I once defined wealth as absolute net worth.
But after much thinking, I now define wealth as net worth relative to the expenses needed to live a life of well-being.
By this definition, a fulfilling life on $50k/yr is just as wealthy as someone with double the net worth who needs $100k/yr to sustain their lifestyle.
Armed with this definition, let’s first look at the factors that are not the most important to grow wealth.
Table of Contents
Income: Not The Most Important Factor
From a young age, I thought high income, acquired through education and skills, was the most important factor to grow wealth.
But I was wrong.
Income can be powerful to grow wealth, but it is futile if you can’t first control your spending.
Let’s go through some examples to prove this point.
Look to Pro Athletes and Lottery Winners
Pro athletes and lottery winners also have a hard time retaining wealth. These folks did not build expense management habits before getting hit with massive income.
The National Bureau of Economic Research found that 16% of NFL players filed for bankruptcy by year 12 of retirement2. Higher pay and longer career length had no effect on the bankruptcy rate.
Another study took a look at lottery winners. They found that large cash transfers to those in financial distress just delayed bankruptcy3. Money did not prevent bankruptcy.
Additional money is a band-aid solution to lacking expense management behaviors.
Expense management behaviors are akin to a foundation for a building. Without them, collapse is inevitable.
When Does Income Matter To Grow Wealth?
Income is irrelevant to those who can’t manage their money.
Once you can manage expenses, extra income becomes a powerful tool. You can only cut expenses so much, but income has a nearly infinite upper limit.
How you use this income matters. Your wealth will deteriorate to inflation if you just use this income to keep cash savings.
To grow wealth, you need to buy appreciating and cashflow generating assets such as stocks, bonds, and real estate.
Finally, increasing income is necessary to grow wealth when it is difficult to cover essential expenses such as shelter, transport, and food.
At this point, the only way to save and invest is to increase income.
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Investment Returns: Not The Most Important
Investing for compound growth is what builds massive wealth. Your rate of return determines how quickly your investments will grow.
But returns are not the most important factor to grow wealth, because they are mostly outside of your control.
It Is Hard to Beat the Market
It’s hard to beat the returns of a market index over the long run. Nearly all information about future earnings and the risk of those earnings is embedded in the stock price by millions of intelligent buyers and sellers. For more, learn about the efficient market hypothesis.
To beat the market you need to have knowledge that millions of others have failed to act upon.
In addition, only 1.3% of stocks make up the total market returns. It is easy to find the 1.3% of stocks in hind-sight. For example, TSLA, AAPL, GOOG and MSFT.
But the problem lies in selecting these 1.3% of stocks before they take off.
What the Data Says About Professional Investors
Even professional investors have a hard time consistently beating the market. Over 86% of U.S. equity (stock) funds failed to beat their benchmark index over the 20 years from 2000 to 2020 4.
And in Canada, over 84% of active equity (stock) funds failed to beat their benchmark index for over the ten years from 2010 to 2020 5.
Luck vs. Skill
Due to market efficiency, above-average returns are often based on luck, not skill. I know sucks to hear – it took me 5 years to accept this fact.
Read more about my biggest investing mistakes here.
It pays to understand the difference between good investment outcomes and good investment decisions.
Lucky outcomes as a new investor (<5 years) can fuel over-confident behavior that may ruin a portfolio later down the road.
High fees are the reason why so many actively managed funds underperform the market.
By reducing fees, you effectively gain a higher rate of return of about 1% to 2.5%.
The extra return is great, but it is not significant enough to be the most important factor to grow wealth.
You can limit taxes on investment income by using tax-sheltered accounts and locating investments across these accounts in a smart way.
Minimizing taxes is called tax efficiency. Tax efficiency increases after-tax returns. It has an effect similar to low investment fees.
Tax efficiency is not the most important factor to build wealth. Canadians – Understand Taxes For Investing: A Guide for Canadian Beginners.
Index Funds: A Simple Way to Invest
I invest in index funds because:
- I know I’m not smart enough to beat the market. If I do, it’s probably luck.
- I know I professional fund managers will likely underperform their index
- The approach is simple. It saves me time so I can write WealthyCorner content.
The Two Most Important Factors to Build Wealth
The two most important wealth-building factors are not based on intelligence, education or income.
Instead, they are based on simple, but consistent behaviors.
These two behaviors are:
- A sustained high savings rate; and
- Consistent investing.
Growing wealth is a slow, long-term game. The game has occurred over multiple decades and is rooted in sustainable habits and systems.
The book Atomic Habits does a great job of describing the importance of habits and how to change them.
Most Important Factor #1: A High Savings Rate
What is Your Savings Rate?
Your savings rate is based on the gap between income and expenses.
I use after-tax income. It is the amount left after you have paid all income tax. This is the amount that you have control over.
Savings rate = (Savings ÷ After-Tax Income) *100
Savings Rate Example
Sam saves $2,500 per month, and earns $5,000 per month after-tax. Sam’s savings rate is 50%. Very impressive.
Why Your Savings Rate is So Important
Your savings rate sets the foundation to:
- Pay down consumer debt;
- Build an emergency fund; and
- Invest for compound growth.
Savings Rate and Financial Independence
Financial Independence (FI) occurs when your investment cashflows from dividends, capital gains and/or interest cover your lifestyle expenses until you die.
You never again have to rely on your human capital to make money. Once you reach FI you can use your time as you see fit. FI is a form of freedom.
The time required to reach FI depends on:
- Your savings rate;
- Your investment returns.
Investment returns are outside of your control, apart from your decision on asset allocation.
That leaves your savings rate as the only factor within your control to influence how quickly you will reach Financial Independence (FI).
Th Numbers Behind Savings Rate and Financial Indepdence
To build the graph, I crunched numbers with the following data:
- I assumed a compound annual return of 5.3% annually after inflation. That equates to global stock returns over the last 120 years (source).
- I assume a 3% safe withdrawal rate. I did not use the common 4% based on the Trinity Study because of high valuations.
- I assumed a 15% tax rate on withdrawals in the FI stage.
The savings rate is a catch-all metric for Financial Independence:
- It captures current income
- It captures current expense
- It assumes expenses in the FI stage will equal your current expenses.
Focus on What is Within Your Control
Your savings rate – based on your income and expenses – is within your control, while investment returns are largely outside of your control.
I focus my energy and time on things I can control.
Other items within your control are income, investing consistently, and maximizing wellbeing within a frugal lifestyle.
How to Increase Your Savings Rate
There are a only two ways to increase your savings rate. You can increase income or cut expenses. This posthelps you determine if it’s better to focus on increasing income or decreasing expenses.
As we saw above, income will not help unless you can first manage your spending. Expense management comes first. Income second.
Factor # 2: Consistent Investing
A high savings rate is not enough. Your cash savings will erode to inflation.
The savings must be invested to combat inflation over the long term. Such assets include stocks, bonds, and real estate.
The Power of Compounding
Compounding investment returns are what grow wealth. Given time, your invested money will work harder than you ever can.
If you invest $1,000 per month for 30 years, you’ll have $1,220,000 at a conservative 7% return. A total of $360,000 was contributed over that 30 years. The remaining $860,000 came from compounded returns.
Hitting The Highs and Lows
By investing consistently, you will naturally catch the highs and lows of the market, increasing the likelihood that you will acquire the market return.
Investing as soon as money becomes available limits attempts at market timing, maximizes time in the market and reinforces solid investing habits.
When To Invest?
Not everyone is ready to invest. I won’t tell you to invest. I do not know your specific circumstances.
I can say that it is time to strongly consider investing once:
- Consumer debt is paid off;
- You have an emergency fund;
- You educated yourself and understand investment options; and
- You understand investment risk.
What to Invest In
It would be best if you found this out for yourself.
I suggest you start reading about indexed funds. The Canadian Portfolio Manager Blog is a great place to start for Canadians. Other great books include:
A low-cost portfolio of globally diversified index equity and bond funds will maximize your returns for a given level of investment risk.
Indexed ETFs and Asset Allocation ETFs make it easier and cheaper than ever for anyone to invest in global stock and bond markets.
Growing Wealth: Simple But Hard
Building wealth is simple, but hard.
Consistently spend less than you earn and invest. Do this for a long time.
There is no magic formula, no special investment, no one-stop course, and no easily identifiable fund manager who will build wealth for you.
It’s the same with fitness – a key source of non-monetary wealth. Consistently hit the gym and eat healthily. Your specific diet, workout regime, and supplementation do not matter unless you are consistently eating healthy and working out.
- Frugal habits are hard to develop.
- It is hard to develop knowledge, skills, and competence to increase income.
- It is hard to prevent emotional biases from limiting our investment success
- It is not easy to forgo nice things that you can easily afford. And it’s not easy to accept and suppress your own human biases when investing. It’s hard to suppress your ego.