Remember playing Legos as a kid? You could quickly take a random pile of blocks and build something solid. The steps to building wealth are not so different, as the process involves a series of small decisions that move us along, one building block at a time.
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"It is from those daily decisions that individuals build wealth," says J. Landon Loveall, founder and president of Cumberland Wealth Planners in greater Nashville, Tenn. "What you do now will determine where you are financially 20 years from now."
The steps to building wealth begin with a clear intention to attain it. After all, accumulating money is not a haphazard occurrence, but a deliberate process.
Once you determine that attaining wealth is a priority, focus your energies on maximizing your income, saving a portion of it and investing it for growth. Building wealth also requires you to make decisions on potentially destructive forces that erode wealth, such as inflation, taxes and overspending.
Building your income
Your income represents the foundation upon which you build lifetime wealth. The higher your income, the greater your potential for accumulating significant assets.
When you're young, the value of your future earnings is your No. 1 financial asset. Find a job you love, invest in educating yourself and keep abreast of changes in your career field.
"The lifetime return for making these investments at this time is greater than saving in Roth IRAs, or any investment, even factoring in the power of compounding," says Certified Financial Planner Joe Alfonso, founder of Aegis Financial Advisory in Santa Clara, Calif.
To stay on top of your field, take advantage of college savings plans with tax-favorable characteristics that are available to students of all ages.
Going hand in hand with earning money is the ability to live within your means and plan for contingencies.
"By far, the most destructive forces to building wealth are inertia, procrastination and, ultimately, magical thinking -- couples passing away peacefully and synchronously just after they spend their last dollar," says Certified Financial Planner Melissa Einberg, a wealth adviser at Forteris Wealth Management in Purchase, N.Y. "They simply fail to plan, not only for retirement, but also possible obstacles they will face on the way to retirement."
Saving your money
Saving money is the next step to building wealth. How much you save is a measure of how efficiently you use the wealth-building opportunity in your income. In their book, "The Millionaire Next Door," Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko discovered that self-made millionaires are very efficient at turning income into wealth.
Find the best high-yield savings account.
Ultimately, it comes down to a balancing act. "The most important decision is how to balance current spending with future savings, or living a good life now versus saving for a great life in the future," says Loveall. Both he and Alfonso advise clients to save at least 10% of their annual income.
Rick Kahler, president of the Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D., would double that to 20% or more "until you have six months to one year of living expenses for an emergency fund."
In addition to creating an emergency fund, Kahler, co-author of "Wired for Wealth," advocates opening a separate savings account for purchases of future cars, car repairs, vacations and Christmas gifts. The rest of your income can be spent on current consumption.
"For most people, this means living on 30 to 60 cents out of every gross dollar you earn," he says.
Saving can be an easily accomplished, automated process when signing up to contribute to a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k). Kahler warns against "leaving money on the table if your employer offers a match on a 401(k) plan. It's like turning down a guaranteed 100% return. It's a no-brainer."
He suggests maximizing your contribution. Currently, the contribution limit is $17,500; $23,000 for those 50 and older. If you're truly motivated to build wealth, after maximizing your 401(k), contribute to an IRA. The contribution limit is $5,500; $6,500 for those 50 and older. (The tax deductibility of IRA contributions may be limited if you contribute to a workplace plan and your earnings exceed certain levels.)
If self-employed, set up a retirement plan that will allow you to invest as much as possible. Investing in a tax-sheltered account such as a Solo 401(k) cuts taxable income now and enables you to build wealth by deferring taxes until you take distributions.
Putting your savings to work
Wealth-building strategies include investing in paper assets such as stocks and bonds, buying income-producing real estate and owning a business -- or all three.
Experts generally agree on the importance of such core investment principles as keeping a balanced and globally diversified portfolio, and diligently rebalancing to maintain your investment plan. Maintaining a long-term perspective is also important.
"Successful investing is about discipline, understanding of your tolerance for risk and, most importantly, about setting realistic financial goals and expectations about market returns," says Einberg.
Studies have shown that an asset allocation policy can explain most of a portfolio's investment returns over time. When investing in stocks, diversifying across markets both domestic and international, developed and emerging, is key, says Alfonso. For bonds, closely managing credit and maturity to avoid taking imprudent risk is also important.
Passively managed funds that mimic an index allow investors to build diversified portfolios of inexpensive funds. Actively managed funds generally cost more and are susceptible to style drift, given the leeway managers have in carrying out their investment strategy, says Alfonso.
When choosing investments, your tolerance for risk will likely dictate your asset allocation. Professionals with steady paychecks and generous employer retirement benefits usually can tolerate more risk than a salesperson earning commissions or a young investor starting out -- though young investors can afford to dial up the risk by investing more in equities since they have plenty of time to make up any losses.
Beyond stocks and stock funds, many investors are diversifying into nontraditional asset classes, such as commodities, managed futures, merger-arbitrage and market-neutral or long-short funds, as well as absolute-return mutual funds. These "alternative" funds aim to hold up in all types of markets with less volatility. They also help to fight inflation -- that seemingly benign annual increase in the price of goods and services that actually destroys your purchasing power over time.
While choosing non-correlated assets to increase diversification is important, Alfonso advises investors to stick to a prudent investment strategy, regardless of market conditions. "Keep investment costs as low as possible; net returns will be higher. And, most importantly, never try to time the market."
As famous investor Peter Lynch once said, "Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves."