I grew up relatively poor, the second of eight children. My father earned $12,000 a year as a college professor. As a teenager, I was ashamed of our small house, my hand-me-down-clothes, and my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
I dreamed, literally dreamed, of living like a rich man.
And so, when I got my first job at age nine as a paperboy – and then at 12 as a lackey at the local carwash – I would spend my money on luxuries, like a pair of brand-new Thom McAn shoes.
I worked every chance I got through high school, and then worked two or three jobs during college and graduate school. I spent 80% of my money on necessities: food, clothes, and tuition. But I always spent a bit on little niceties. Even back then, I had the notion that I didn’t need to deprive myself now for some better life later.
I tell you this to emphasize a key part of the simple money-management system I’ve used to generate more than $50 million in wealth…
I don’t believe in scrimping severely to optimize savings. I believe you can live a rich life while you grow rich, so long as you are willing to work hard and you are smart about your spending.
Think of the typical earning/spending/saving pattern of most wealth-seekers…
During their 20s, they spend every nickel of their modest income to make ends meet. At that age, it is nearly impossible to put aside money for the future.
During their 30s, their income increases. But this is also when they start a family. Expenses soar. There are more mouths to feed, a “family” car to buy, and the dreaded down-payment on a first house. They manage to save a little during these years, but not nearly as much as they thought they would.
If they work hard and make good career decisions, their income climbs much higher in their 40s and early 50s. They have more money to put aside for the future, but they are also tempted into buying newer cars, nicer clothes, more exotic vacations, and – the biggest wealth-stealer of them all – that dream house.
In their later 50s and 60s, their income plateaus or even dips… and they may have to start shelling out for college tuition. Aware that their retirement funds are being depleted rather than enhanced, they invest aggressively to try to make up the difference.
Finally, sometime in their mid- to late-60s, they realize that they don’t have enough money to retire. They have spent almost 40 years working hard and chasing wealth, but they never managed to attain it.
It’s sad, but it’s the reality for most people. And it is just as true for high-income earners (doctors, lawyers, etc.) as it is for working-class folks.
There are two lessons to be drawn from this:
- First, it is very difficult to acquire wealth if you increase your spending every time your income goes up.
- Second, setting unrealistic investing goals means taking greater risks. And taking more risks, contrary to what many pundits say, will almost always make you poorer… not richer.
The truth is, there is only a marginal relationship between how much you spend on housing, transportation, vacations, and toys and the enjoyment you can derive from them.
My spending strategy is simple: Discover your own, less expensive way to live a rich life. By a “rich life,” I mean a life free from financial stress, but also filled with things that give you pleasure.
For example, good, restful sleep is essential for a happy life. Ideally, you’re going to spend around one-third of your life sleeping. So rather than “pay up” for an expensive car or an expensive necklace, buy a great mattress. By getting a great mattress (which can be had for less than $2,000), you’ll sleep as well as any billionaire… and be just as happy.
Your family can be just as happy in a house that costs $100,000 or $200,000 as opposed to one that costs $10 million or $20 million. Likewise, a $25,000 car will get you where you want to go just as well as a car that costs 10 times that amount. There are dozens of ways to live like a millionaire on a modest budget. If you learn those ways, you will have a tremendous advantage over everyone else at your income level.
Make smart spending decisions. Stop thinking that because you’re earning more money, you should be spending more. Your future wealth is determined by how much you save and invest, not by how much you spend.
So here’s what I’d like you to do: Figure out how much you need to spend every year to live your own personal version of a “rich” life. It might help to spend a few minutes thinking about all the things you truly enjoyed last year. If you are like me, you’ll find that almost all the things you enjoy require very little in the way of money. (Those are the true luxuries.)
Keep the biggest wealth-stealing expenses – like your house, your cars, and entertainment – to a necessary minimum. And eschew any expenditure that has a brand name attached to it. Brand names are parasites that gobble up wealth.
Don’t nod your head and promise to get to it sometime in the future. Do it today. Estimate, as well as you can, what you need to spend each year to have the life you want.
This is a number you must have firmly in your mind if you intend to be a serious wealth-builder.
This simple system for managing money can work for you if you commit yourself to it. As I said, it’s part of the system I used to build a net worth of more than $50 million – and it’s still working for me and everyone else I know who has tried it.
So today, spend the time it takes to establish your own approach to “living rich” now… and in the future.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]