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'Rich Habits' author: There is no one right way to build wealth — and that’s great news

"No matter what kind of skill set you have, there will be a path to wealth that works for you."

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Tom Corley is the author of "Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals."
Photo by Eric Vitale

Over the course of five years, as I conducted my Rich Habits study, I posed 144 questions to two groups of people: 233 who were millionaires — including 177 who were self-made — and 128 people who were not. 

I accumulated over 340 data points from my research. But one of the biggest discoveries I made from my research is that there's no one right way to build wealth. I've identified four ways that can work: the saver-investor path, the big company climber path, the virtuoso path, and the dreamer-entrepreneur path. 

To me, the fact that there are several different ways you can get to the same place is one of the most valuable takeaways, because we are all different. We all have different personalities, genes, innate talents, weaknesses, and strengths. And this means that we don't have to try and fit ourselves into a box, or follow someone else's rules, to become wealthy and successful. 

Each path has its own unique set of requirements and success habits. But once you understand the demands of each, it becomes easier to make a plan and figure out which may be the right one for you. 

Saver-investor millionaires

Discipline, consistency, and time are the keywords for the saver-investor millionaire. The typical saver-investor puts away 20% or more of their income and builds their budget around what is left over. 

It takes an average of 32 years for a saver-investor to accumulate wealth, but it is also the option with the lowest barriers to entry. If you can live on a portion of what you make, this could work for you.

About half, 49%, of the self-made millionaires in my Rich Habits Study successfully used the saver-investor path to grow their wealth

The saver-investor self-made millionaires in my study invested their savings almost immediately. They typically followed a financial plan that included automated investing either on a monthly, bimonthly, or weekly basis, depending on how they were paid.

For my study, I interviewed a couple who were both public school teachers. While their combined annual income, at just under $150,000, was not very high for self-made millionaires, they diligently saved 30% of their net wages every year. 

When they entered their early 60s, after many years of saving and investing, their nonwage income began to soar: It generated close to $100,000 in additional annual income. Based on the plan they shared with me, I projected that their nonwage income would eclipse their wage income by the time they retired.

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Big company climber millionaires

Climbers have to work long hours. Most have to travel regularly and often have to work weekends and on vacation. They also possess an ability to politically maneuver, advocate for themselves, and identify opportunities for advancement

The climber path has some unique risks. If the company you work for struggles financially for whatever reason, the investment of your time in that company may not be rewarded to the extent you expected. 

Your company could be acquired, or your industry could go through a rough patch, and you could find yourself out of a job. But the upside of this choice is that company climbers tend to have excellent relationship-building skills

Devoting the energy to create real and enduring power relationships with your peers and mentors, both inside and out of your company, will ensure that in the event your tenure with a specific company ends, you have a network you can rely on

We don't have to try and fit ourselves into a box, or follow someone else's rules, to become wealthy and successful. 

Many of the people I interviewed who fell into this category worked for publicly traded companies. For example, one of the big company climbers in my study made his wealth from stock compensation he earned while working in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. His climb up the company ladder made him eligible for lucrative restricted stock grants, incentive stock options, stock appreciation rights, as well as generous bonuses.

Seventy-five percent of his $4.4 million in wealth, or approximately $3.3 million, he attributed to stock-related compensation. The other $1.1 million of his wealth came from saving and investing 15% of his net wage income every year for over 20 years. He combined two paths to wealth, which I learned was a common practice among the millionaires I interviewed.

Dreamer-entrepreneur millionaires

The dreamer-entrepreneurs in my study worked an average of 61 hours a week, especially in the early years of their entrepreneurial journey

If you are launching a company, be aware that those hours can affect your relationships with friends and family, so it's important to do your best to carve out time not only for your business but for the people who matter most to you. 

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Until the dream begins to pay off, making ends meet can create additional stress. And there is a high risk that can come with bootstrapping a venture. In my Rich Habits study, 27% of the millionaires I interviewed failed at least once when it came to getting their business ideas off the ground. 

Out of necessity, many of the dreamer-entrepreneur self-made millionaires in my study often did not have the ability to budget the way millionaires in other groups did. Especially during the early years where they focused on covering the basics while also keeping their businesses afloat.  

However, once they were able to transform their dream into a successful business, many dreamers also became fully fledged saver-investors. Their investments helped them grow their wealth and also became a safety net that they were able to use to help bail them out during economic downturns. 

Over time, many of the dreamer-entrepreneurs in my study also diversified their wealth by creating multiple streams of income, often side hustle offshoots of their primary business, which helped them put together a valuable safety net.

Virtuoso millionaires

Becoming a virtuoso, or someone exceptionally skilled in a certain art or field, requires an enormous investment in time and often money. Knowledge-based virtuosos spend many years in continuous study. Oftentimes, building wealth this way requires formal education, such as advanced degrees.

Like the dreamer and climber, the virtuoso has to work long hours, not only in perfecting their knowledge or capabilities but also in maintaining and using them. Virtuosos are rare, and therefore in high demand. 

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Skill-based virtuosos devote themselves to many years of deliberate practice and analytical practice, which requires thousands of hours honing your skills. Analytical practice requires the services of a coach, mentor, or expert who can provide immediate feedback.

This feedback, in many cases, also costs money. So if you decide to cultivate your skill and go down this path, while you are becoming an authority in your field, make sure you account for that kind of expense in your budget

The bottom line is, no matter what kind of skill set you have, there can be a path to wealth that works for you.

Tom Corley is a CPA and a certified financial planner who holds a master's degree in taxation. He is the bestselling and award-winning author of "Rich Kids: How to Raise Our Children to Be Happy and Successful in Life" and "Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals."

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