8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
5 ways to get rich . . . or poor
Some households accumulate wealth, and some don't. It comes down to several factors, such as marriage, homeownership and college education, as well as the choices you make.
I'll break this to you gently: You're probably not going to end up filthy rich.
Only about 80,000 U.S. households (out of 115 million) qualify as "the glittering rich," which is what author Thomas J. Stanley calls the people with seven-figure incomes and eight-figure wealth. (Stanley co-authored the classic money book "The Millionaire Next Door" and authored "Stop Acting Rich . . . And Start Living Like a Real Millionaire.")
But you have a pretty good shot at accumulating a substantial net worth over your lifetime, depending on your choices. A relatively small number of factors can make a big difference in your wealth. Such as:
Two can't live as cheaply as one, but sharing household expenses can have an impressive impact on your wealth.
The median net worth of all married-couple households in a Census Bureau wealth study (.pdf file) was more than four times higher than that of single men and five times higher than single women.
You'd expect some disparity, since most people marry eventually, meaning the group of single people would skew younger and poorer.
But the wealth gap remains substantial even when you look at people the same age. A 15-year study of 9,000 people, starting in their 20s, found that people who married and stayed married built up nearly twice the net worth of people who stayed single.
Furthermore, married couples' wealth increased at a faster pace -- an average of 16% a year, compared with 8% for single people. That suggests that couples who stay together will build substantially more wealth over their lifetimes than two comparable singles.
But what marriage gives, divorce can take away -- and then some. Four years before a divorce, wealth typically starts to decline. After the final breakup, the typical divorced person's net worth is 77% less than that of the typical person who remained single.
"While men come out slightly ahead, divorce destroys wealth dramatically for both sexes," wrote Jay Zagorsky, a researcher for Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research. "Becoming and staying married is associated with higher net worth than being single or divorced."
The takeaway: Marry, but marry smart. Spending money on marriage counseling can be an investment if it helps prevent divorce. Read "Get real: Marriage is a business."
Owning a home is clearly associated with higher net worth. But as with marriage, a bad ending can be devastating to your finances.
Homeowners had a median net worth of $234,200 in 2007, the latest available Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve says. Renters' median net worth was $5,100, or just 2% that of homeowners.
As millions of people have discovered since 2006, however, a house you can't afford isn't an asset. Trying to make unaffordable mortgage payments can drain your savings, while a foreclosure or short sale can substantially lower your credit scores with an effect that lasts up to seven years.
Research on people's net worth after a foreclosure is scarce, but Zagorsky and colleague Lois R. Lupica of the University of Maine School of Law found that the fallout from a similar traumatic setback -- bankruptcy -- was surprisingly long-lived. Those who filed for bankruptcy typically took more than 25 years to "catch up" to the net worth accumulated by those who hadn't filed. Fifteen years after their filing, for example, the median net worth of those who'd filed for bankruptcy was $132,772, compared with $192,251 for those who hadn't.
The takeaway: Most U.S. households (65.9% at last count) own their own homes, but it's not a slam-dunk decision. Make sure you're ready to stay put for several years. You also should have enough saved so you have some money after closing to cover the continuing costs of maintenance and repairs. Finally, try to keep your mortgage payments to 25% or less of your gross income. That can help ensure you have enough money left over to save for other goals and to live your life. Remember, you want to own your home -- not be owned by it. For more, read "Are you crazy to buy a home now?"
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