Periodically I get a message from a reader congratulating me on my financial success in life. The topic also comes up in consulting sessions more than I care to mention. The inquiry is always respectful and congratulatory. These people think I did something extraordinary when in fact it was actually a straight forward and simple process.
Part of my financial success is a direct result of living into my 50s. Time does a lot for net worth. Another huge advantage is I spent my entire adult life (except for those 14 months I played janitor at the church after I got married) self-employed. Business allowed me to control my income and taxes thereon more so than if I have a W-2 job at the local mill.
I’ve shared the story you are about to read many times in my office. By writing it down I hope it is easier to grasp the concept and how you can build a very large nest egg in short order. I get the feeling when I speak this concept it goes in one ear and out the other. I get it. However, this is too important—maybe the most important part of personal finance to reach financial independence—to just let it go as is. Once you grasp today’s message you have all the ammo you’ll ever need to control finances in your life and create a massive liquid net worth.
The discussion usually begins when a reader checks the Rockstar Finance Net Worth Tracker and notices their favorite accountant floating in the stratosphere. The good news is things aren’t as rosy. It’s been a while since I updated Rockstar (actually, I never updated after providing my original net worth) about my financial condition. A good market and increasing real estate values have my net worth several notches higher than listed.
I say “aren’t as rosy” because people tend to shoot whoever is in first place. (I have bullet wounds to prove it.) People also give me too much credit due to past success. Unfortunately, I’m not right because I have more. (Repeat that last sentence a few times until it sinks in. It will be useful when you want to give me credit when credit isn’t due and in your personal life when you think you’re right because you are so awesome.)
Eight figures is a worthy accomplishment, no doubt. What I did to get there isn’t as hard as you think. Let’s get to the math proving I’m a country accountant who fell into it and came out smelling roses.
Once Upon a Time There Was an Accountant. . .
Explaining how I amassed an eight figure net worth requires we use simple math. (Country accountants can’t think too hard. Hurts the head.)
First, we need to know a bit about the general equity (stock) market. The S&P 500 averages ~ 7% per year, plus inflation. Add it up and you get ~ 10% for an expected long-term return. Jeremy Siegel did the hard math proving these simple final numbers.
Annual returns are all over the map, but time smooths out the bumps and Siegel is right, the market pumps out around a 10% return over most extended period, dividends included. So nobody reaches for their calculator, we will use another simple yardstick: the Rule of 72. Simply stated, the Rule of 72 says you can divide 72 by the rate of return to determine how long it takes to double an investment. In our case things are about as simple as they get. Divide 72 by the 10% average market return to discover your S&P 500 index fund doubles every 7.2 years or so, depending on the market on the specific day.
Okay, so we know we double our money every 7 years. Sometimes the market gets behind, other times it races fast forward. In the end we end up doubling our investment every 7 years and a bit.
Mrs. Accountant and I met in 1987, caused the stock market crash of ’87 and then got married in ’88. (Okay, we had nothing to do with the October 1987 stock market crash. It sounded impressive though, didn’t it?)
In 1988 Mrs. A and I decided investing was important for our future. Roth IRAs didn’t exist and traditional IRAs had a maximum contribution limit of $2,000 per person per year. Well, you can guess what Mrs. A and I did. Yup, we dumped $4,000 into our IRAs and got a tax deduction. Capital gains and dividend distributions were reinvested and untaxed because they lived inside a tax sheltered IRA.
Here we need to start some simple math. No need to grab your calculator; fingers and toes should suffice.
We were 24 year old whipper-snappers back then. Your favorite accountant was as sharp as a turnip green. But we did manage to engage the gray matter long enough to fully fund our IRAs and good thing we did.
Everyone, ready your fingers. We need to know how many 7 year periods passed between the ripe old age of 24 and the current age of 54. Let’s count, shall we children. Twenty-four goes to 31, to 38, to 45 to 52. STOP! That will be close enough for rural work. Also, we will double every 7 years and forget about the .2 thingy, okay?
We discovered 4 doublings of our original investment. $4,000 turned into $8,000, then $16,000, then to $32,000 and finally $64,000. For the record, there was nothing Mrs. A and I wanted when we were 24 that would make us feel $64,000 of pleasure today.
We’re not done! Remember we stopped at age 52. Add a few more 7s (52 to 59 to 66) and we discover the account will double two more times before we reach full retirement age for Social Security and nearly a third doubling by the time we reach mandatory distribution age for our IRA at 70 ½! So, $64,000 turns into $128,000 before racing to $256,000. If Mrs. A trips me before collecting income from the IRA we will be looking at north of $400,000 by the time Uncle Sam tells us we must withdraw from our IRA, or else (pay a penalty)!
The current value of that original $4,000 is now around $64,000. Not bad. It’s what we call a 16-bagger (an investment that is 16 times the original value) in the industry.
Reality Check; Isle 4
$64,000 is a far cry from an eight figure net worth. But Mrs. A and I stuffed more than $4,000 away each year. Those first years I worked out of the home (a remodeled basement). Costs were low. No driving, no office building and no additional insurance or utility expenses. We lived on ~$9,000 per year the first few years we were married. We walked all over town as love-sick birds. We had it made!
The first year investment in the IRA rose to the $64,000 level. Then came year two. We added more to the IRA; the maximum again. We kept doing this year after year. Mrs. A and I budgeted the IRA contributions to be made before any discretionary expenses. This was our future and we were serious about it.
More income meant more money in qualified (tax-advantaged accounts, usually retirement accounts) and non-qualified investments (non-retirement accounts with no tax deferral). I went crazy for a decade and a bit buying residential real estate. (I really mean crazy. The number of buildings we owned was obscene.) I tested investments to learn the investment and tax consequences. (Where do you think I got all my financial knowledge from? The School of Hard Knocks. I had skin in the game.)
When alternative investments ran their course the excess funds were plowed into mutual funds; actively managed early on, index funds later.
You may have noticed the top of the net worth list on Rockstar Finance contains older people, usually in their 50s or older. Slide down the list a bit and 40-somthings start making an appearance. It takes time and perseverance. The trick is simple. Invest a tidy sum and watch it double again and again and again and again and again. . .
Secrets of Secrets
Consistency is vital. Starting and adding to your portfolio on a regular basis is the secret. Keeping your paws off the stash is also mandatory! Spend less than you earn, invest in simple and easy broad-based index funds and wait. That sucker starts growing slowly right out of the gate. Then it gathers steam as it accelerates higher. Before long investment gains exceed new money invested during the year! (What an exciting moment in a young man’s (and woman’s) life!)
It doesn’t matter if the market is high or low. You need to get your money in now and swear an oath to never touch the thing until you are retired. Mrs. A and I were lucky. When we got married the stock market hadn’t fully recovered from the crash so we got in somewhere in the middle of the high and low. Still, we had plenty of years where the market was up significantly and we still added to the pile. (Man! If we had just waited until the Dow came down we could have gotten in cheaper than a DJIA of 3,000. Ah, I guess it pays to be stupid.)
To recap: You need to do only three things to have an eight figure net worth: Start early; invest consistently; and wait. Time solves all broad-based index fund problems.
And that is how you turn a small amount of money into a mountain of cash.
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