The way most Americans build wealth is no secret: Save, invest, repeat. How average people keep their wealth, though, gets a lot less attention.
It boils down to how they handle risk. It’s hard to accumulate wealth without taking some risks, but there are perils that ‘next-door millionaires’ seem to avoid.
Next-door millionaires weren’t born into wealth. They haven’t invented killer apps or won the lottery, exercised a pile of stock options or played professional sports. They’re the majority of millionaires, and they include teachers, small business owners and professionals who accumulate wealth gradually over time. They’re often in their 50s or 60s before their net worth ticks over to seven digits.
Research into how they think and act can give other regular folks some good insights. Here are some rules of thumb you might consider applying to your own finances.
Follow the ‘one house, one spouse’ rule
Marriage can really benefit your financial life. People who get and stay married tend to be much wealthier than never-married singles, according to research by Jay Zagorsky at Ohio State University. By retirement age, married people have nearly 10 times the financial assets of singles, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
But divorce can dramatically shrink your wealth. Zagorsky found that people who split up experience an average wealth drop of 77 percent. So while the uber-rich may be able to divorce and remarry with relative impunity, dividing assets can be wickedly costly for everyone else.
Sticking with one house can pay off, too. Every time you sell a house and buy another, you’re giving up a chunk of your wealth to commissions and moving costs. Trading up also means staying in debt longer if you take on a new, 30-year mortgage with each purchase. If your home has appreciated substantially, you also may owe capital gains taxes on the sale. (The first $250,000 of home sale profit is exempt for singles, or $500,000 for a couple.)
If instead you keep the house and bequeath it to your heirs, it gets an updated value for tax purposes, and that gain is income-tax free. Paying off a single mortgage over time, or refinancing only to shorter-term loans, can leave you with a ton of equity that you can borrow against in an emergency or use to help finance your retirement.
Take risks, but don’t gamble
‘Safe’ investments don’t get you anywhere. The returns on Treasury bills and bank accounts insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. don’t even keep up with inflation, so you’re actually losing wealth over time. But next-door millionaires aren’t speculators, either. Millionaire portfolios tend to be widely diversified, with investments in stock funds, bonds, cash and real estate.
The most popular investment choice? Low-cost Vanguard index funds, according to the 2014 CNBC Millionaire Survey.
Teach your children well
Some people question the value of a college education, but in wealthy families, it’s usually a given, says Myra Salzer, an inheritance coach and founder of the Wealth Conservancy in Boulder, Colorado. Nine out of 10 millionaires surveyed by BMO Private Bank in 2013 had a college degree and over half had a professional or graduate degree. (For comparison, just 36 percent of people ages 25 to 29 had college degrees in 2015 and only 9 percent had graduate degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)
Eight out of 10 millionaires told the 2014 CNBC Millionaire Survey that wealth inequality was due at least in part to wealthier families’ greater access to education. Encouraging your kids to go to college, and helping to pay for it if possible, could help your kids get on the right side of the “haves” versus “haves not” divide.
Don’t DIY your money
Seven out of 10 millionaires surveyed by the Spectrem Group in 2014 used financial advisers. Many said the primary benefits were improving their knowledge of investing, having access to a wider range of investment opportunities and boosting their returns. Also on the list: peace of mind and being able to delegate to experts.
You don’t necessarily need a fleet of advisers, attorneys and tax pros, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. But expert guidance is available in many forms. You can, for example, use the target-date retirement fund options in your workplace 401(k) or opt for an automated financial adviser that uses computer algorithms to invest and re-balance your money.
These approaches tend to be carefully designed and executed with an eye toward balancing risk and return. They’re far more likely to help you build your wealth than your own efforts to pick stocks, since most investors fail to beat the markets.
A big tax bill means you’re winning
In fact, a tax bill of any size means you’re doing better than a lot of Americans. A large chunk of U.S. households — 45.3 percent, according to the latest Tax Policy Center estimate — don’t pay federal income tax because they don’t have enough taxable income. (Some still owe state taxes, and most who have jobs pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.)
The loathing some people have for taxes can lead them to do pretty stupid things with their money. They might buy variable annuities to defer taxes, not realizing that excessive fees can erode their returns and that they could pay more in taxes in the long run. (Annuity withdrawals are taxed as income while other investments may qualify for lower capital gains rates.) Or they keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction, which is like giving someone a dollar just to get a quarter or two back in change.
It’s OK to consider strategies to reduce your taxes, but tax considerations shouldn’t drive your investment and financial decisions.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lizweston.
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