (from $40k to $45k), but it would increase her savings rate by a full 50% (from $10k to $15k)!
If you save an extra $5k per year, and invest it at just 7% per year, you’ll have $100k extra in your portfolio in 15 years after adjusting for inflation.
If you’re more ambitious, and can figure out how to pull in an extra $20k per year on the side after tax, and invest it at 8% per year, you’ll have $430,000 in extra money in 15 years. Again, inflation-adjusted.
Small or medium side gigs can seriously put you in the top 5% of people by wealth over time.
- Freelance writing or editing
- Freelance web design or coding
- Freelance translation
- Help out as a virtual assistant
- Coaching, consulting, tutoring, marketing, copywriting, etc.
- Work part-time as an adjunct professor at a local college
- Become a part-time fitness or yoga instructor
- Do freelance property management or handyman fix-ups
- Be a part-time freelance private chef
- Tax preparation, bookkeeping, watching kids or pets, tutoring,etc.
Some of these you can jump into quickly, while others may need an investment of time and money for training and certification.
I worked for a few years as a part-time martial arts instructor. I have two friends that have side gigs as adjunct professors, and one friend that prepares private Italian dinners for wealthy clients in their own homes a few times per month.
Option 3) Start a business, full or part time
The reason that so many millionaires are business founders is that successful entrepreneurship satisfies both aspects of wealth building: achieve a high income and achieve a high rate of return on your accumulated wealth.
A rather small percentage of people are going to start the next Facebook, but it doesn’t need to be that glamorous. If you know a trade, like plumbing or construction, you can eventually start your own contracting company and scale it up.
If you can provide a service, like marketing, consulting, fitness instruction, and so forth, you could eventually open your own place, hire people, and increase the scale beyond your own reach. If you coach something really well, you might be able to turn it into a digital course and sell it to more people.
I started a small online business in my senior year of college, ran it on the side for a while as I worked as an engineer, and sold it a few years later, and made enough money from it to pay off most of my student loans. That gave me a boost to get the wealth-snowball rolling.
How to Achieve a High Growth Rate on Your Savings
To invest money for high rates of return, you usually either need to take on increased risk, increased volatility, or decreased liquidity.
Here’s an overview of how to achieve your target rate of return. Usually you’ll want a blend of several of these asset classes for optimal diversification:
How to produce 0-3% annually:
- Corporate bonds
- Municipal bonds
- Savings accounts
It used to be that savings accounts and treasury bonds would give you decent conservative returns, but not now.
Investment-grade bonds only give about 2% annual returns currently.
The reason for this long-term reduction in fixed-income returns is that the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates dramatically over the past few decades, and especially since the last recession:
Source: St Louis Federal Reserve
The interest rates for savings accounts, bonds, mortgages, loans, and other types of debt are extrapolated from the federal funds rate, which is the rate that banks can borrow at from each other over night. Read more about how interest rates affect everything in my interest rate guide.
As long as interest rates remain at historically low levels, bonds will continue to be unimpressive investments in terms of their risk/reward ratio. If the federal funds rate moves a few full percentage points higher, up to at least 2% or so, and bonds begin returning substantially more than inflation, they’ll become more worthwhile again.
Bonds and savings accounts have a place in a conservative portfolio, but they’re not going to build you a ton of wealth over the long-term.
How to produce 3-8% annually:
- Preferred stock
- Peer-to-peer lending
- Index funds
Historically, bonds provided returns in this range, but that’s not the case today.
And as described in more detail in this article, US equity returns from index funds and ETFs are likely to be lower over the next 10-20 years than they have been historically, since the market currently has a high cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratio. (In other words, it’s overvalued). Expecting somewhere in the lower end of 4-8% returns would be reasonable.
How to produce 8-12% annually:
The historical rate of return of the S&P 500 fell in this range. It’s less likely to be that good over the next decade or two.
Going forward, smart investment strategies may achieve returns in this range, but it’ll be difficult. I believe the most likely paths to reaching this level going forward will be:
- High-yielding dividend stocks with reasonable payout ratios and long histories of consistent annual dividend growth
- Emerging markets and other international stocks or ETFs trading at low valuations.
- High-quality Real Estate Investment Trusts and Master Limited Partnerships
- Investment strategies employing the use of cash-secured puts and covered calls to give good returns even in overvalued markets
- Certain alternative investments that offer decent returns in exchange for lower liquidity, like perhaps Fundrise.
I think the best investment platform for most people is M1 Finance. It is totally commission-free and expense-free, and allows for automatic investing in individual stocks and ETFs, and includes easy re-balancing:
- Top-quartile private equity
- Direct real estate investing
Private equity often provides returns in this range, since private equity managers can actually change and improve the businesses they acquire, and they typically invest for years in order to achieve the transformations that they set out to accomplish.
If you’ve already got several million dollars lying around, investing in a reputable private equity fund may be a viable move. In exchange for low liquidity, your returns may be pretty high.
Perhaps ironically, there are also publicly-traded private equity funds that you can invest in, like Brookfield Business Partners. They do the same type of work as private equity (buying troubled businesses, transforming them to be more profitable, and then selling them or continuing to hold them, or strategically lending money to them), but the ownership of the fund is broken into little pieces and sold on a stock exchange.
There’s no guarantee that any private equity fund will achieve the same results over the next few decades as they have over the past few decades, though. And measuring private equity returns as a group hasn’t been very transparent, so it’s hard to know what percentage of private equity funds do well vs those that fail.
Highly successful private real estate investing, employing considerable use of mortgage leverage, also has a decent chance of achieving this range.
How to produce 15%+ annually:
- Be a world-class investor
- Start a successful business
History’s best investors have achieved long-term returns in this range. This includes top hedge funds, top private equity funds, billionaire investors, etc. Most people don’t come anywhere near this high with the stock market.
For example, Warren Buffett has grown the per-share book value of his company Berkshire Hathaway by an average of over 19% per year since 1965. It’s important to note, though, that he used financial leverage to achieve this return.
Seth Klarman has also achieved better than 15% annual returns over three and a half decades so far for his Baupost Group hedge fund.
Peter Lynch grew the Magellan Fund at a compounded 29% rate of return during his tenure from 1977 to 1990.
A more likely path to achieving returns in this range is to start your own business. The probability that you’ll be a world class investor is extremely low, but your chance of being able to create a highly profitable small business is not too bad.
Successful small and large businesses often achieve returns on equity that surpasses 15% per year. For small and highly scalable businesses like software or services, return on equity can exceed 30% or more in their early stages.
More key reading on this topic:
- 6 Smart Investment Strategies for Superior Returns
- Contrarian Investing 101: What it is and Why it Outperforms
How to Produce Investment Income Forever
One way to figure out how much wealth you need to accumulate to reach your financial goals is to determine how much investment income you want it to provide you per year.
A common rule of thumb is to withdraw no more than about 4% per year if you want your portfolio to last forever.
That’s not a perfect rule but it’s a good starting point.
Here’s a table that shows how much withdrawn investment income that different portfolio sizes can generate at different annual withdraw rates:
The ones highlighted in green are fairly safe, but once you start withdrawing more into yellow or red territory, your chances of eroding your principal increase.
In reality, your withdraw rate depends on what rate of return your portfolio delivers. If you have a portfolio invested entirely in bonds and treasuries that provide you a rate of return of 2.5% per year, and inflation is 2% per year, then of course you can’t withdraw 4% per year without reducing your principal.
If US stocks only grow at 5% per year over the next decade, then the general rule of withdrawing 4% per year will be too aggressive, since inflation will be eating away your principal faster than it replenishes itself.
If you want your portfolio to last forever, then subtract the approximate inflation rate from your portfolio’s expected rate of return, and don’t withdraw more than the remaining number.
Max withdraw rate = Annual RoR – Annual Inflation Rate
So if your portfolio is growing at 6% per year, and inflation is 2.5% per year, then don’t withdraw more than 3.5% of your portfolio per year. That way, your portfolio will keep growing as fast as inflation to maintain its inflation-adjusted size, while you continue to withdraw 3.5% of it per year.
However, that approach doesn’t give you any margin of safety. If a market crash occurs and your investments temporarily lose 30% of their value, then your investment income may take a big hit. That figure should serve as an absolute upper limit, and ideally, you should keep it lower, especially since you can only estimate your forward rate of return rather than know it for sure.
So, stick to this to be safe:
Safe withdraw rate = Annual RoR – Annual Inflation Rate – 1%
One thing to keep in mind is that although the life expectancy at birth in the United States is less than 80 years on average, the life expectancy for someone who is currently 65 is about 85, according to the Social Security Administration’s actuarial data, give or take a year depending on your gender. If you’re 75, then your life expectancy averages into the late 80’s.
The overall life expectancy includes children who die young from health problems, teenagers that die from reckless driving, etc. Once you’ve already gotten to 65, you’re expected on average to hit 20 more years, and potentially far more than that if you live a healthy lifestyle.
Becoming too conservative with your investments is a risk of its own, because if your rate of return is too low, and you’re withdrawing 4% or more from it every year, you may run out of money. That’s why it’s important to adjust your withdraw amount relative to your expected rate of return, and try to plan your withdraw levels for it to last forever since you don’t know how many decades you may live after retirement.
3 Wealth-Building Examples: How to Get Rich
One of the most interesting things to me in my research is the type of words people use when they approach building wealth.
For example, far more people search Google for variants of “how to get rich” compared to “how to build wealth” or “how to become wealthy”. You would think that they’d be similar, but people usually phrase it the first way.
I think that’s because of the mindset that many people have. “Getting rich” has short-term intimations, while “building wealth” sounds like something your grandfather did back in the day over blood, sweat, and tears.
Realistically, building durable wealth takes time. You can accelerate that process in multiple ways and build wealth quite fast, but it’s always critical to have a long-term outlook. People that make fast money and get rich swiftly often lose it just as fast as they make it.
For example, if you start an internet business and generate piles of cash flow, throw it at some sports cars and various gadgets, you could find yourself suddenly screwed if something in the marketplace changes, like your Google traffic, or advertising rates, or whatever the case may be.
No matter what you’re earning, the key is to put your earned money into reliable investments, like index funds, dividend-paying stocks, cash-producing real estate, and more.
And if you’re not earning a ton of money, you can still build serious wealth over time, and get rich eventually. This section will outline various fast and slow, modest and aggressive, ways you can build wealth.
Roth IRA example:
The current limit for a Roth IRA is $6,000 per year for people under 50. You get to put in after-tax money, and from that point on it’s never taxed again. If you make over $122,000 as a single-filer or $193,000 as a married couple, then you’ll be restricted from using this investment vehicle.
What rate of returns should you count on for an account like this?
John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard and inventor of the index fund, predicts based on current high market valuations that stocks will return about 5% per year over the next decade. McKinsey & Company forecasts 4-6% stock returns pear year over the next 20 years.
It’s impossible to say for sure how fast your equity investments will grow, but 130 years of historical price-to-earnings data from Dr. Robert Shiller agree with their estimates; high market valuations like today have resulted in poor forward-returns over the next 10-20 years at every point in history.
So let’s say you put away the maximum $6,000 each year, and continue to put away that amount (adjusted for inflation) each year for the next few decades. The following table shows your growth of wealth based on different rates of return over different periods of time:
401(k) and Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) example:
With these types of retirement accounts, you can invest up to $19,000 per year and potentially also get an employer match, with no restrictions based on income. The 401(k) is commonly used by private employers while the TSP is the main investment vehicle for federal civilian and military personnel.
The money you put in is pre-tax, and is taxed when you withdraw from it. (Although nowadays, they also have Roth 401(k)s and Roth TSPs).
The following table shows the growth of wealth in your 401(k) or TSP at different rates of return, assuming you put in the maximum amount with no matching contributions.
If the employer throws in another 5% of your salary, then even better. That’s what you get with the TSP, while 401(k) contribution matching will vary by employer.
Suppose you took $100k, invested it to start your own business, and then managed to grow the equity of that business by 15% per year.
This chart shows the inflation-adjusted value of that business equity over time, and shows how multi-millionaires get rich:
In reality, you’d also be receiving a salary from that business at some point, which you could be investing. And you might have business partners or early investors that affect your ownership percentage of it.
But generally speaking, to achieve very high rates of return over long periods of time, entrepreneurship in some capacity is the most reliable route, even if it is somewhat high risk.
5 Tactics to Build Wealth Fast
The hardest part about building wealth is just starting. After that it gets easier, as you build and build on the initial momentum.
At first, there’s so much information to absorb, and so many different routes you could go in.
So, here’s general order of what things to tackle first.
Some of them you’ll likely want to do in parallel, and that’s great. But overall, some things are best saved for later (like investing), while other things need to get done right away (like paying off debt).
So here goes:
1) Pay off high interest debt now
High interest credit card debt, unsecured loans, and basically anything over 6% per year needs to be paid down right now.
Keeping some low-interest debt like a mortgage or student debt can actually be a good thing, because it lets you save money in assets that produce a higher rate of return and start building wealth. But those other high interest debts need to go, so channel money aggressively into them until they’re done.
Seriously, if you have high-interest debt, consider it an emergency and work extra hours or do whatever it takes to fix that this year. You’ll thank yourself later.
This will also help boost your credit score, which saves you a ton of money with interest payments and gives you access to great rewards cards. I have a detailed article called “How to increase your credit score to 800 and Above” if you want more information on optimizing it.
2) Establish an emergency fund for liquidity
Around the same time as you’re paying off debt, you need to have some money on the side. Not necessarily a ton, but some.
The statistics are alarming for the percentage of people that couldn’t come up with $500 if they had to. There are so many things that can go wrong, like a car breaking down, or a medical issue, or a death in the family, or a variety of other things, and you need to have liquidity to act on those things without turning to a credit card.
3) Mercilessly cut spending on things that don’t serve you
This is where I differ from a lot of people.
I don’t like frugality, and am not frugal. Instead, I believe in minimalism.
I spend plenty of money on high quality, ethical, and sustainable food, without caring about the price tag. I travel to other continents and spend time in luxury hotels, and those experiences are some of the best times in my life.
But my car? I don’t care about it at all other than it being reliable and safe. It’s cheap and I’ll run it into the ground before buying another one. I have no cable television. My apartment is so sparse that my landlord once asked if I even live in it, and assumed that I’m always on business travel or something.
That’s how I like it, because it lets me focus.
I’ve found that having a passion for something, and cutting expenses, goes hand-in-hand. The first naturally leads to the second.
Being frugal and pinching pennies can be really boring and unsatisfying as you focus on what you lack. But simplifying the possessions around you, traveling lightly through life, and spending your time and energy on projects that interest you (and that often produce money), can be incredibly satisfying.
The main reason I avoid buying things is that I just think of how much time and energy they’ll drain from me, and how distracting they’ll be. I’m allergic to clutter.
Everyone’s different, but this works for a lot of people. Spend liberally on what you love, and cut ruthlessly what you don’t.
4) Seek out higher income streams
There are three main ways to approach this:
- Focus hard on your career and earn a high income for your expertise
- Work a decent job and have a profitable side-hustle as well
- Go full-on entrepreneur and start a bigger business
If you go the first route, it usually means spending time and money on education and continued training, making the effort to be a top-performer at work, and maximizing your return through effective negotiation. This is the route of doctors, lawyers, lead engineers and scientists, upper level management, and so forth. You can have a side hustle as well, but it’s hard because your job takes so much focus.
If you go the second route, your job might not be as glamorous and you may not have a really high-level education, but you may have extra time for building more income streams on the side. Whether it’s freelancing, tutoring, dog-sitting, or whatever, there are countless ways to make money on the side to accelerate the process of building wealth.
The third route is the rarest, where you drop your main job and go hardcore into founding and growing a business. The payoff could be huge here, but it could also go bust and result in wasted time and capital.
Pursuing any of these three options is a historically reliable way to get rich over time. The only mistake would be avoiding all three by working a regular job, not having a side hustle, and not doing any business. Millionaires don’t work 40 hour weeks.
5) Invest money as soon as you get it
For each paycheck (or each month if you don’t have regular paychecks), the first priority should be putting a lot of that money into investments before it becomes spendable. This is called paying yourself first.
- If you have a 401(k), automatically put at least 5% of each paycheck into it.
- Max out a Roth IRA each year, if applicable. Set it up for automatic withdraws from your checking account if possible.
- Put additional money into your 401(k), or start putting cash into taxable accounts.
- By saving at least 20% or more of your income each year, you’ll begin aggressively compounding your wealth.
After much of this is automated, and you’re putting a ton of money into your accounts each month, you’ll be more free to spend what’s left on whatever you wish.
Financial Freedom Calculator
If you want to calculate your own journey to financial freedom, here’s a free Excel spreadsheet tool to do just that:
Financial Freedom Calculator Download
With that tool, you can adjust the following variables:
- Current portfolio value
- Yearly savings amount
- Expected long-term rate of return
- Expected long-term inflation rate
- Withdraw rate for determining passive investment income
- Effective tax rate on your investment withdraws
That way, you can see how different scenarios play out with a real degree of accuracy, and develop a game plan from there.
I’ve looked around at different calculators, and realized we needed one that is inflation-adjusted, takes into account taxes, is super-simple to use, and gives you enough flexibility to chart out your own path.
Another great free tool is Personal Capital.
With Personal Capital, you can see a complete picture of your financial situation:
- A graph of your net worth over time, to see where you stand.
- A detailed breakdown of where all your expenses go each month.
- A fee-scanner, to find hidden fees you might not be aware you’re paying.
- A retirement planner, that helps you figure out if you’re on track.
You can access the free tool here.
Wealth means different things to different people, and for a lot of people, it can seem bewildering or out of reach.
But you can use a framework like the one described here to map out what your target wealth level is, and how to get there. When you break a big process like wealth accumulation into smaller variables, you can start to see realistic paths forward.
Figuring out how much investment income you need when you retire or become financially free is a good starting point, and from there, you can determine the combinations of monthly contributions and rates of return you need to achieve those goals.
There are plenty of ways that you can achieve any realistic wealth target and passive investment income that you have in mind, as long as you plan and act accordingly.