Three Lessons from The Millionaire Next Door

The Millionaire Next Door is my favorite personal finance book because of three life-changing lessons it imparts, all supported by mountains of research data gathered and analyzed by two professors, Thomas Stanley and William Danko.  These lessons provided me with a financial enlightenment when I was first learning the basics of personal finance, and I suspect many of you will find at least one of them encouraging, challenging, or both.  These lessons taught me to have a new attitude regarding personal finance, and I hope they do the same for you or your loved ones.

Lesson 1:  The majority of millionaires differ radically from what the media and marketers have you believe.

I grew up on a steady diet of TV and, as you know, advertisers and marketers feed you a stream of images and depicting what the rich are supposed to look like.  Of course, their message equates buying their products and increasing consumption with living like a millionaire.  The Millionaire Next Door shatters the notion that the average millionaire consumes the latest and greatest.

In reality, the average millionaire lives a nondescript life and lives in an average neighborhood. This is logical, as over-consuming would lead one to have less money to save an invest.  Stanley and Danko acknowledge that deca-millionaires, the extremely rich, can afford to consume and live up to the images portrayed by advertisers, but this segment of the population is extremely small.  You are more likely to find the ex-millionaire who has spent their fortune away than you are to find a deca-millionaire who can afford to live an extravagant lifestyle.

Lesson 2:  You will not acquire financial independence as long as your sole source of income involves trading time for money.

Many Americans grow up with the idea that working an 8-to-5 is the only way to pay for life. This mentality is one I grew up with and fails to consider what happens if injury, chronic illness, or another circumstance interrupts your employment.  More importantly, this mentality forgoes any consideration of financial independence, as it assumes one must be an employee their entire life in order to sustain a lifestyle.

You will never acquire financial independence without acquiring assets that appreciate without realized income.

-The Millionaire Next Door

Having assets (savings, investments, businesses, etc.) work for you allows you to achieve financial independence as these assets working for you reduce or remove your dependence on realized income (income you earn via employment).  The more assets you have working for you, the more likely you are to achieve financial independence more quickly.  Think of Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball here, but instead of debt, consider an “asset snowball.”

Lesson 3:  The American dream is alive and well.

We’ve all heard in the media many times that it’s impossible for the little man to get ahead, with stagnant wages, a tepid economy, and any number of other reasons.  The Millionaire Next Door provides all Americans with hope:  The vast majority of millionaires are first generation millionaires, having built their fortunes without the benefit of an inheritance.  That’s right, most people who become millionaires are not trust fund babies and do not have a leg up on the rest of us.  The majority of them live below their means, save, and then invest their way to wealth. The American dream is indeed alive!

Psychology and Fear in Personal Finance

Be fearful when others are greedy.  Be greedy when others are fearful.

-Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet is one of the most successful investors of recent times and provided this great quote in 2008 during the height of the subprime mortgage crisis.  During the 2007-2009 bear market, the S&P 500 lost over 50% of its value and many people close to retirement had to delay their exit from the 9 to 5.  In hindsight, as we sit in the middle of a bull market in 2016, Buffet’s quote is great advice, but how are you supposed to separate yourself from emotion when your nest egg loses over 50% of its value?

S&P 500 2007 - 2009 Bear Market
S&P 500 2007 – 2009 Bear Market (courtesy of Yahoo Finance)

There is no easy answer here, as personal finance is indeed personal, but you can certainly make good, informed decisions in the middle of emotionally charged circumstances.  Buffet was right about the subprime mortgage crisis and the need to buy while prices were low (i.e., while the market had lost lots of its value).  He likely looked at the history of the market and understood that it would bounce back.  As of September 16, 2016, the S&P 500 sat at 2,139.16 versus its lowest value during the subprime mortgage crisis of 676.53 on March 9, 2009.  As you can see, the market has more than returned.

S&P 500 - 2007-September 16, 2016
S&P 500 – 2007-September 16, 2016 (courtesy of Yahoo Finance)

How do you disarm fear and anxiety in personal finance?  Educate yourself.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

John 14:27

How should you manage fear and anxiety when making financial decisions?  Start with education, then don’t stop educating yourself.  Read personal finance books (I highly recommend The Millionaire Next Door), visit personal finance blogs (Afford Anything is my current favorite), and listen to personal finance podcasts (Marketplace is great for keeping up with current financial events; Afford Anything has a great podcast, too).  I’ve found that I pull pieces of information from each of these sources and, as a result, have molded a personal philosophy.

The key lesson here is that education will help you see that American equity markets have more than recovered from the multitude of previous crashes and bear markets.  Buffet understood this and saw that equities were simply on sale.

How else do you disarm fear and anxiety?  Understand risk and reward.

I recently listened to a personal finance podcast where I heard an interesting anecdote involving fear.  A caller indicated they hadn’t invested in the stock market for retirement due to their fear of losing money.  While the caller certainly is correct that avoiding the stock market and investing in something safer, like CDs or cash, will help you avoid risk and the large losses that can accompany risk, he is also missing the other half of the equation:  In finance risk is necessary for growth.

While the caller will seemingly preserve capital by avoiding the volatility of the stock market, their capital will erode over time due to the effects of inflation.  The eroding power of inflation will decrease buying power if not offset by gains.  One option for generating more gains than cash but experiencing less volatility than the stock market is the bond market.  The bond market, though, experiences a good amount of volatility, too.

While someone can certainly go to sleep peacefully knowing they will avoid the volatility of the stock market and keep their money safe (at least until inflation eats away at it), it would be rash to do so without being aware of the rewards that accompany carrying risk.  Over the past 30 years (specifically from January 1, 1985 through December 31, 2015), the compound annual growth rate of the S&P 500 was 8.2% with dividends reinvested and adjusted for inflation.

S&P 500 - CAGR for past 30 Years
S&P 500 – CAGR for past 30 Years (courtesy of

As you can see, $1 invested in an S&P 500 index fund on January 1, 1985 would have returned over 1,100% in 30 years.  While I can see how avoiding significant losses would allow someone to sleep peacefully, avoiding a significant amount of the S&P’s gains during this time period would cause me to lose sleep at night.  My advice to the caller:  Educate yourself about risk and reward, then understand how accepting additional risk could result in your nest egg multiplying in size.

Investment+Savings Challenge

One of my personal financial goals is to become financially independent.  For those unfamiliar with the term, I define financial independence as follows:  A state in which financial assets generate sufficient income to pay for a chosen lifestyle.  In layman’s terms:  More assets = good, combined with fewer expenses = better.

Financial Independence = Passive Income Generated by Assets > Expenses

I am seeking financial independence so that I will have the freedom to walk away from my current or future job should I need or want to in the future.  One example of when I would potentially want to walk away from my job:  My spouse and I have a baby and we decide that my staying home with the child is our preferred option for care taking.  While I absolutely love my job and my career, financial independence allows for many options in the future that being tied to a 9 to 5 does not.

One key step in achieving financial independence is increasing investment and savings rates. Not only does this increase the amount of assets you have working for you by generating passive income, but you decrease your expenses, thereby accelerating the journey to financial independence.

I’m going to start tracking my investment and savings rate on this site, starting with August 2016.  My investment+savings rate is based on my *gross* income.  Also, I’m including in gross income my employer’s 401(k) contribution, as they give me a portion of my salary each month.  This isn’t a match, but a contribution to my 401(k), so I view it as income and include it in my gross income so that my savings+investment rate isn’t disproportionately inflated by this contribution.

August 2016:  40.29%