How I Became a Millionaire: 4 Paths to $1 Million
Nancy Mann Jackson
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4 Paths to $1 Million

  • The Frugal Investor: Steady contributions into investment accounts
  • The Diversified Real Estate Investor: From foreclosures to flipping homes
  • The Savvy Successor: From product distributor to CEO
  • The Persistent Business Owner: 6 years of fine-tuning leads to 7-figure success

Being a millionaire isn’t quite as unique as it used to be. In 2015, there were 10.1 million American households—that’s 8.3 percent of the total population—with a net worth of at least $1 million, compared to just 5.9 percent in the heart of the Great Recession.

Yet hitting the million-dollar mark remains a landmark goal for Americans. For many, it symbolizes ultimate financial freedom.

While it’s easy to assume that people with millions in the bank got there by inheriting family money or raking in massive salaries, plenty earn their fortunes by living frugally, investing wisely and creating their own income-producing opportunities.

Here’s how four ordinary Americans became millionaires in their own right: the frugal investor, the diversified real estate mogul, the savvy successor and the persistent business owner. 

llene Davis The Frugal Investor

Ilene Davis, 66, Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Starting out: Though Davis was first exposed to the market when her mother bought her some stock at 18, it wasn’t until she made the major career leap from computer programmer to stockbroker for E.F. Hutton at age 32 that she started investing strategically.

While Davis’s previous job paid the bills, she says it wasn’t fulfilling. Becoming a stockbroker, on the other hand, was a chance to “do something I really loved: investing and helping others save for retirement,” she says.

Finding success: At the start of her new career, Davis invested about 25 percent of her income into profit-sharing and a money-purchase pension plans—retirement benefits offered by her employer that allowed her to share in company earnings. She also maxed out her IRA and made additional investments in stocks and mutual funds. In total, she invested about 40 percent of her “middle-level” income, she says, which has averaged about $75,000 over the past 30 years.

While investing 40 percent is significant, Davis, who currently lives with her boyfriend of 24 years and doesn’t have kids, says she didn’t have “any real reason to spend much.” She prefers shopping in consignment shops, bought a house that was heading into foreclosure and furnished most of it with Craigslist and thrift-store finds and drives used cars until they need regular repairs.

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“I am not big on going out to dinner, either, and if I go, it’s where I have coupons. I would much rather cook and have friends over,” she says. “Basically, I have a full life, but little need to impress others with how much I can spend. So my lifestyle is really pretty inexpensive, relative to my income.”

While she does select her own investments, Davis says she initially made a lot of mistakes picking individual stocks. “It’s just too tempting to ‘play’ [or make regular trades],” she says. “Serious wealth accumulation started when I committed to investing on a regular basis in mutual funds, and then left them to other professionals.”

By the time she reached age 50, Davis had accumulated her first of more than $2 million of net worth.

Advice for others: To build wealth, “start now,” Davis says. “Regardless of how much or how little you earn, invest at least 10 percent for the long term.” And build from there.

She also recommends always having an emergency fund, so you never have to use credit cards to pay bills or sell long-term investments when unexpected expenses arise. If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, build one while investing at the same time: “An emergency fund is for unexpected expenses; an investment portfolio is to build wealth that can be a source of future income,” Davis says.

Finally, don’t be preoccupied with market ups and downs. “When the market has really bad days, weeks or months, decide if the world is truly ending. If not, invest more—or just don’t look at your statements to avoid temptation to react,” she says. “Remember the advice from Warren Buffett: ‘Time in the market instead of timing of the market is the key to building wealth.’”

Mark FergusonThe Diversified Real Estate Mogul

Mark Ferguson, 37, Greeley, Colo.

Starting out: After graduating from the University of Colorado in 2001, Ferguson joined his father’s real estate business—just “until I found a ‘real job’ in finance,” he says. Ferguson soon realized, however, that he enjoyed the work and decided to stay, become a Realtor and flip a few houses with his dad each year.

But he struggled at first. “I did not sell many houses as an agent and made almost all my money from the occasional flip,” Ferguson says. “In 2006, I made a total of $26,000, mostly because I did all the [construction] work myself on one flip. It took all my time and cost me so much money in opportunities lost. However, it also opened my eyes and made me realize I had to change the way I was doing things.”

Finding success: Ferguson didn’t find his groove until he discovered his own niche in 2007: selling foreclosures for banks. With a degree in finance, Ferguson knew how to talk to bankers, and although he still worked under the umbrella of his father’s company, he realized working with banks was a better fit than working with individual sellers.

With a new plan in place, he began listening to self-help CDs for motivation, attended industry conferences and cold-called banks to ask about listing houses. Once he was “in” with some banks, Ferguson’s numbers shot up from selling 10 houses a year to more than 200 annually, just four years later.

After becoming a successful agent, Ferguson refocused on flipping houses. He built a team and upped his quota from two or three flips a year to seven or eight—netting about $33,000 in profit each time. Then in 2010, he started buying rental properties.

“Rentals give me passive income forever if I don’t sell the properties,” he explains. “I own 16 rentals now, which provide about $8,000 [of income] a month after mortgages, taxes, insurance—[plus accounting for] possible vacancies and maintenance.”

Finally, three years ago, Ferguson launched, a real estate investing site that helps him rake in an additional five figures a month through avenues like coaching and online training programs, ebooks, affiliate relationships and referrals to other agents. That same year, Ferguson earned his first million—the majority of which came from his rentals and house flips.

“My success came from focus, building a team and adding more sources of income once a business was running smoothly,” he says.

Advice for others: “You do not have to invent something or have a great idea to be wealthy. You need to choose a field to be in, or a business to start, and just do it as well as you can,” Ferguson says. “There are no shortcuts. Hard work and persistence are what people notice. The more you can save and reinvest into yourself or your company in the beginning, the faster you will grow.”

Jim MarkhamThe Savvy Successor

Jim Markham, 67, Newport Beach, Calif.

Starting out: At just 15 years old, Markham was already married with one daughter, and needed a way to support his family—so his mother suggested he become a barber like his uncle. “I went to barber school and found I was quite good cutting hair,” Markham says, noting that he started out charging just $1.50 per haircut in New Mexico.

He soon realized he had a flair for styling, too, so he enrolled in courses and contests to improve—culminating in a silver medal win at the 1967 Hair Olympics. Within just a few years, he was charging $75 per cut.

Finding success: After reading about celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, who’d started the first professional product line for men, Markham was intrigued and contacted him about becoming a distributor. Little did he know that this business relationship would define his career: Markham not only became a distributor, but also Sebring’s protégé—and eventual successor.

After Sebring’s untimely death in 1969, Markham took over his business, and continued refining the products. “I was always looking for ‘a better mousetrap’ and began experimenting with ways to improve,” he says. “If a product I desired did not yet exist, I would develop it myself. Having celebrity clients enabled me to get a ton of publicity on television, radio and print, which ultimately helped build my credibility, and [helped] the brand sell more products.”

Over the years, Markham launched additional hair care companies, including Pureology and ColorProof Evolved Color Care. Markham earned his first million in 1997 through the sale of ABBA® Pure & Natural Products, and now has a total net worth of more than $100 million.

Though he’s tried retirement, he didn’t find it fulfilling and returned to the beauty industry he loves. He currently serves as Product Developer and CEO at ColorProof and is also an active philanthropist, supporting charities such as the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, Habitat for Humanity and City of Hope.

Advice for others: In addition to choosing great mentors who can help elevate your career and continually creating new opportunities for yourself, Markham says one of the biggest keys to his success is investing with the right mindset.

“I’m an investor in stocks, bonds and real estate. I save consistently, invest conservatively and think long-term,” Markham says.

Ron HoltThe Persistent Business Owner

Ron Holt, 42, Birmingham, Ala.

Starting out: In 2003, Holt started a small cleaning service along the Gulf Coast of Northwest Florida with just two part-time employees and a handful of customers. He worked 70- and 80-hour weeks without a paycheck for almost two years to keep the business afloat.

“It was a grind, and there seemed to be no end in sight,” Holt says. But from the beginning, he had a “big dream” and a specific vision to slowly build a successful business and scale the brand across the country.

Finding success: Finally, after two years of struggling, Holt had a light-bulb moment to change the structure of the business, which signaled a turning point for Two Maids and a Mop.

“Every time we clean a home, the customer rates their level of satisfaction on a scale from 1-10,” Holt explains. “The rating directly determines the actual compensation for the two employees responsible for cleaning the home. The compensation plan saved my business early on and continues to serve as the business’s most unique selling tool.”

Once the compensation plan took hold, aligning the interests of employees with the customers’, the company grew quickly. From 2006 to 2012, Two Maids and a Mop opened 11 new stores across the Southeast. In 2013, they branched out into franchising—and currently serve 25 markets across the country.

Holt’s business has allowed him to build a net worth of more than $2 million, affording him a million-dollar home and regular vacations to exotic locales like Turks and Caicos and Playa del Carmen.

But he’s still careful not to spend frivolously and to find savings opportunities when possible. “Every dollar spent inside our household flows through our family credit card,” Holt says. “In turn, we accumulate rewards points and travel the world. In most cases, our only cost is the entertainment while on vacation.”

Advice for others: “My story is pretty romantic today, but those early days were filled with stress, anxiety, fear and outright pessimism,” Holt says. “It takes more than just a healthy savings account or even good luck to build personal wealth because you will be tested daily throughout your journey. Creating a vision for my success is the only reason that I’m still standing today.”

That’s why Holt advises visualizing your goal, believing in it and respecting it. “Your success won’t be created overnight, but you’ll have the best chance of long-term success if you have faith,” he says.



    I get it but the first millionaire doesn’t have any kids and had an income that allowed her to save a LARGE amount of money. Not a typical situation. The second entry had a good head start with a father who owned his own company and got him started.

    I agree. Why do we always use examples of people who are not in a typical average income with kids and debt situation. These examples always seem to include some type of jump start from a wealthy family member, or a person with some sort of leg up. Most of us are struggling with middle incomes, mouths to feed, debt, and no benefactor. Not to mention, no 401 k or other perk from our job. How can we relate to these stories?

    I’ve managed to make $60,000 a year and I’m supporting my wife through college. We manage to save ~2,000 a month. It’s not so much about a “leg up” as it is about your own decisions. It seems to me that you’re just sitting there, complaining that other people have it “easier” than you while you continue to waste your money and not taking responsibility for your own spending decisions.

    I am 40 years old. 2 kids and support my wife thru college. I make 50 k a year and I am lucky to save 100 dollars a month so don’t call people lazy because I work my butt off and still struggle.

    Tyler, your situation is commendable. Being able to save that high of a percentage of your income is a great start to getting to a million someday. Good luck to you and your wife.

    I made 60 thousand dollar a year. There’s no way you and I can saving $2000 a month. Impossible! Unless ur living a free housing and no vehicles or staying at the parents home. I m also paying my daughter’s college

    John you save what you can and budget every month so you don’t allow expenses to get out of hand. I make about the same as you and save about $800-$1000 every month. Some goes toward my IRAs and the rest into my emergency fund. It is set up as an automatic thing every month.

    @tyler, $60K/yr after taxes is about $4,200 take home per month give or take depending on what state you live in. I find it hard to believe that with 2 kids, and tuition for your wife your able to cover ALL life expenses for a family of 4 with $2200. Do you not have rent/mortgage? Are you growing a considerable amount of your own food? Is your wife receiving grants for school expenses? What about health & auto insurance? Lets at least be honest before you start calling people lazy.

    There is usable information in these articles regardless of life situation. And people should take what applies to them.

    Agree that it is impossible to save that much (number crunching) unless his wife has some income as well. She might. He didn’t mention that she didn’t.

    Well that’s womderful to be able to make that much a year. I teach school in a very tiny area and am barely making ends meet on $2000 a MONTH! That’s with now 5 years of teaching. Invest that.

    I first graduated from school, I made less than that and had 3 student loans to pay off and a new car loan (should have gotten the Hyundai). I ate at home, did not have cable, read a lot, worked out at the gym and enjoyed life. Did not buy a lot of stuff but had more than what i needed. Went out occasionally with friends and was still able to give my mother some money to help. Turn down the heat, turn up the air (if you have it; I did not) and work with what you have. Don’t buy the $5/coffee every day, maybe 1/week. We figure it out for what we really want.

    It is always about choices and not about having it better than someone else. Taking responsibility for your good and bad choices is key; not buying the latest fashions for your kid just because they want them or not giving them a cell phone or allowing no usage mgmt. Sending to 1 summer camp vs. 6. Regardless of the situation, we can all choose to do it more money wise!

    Theres no way youre saving 2000/month if youre paying for college on top of normal expenses. Thats at least 15k/year minimum right there.

    I don’t agree with you Tyler. There are a multitude of success stories fueled by the financial backing of another millionaire as Debra stated. Ask Donald Trump how the billionaire status was bestowed on him. There are countless testimonials to verify how critical networking & funding are to an aspiring entrepreneur. Statistically speaking, 7 out of 10 business owners either inherited their business or received mentorship from a viable source. I just read a news story on the internet today that the rich baron Ellis ‘gifted’ his daughter with $200 million in spite of the fact that she dropped out of the University of Southern California to start her own movie production company!!!!

    Debra what about the guy who was married with one child at 15? Who can say they started from that position? If he can do it then you and have a chance too.

    I think you have to plan ahead.

    Consider how much a new car costs, as a portion of your after tax income. How many years do you want to toil away paying for it?

    Consider how much a house costs, as a portion of your after tax income. Again, how many years do you want to toil away paying for it?

    Look at the cost of marriage, especially if you’re a guy. The divorce rate right now for gen y is 60%. That means there’s a 60% chance that your wife will leave you, take half your money, and part of your future paychecks in the form of “child support” (the judge will inevitably give the wife custody, no matter how bad of a parent she is, that’s just the way it works).

    If you already have a new car, an expensive house, and are married with kids, you’ve already made all of the wrong decisions when it comes to financial independence. At that point, it turns into a waiting game. How long until your kids graduate? How many years can you get out of your current car?

    It’s basically a choice that you have to make. You can’t retroactively decide that you want to live a different kind of life.

    Simple. You can’t relate. Becoming a millionaire from nothing requires a gigantic amount of luck, not hard work. Either you have a strong starting point (family has a business), or you luck out.

    I see what the commenters above are saying, but it may be the product of this article striving to be a really quick read. Furthermore, these aren’t Forbes articles, they are Acorns’ attempt at becoming bigger than they are now. Rather than being an article we cannot really relate to, I’d just say it’s not the GREATEST article ever written on this topic of how you can be a millionaire too. It was… moderately interesting to read haha.

    You don’t need a leg up to become a millionaire. Acornes gives you market exposure with a small investment to start out. Easier when your younger, but once you get the habit it grows on you. Add larger contributions in down markets. Consistency over time will produce more than you bargained for

    Everyone wants to blame their situation or other people for being poor. How dare you blame your children for your inaction. If you really want to be wealthy you can start with Step One: Personal responsibility for your situation. Step Two: Don’t talk. Do.

    I appreciate this article for the points I can use, the time the contributors took out to teach me, and apologize for those who only read articles like this to complain or get upset because it forces them to look in the mirror.

    I couldn’t agree more with you! Came into this country in 2004 with nothing! I am slowly but surely building my wealth. I will be a millionaire someday. When, I can’t tell you…but it will happen.

    Always pay yourself 1st !! “Consume less then you produce and save the difference” –Doug Casey
    Silver & Gold mining stocks are Dirt Cheap today!

    Being born with a silver spoon in the mouth is no great accomplishment. I’m glad to see the real estate developer move onto creating his own wealth. The story of two maids one mop is how most millionaires in America are made. For more stories on how ‘average joes’ become millionaires, read “The Millionaire Next Door”.

    I have read a lot of people situation on here and I can honestly say that I understand both sides. At one point of time my mindset was like this could never happen. How can me and my family save that much a month to become millionaires. Well one day I stopped, looked at our situation, and took action. I just stopped all the extra things. Cable, mani/pedi, eating out, shopping, gym memberships, salon, not making a monthly budget, etc. Cable was replaced with Hulu. I do my own medi/pedi and hair. Workout at home with YouTube. I cook and I am learning to sew. Children’s clothes are ridiculous high! Thrift shopping is cool too. We paid off about $25,000 in one year by finding the FAT aka extra money that was going to waste. Now all that FAT we are investing and saving for raining days. Another thing I had to learn was not to purchase expensive cars. Only get a car that is 1/3 of our annual income. If it over that, it is way too much! The most interesting thing I changed was my mindset and not caring what others thought of me. My dream is to be able to purchase our retirement home in cash and not have a mortgage.

    I ve read all the comments and my opinion is this if I read this article 10times what I get out of it is going to be different from what u get out of it if u do the same. success in whatever field you choose is like a puzzle we are all here reading this article cause we are looking for that little piece of information that will trigger a concept or complete our puzzle.but what I want to correct is the misconception on the part of the readers talking about saving to become a millionaire it musnt be about saving even though books like rich dad poor dad stresses that or gives that impression i suggest you read start small finish or “Do you have a plan let me lead you there”

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