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5 steps to becoming a millionaire

Any one of these practical measures can help you build wealth.

By Karen Datko Oct 30, 2009 4:42PM

This post comes from partner blog The Dough Roller.


Perhaps the most frequently asked question in all of personal finance is this: How do you become a millionaire? Although we often focus on the idea of becoming a millionaire, there's really a different question lurking just below the surface -- how do you become financially independent? It's financial independence that we are really seeking, although for most of us, achieving millionaire status would get us there or at least be a great start.

While $1 million is a big number, it can be attained. The journey to $1 million may be a long one, but each step along the way is not difficult. In fact, each step is downright easy. With the right planning, commitment and execution, anybody can become a millionaire. While there are certainly more than five ways to build wealth, what follows are five of the most practical concepts and methods that anybody can follow to become a millionaire in the making.


Real estate millionaire

Homeownership is probably the most significant asset for most people. Given the poor real estate market over the last couple of years, however, many have given up hope as they've watched their home's value plummet. Don't let the current market discourage you. Over the long term, real estate has gone up by the rate of inflation. While that may not seem like much, it's actually good news for homeowners.


Homeownership offers several financial advantages:

  • Tax advantages: Both mortgage interest and property taxes are, with some exceptions, tax-deductible. The gain on the sale of real estate is also tax-free up to certain defined limits. These tax advantages of owning a home set it apart from just about all other investments.
  • Favorable financing: The interest rate on home loans is generally lower than most other types of loans. Of course, a home loan is secured by the property, but the rates are still very competitive.
  • Automatic savings: Owning a home is a great way to automate wealth building. With each passing month, the principal balance on the loan declines as payments on the home loan are made. And the value of the home, over the long run, steadily increases.

While homeownership can be a key element of your financial success, owning a home is not a guaranteed ticket to wealth. Many people own real estate for years without building much wealth at all. Here are some of the mistakes people make that should be avoided if possible.

  • Don't think of your home as an ATM. While there are legitimate reasons to take out a home-equity line of credit, expensive vacations, jewelry and clothes are not among them. Resist the urge to use your home to fund a lifestyle you can't otherwise afford.
  • Stop playing musical chairs. Life sometimes requires that we move. And for some, moving from town to town every few years is a reality of life. But recognize that buying and selling a home involves tremendous expense. Factoring in the cost of financing, moving, Realtor fees, and taxes, moving can easily shave off 10% or more of the value of a home. To see your wealth build with real estate, choose your home carefully and stay put as long as reasonably possible.
  • Don't buy more than you can afford. Too much of a good thing can really hurt your finances, and real estate is no exception. When we buy more home than we can reasonably afford, several things often happen.
    • We look into exotic home loans (option ARMs, for example) as a way to afford the property. While these loans look attractive at first, they eventually result in significantly higher payments.
    • We are forced to spend too much of our monthly income on our home. This prevents us from making other important investments, like funding a 401k. If you are considering buying a home, check this article on calculating how much home you can afford to buy.
    • And finally, we are more likely to fund other expenses with credit cards or personal loans.

401k millionaire

For most people, investing in a 401k, IRA or other retirement account is the easiest, least costly and most effective way to build wealth in the stock market. Whether the retirement account is a traditional tax-deferred account or a Roth account, the tax advantages help boost overall returns. In addition, most plans run by major brokerage firms or mutual fund companies offer educational tools to help you become a smarter investor.

Given enough time, retirement accounts can grow into substantial sums. To get an idea of what's possible, check out the table below. I've assumed that contributions each year increase by an assumed rate of inflation of 3.1%. For each annual contribution amount and assumed rate of return, you'll see the approximate number of years it will take to accumulate $1 million. These results are pre-tax.


Annual Contributions





32 years

29 years

26 years


25 years

23 years

21 years


21 years

19 years

18 years


To make the most of your 401k, IRA, or other retirement account, here are some tips:

  • Start early. As you can see from the above table, the key to building wealth is time. The earlier you start, the greater wealth you can accumulate.
  • Invest smartly. You'll also see from the table the big difference a few percentage points can make. While there is no way to guarantee a 12% return or any return for that matter, even basic investing knowledge can go a long way. If you are uncertain where to start, I'd suggest reading "The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing." Don't let the goofy name of the book distract you. The Bogleheads are a group of investors named after John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. This book is an excellent place to start if you are new to investing.
  • Let it be. Avoid 401k loans or early withdrawals. You don't want to do anything to interrupt the power of compounding.

10% millionaire

Thinking beyond retirement accounts, a good rule of thumb is to save at least 10% of everything you make. Some or all of this savings may go to retirement accounts. In some cases, you may invest some of this money in taxable accounts with discount brokers or mutual fund companies. But the key is to consistently save and invest a portion of your paycheck. Ten percent is a good start; 15% or 20% is even better.


Assuming a family income of $75,000, an annual investment of $7,500 increased for inflation will turn you into a millionaire in about 25 years before taxes.


Young millionaire

Some of the most important wealth-building years are between the ages of 18 and 30. These aren't the highest earning years for most, but the saving and investing decisions made during these early years will have a major impact on your ability to achieve millionaire status. Allow me to demonstrate.


Let's assume you begin investing $2,500 a year at age 18. Your annual investments increase each year by the amount of inflation, and you earn a 10% return on your investments. By age 68, your pre-tax balance is $1,668,657. But what's most impressive in this example is the breakdown of your investment balance. Of the more than $1.6 million balance, guess how much represented your contributions, simple interest, and compound interest (interest earned on the interest):

  • Contributions: $192,834.
  • Simple interest: $318,749.
  • Compound interest: $1,157,073.

Compound interest, which Albert Einstein described as the most power force in the universe, requires one thing -- time. The more time you give your investments, the more compound interest can power your investments over the $1 million mark.


The lesson here is simple: Begin saving and investing as soon as possible.


Part-time millionaire

What I call the part-time millionaire is really nothing more than a way to earn a side income. Jason at Frugal Dad calls it a side hustle. The idea is to find a way to make extra income above and beyond your regular work. I make extra income blogging, but there are many ways to earn extra income. Here's the key -- extra income that you use to save, invest, or pay down debt goes a long way. But can it make you a millionaire? Yes.


I know bloggers who have made seven figures. No, the humble Dough Roller is not one of them (but I'm working on it). However you approach earning extra income, the beautiful thing is that it is above and beyond what you need for your monthly expenses. In other words, it all goes to increase your wealth.


And this leads to one very important realization about building wealth. Many reading this article will tell themselves that there is no way, using any one of the above methods, that they can become a millionaire. Fine, then, use them all. Personal finance is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Most of us will build wealth in a 401k or other retirement account, while at the same time owning a home, saving outside of a retirement account, and perhaps  earning some extra money on the side. And hopefully we've started early.


By combining all of the above methods, and perhaps even more, we increase the likelihood that our net worth will meet and exceed the million-dollar mark.


Related reading at The Dough Roller:

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