Want to Become Wealthy? Do This 1 Thing

Here are two quotations to ponder: Poet T.S. Eliot quipped that, "Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough." And writer Lev Grossman noted, "If there's a single lesson that life teaches us, it's that wishing doesn't make it so."

Many of us wish we were rich. But many of us are also not going to become rich -- though we might if we just did this one thing: Make it a goal that we pursue seriously.

Are you interested in becoming wealthy? And if you are, do you have a plan that you're acting on? There's a good chance you don't. Only about 4 in 10 workers have taken the time to figure out how much money they'll need to be comfortable in retirement, according to the 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey.

A full 24% of workers report having less than $1,000 saved for retirement, while a whopping 55% have less than $50,000, per the 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey. Clearly, many millions of Americans -- most of whom would love to be wealthy -- are not on track to achieve wealth.

That doesn't have to be you, though.

You can get rich -- if you have a plan

If you're serious about wanting to be wealthy, make it an official goal. Develop a plan for how you'll achieve it, and then diligently work on getting there. It can be done. The table below shows how powerfully you can build wealth over time.

Three key factors determine how much you can amass:

  • How much you can save and invest each year: Obviously, the more you can sock away regularly, the faster you'll amass a big nest egg. Not everyone can save $20,000 (or more!) per year, but if you spend a little time thinking about how you might generate a little more money to invest -- a side gig or cutting back on some spending -- you may be able to sock away more than you expected.
  • The rate of growth you expect: If you're still many years from retirement, focus your investing on the stock market, as stocks tend to outperform most alternatives over the long haul, averaging close to 10% annual growth over many decades. Its average return may be higher or lower than that during your investment period, so the table above assumes a somewhat more conservative 8% growth rate. A good way to earn close to the overall stock market's returns is to invest in one or more low-fee, broad-market index funds, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), and Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT).
  • How many years your money has to grow: This is also obvious. The longer your money can grow, the more it will be able to do so.

Make the most of IRAs and 401(k)s

It's smart to make the most of tax-advantaged retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. There are two main kinds of IRAs -- the traditional IRA and the Roth IRA. With a traditional IRA, you contribute pre-tax money, reducing your taxable income for the year and thereby reducing your taxes, too. (Taxable income of $70,000 and a $5,000 contribution? Your taxable income drops to $65,000.) The money grows in your account over time and is taxed at your ordinary income tax rate when you withdraw it in retirement.

With a Roth IRA, you contribute post-tax money that doesn't reduce your taxable income at all in the contribution year. (Taxable income of $70,000 and a $5,000 contribution? Your taxable income remains $70,000.) But with a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your money in retirement tax free.

While you can only contribute up to $6,000 to an IRA in 2019 (plus an additional $1,000 if you're 50 or older), you can sock much more away in a 401(k) (or its cousin, the 403(b) that many schools and other non-profits offer). For 2019, you can contribute up to a whopping $19,000 to a 401(k) account, plus another $6,000 for those 50 or older, for a grand total of $25,000. Many employers now offer both traditional and Roth versions of 401(k) accounts to their workers.

Stick with your program

Once you're saving and investing aggressively, stick with it. Remember your plan, ideally revisiting and reassessing it at least every few years. You can make sticking with your plan a little easier by automating some of your saving and investing. Your employer may let you automatically send a certain sum or portion of each paycheck to a savings account, for example.

Finally, don't let your emotions get in the way. If the market swoons, remember that it has always recovered after big drops. If you're getting discouraged, remember that many ordinary people built great fortunes, in part through their patience, and also through determination and sticking to their plans.

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Selena Maranjian has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.