November 24, 2023

How to Build Wealth

If you want to build wealth, there are really only two things to get right:
• Increase the difference between your income and expenses
• Save that difference and grow it exponentially over time
That’s it.
And yet, the vast majority of people never build any serious wealth. Rather than getting rich over time, they just stay afloat decade after decade, moving through life spending as much as they make. At most, they build a small nest egg, and rely on the government or a pension to support them in retirement.
This article breaks those two key parts into smaller pieces, and provides a ton of detail on how to do both of them, starting today.
How to Increase Your Income and Save More
Worrying about whether your wealth is growing by 6% or 8% per year won’t matter so much if you can’t make enough money to reliably save and invest each month.
Here’s an overview of three ways to earn enough income to start some serious wealth accumulation.
1) Pick a high-paying job
The Bureau of Labour Statistics has a nice database of occupations that you can rank by median pay. If you click on individual professions, you can get detailed breakdowns of their median pay, including the pay associated with different subsets of those professions.
Over 100 professions pay more than 80, 000. Physicians, lawyers, actuaries, nurse practitioners, engineers, managers, financiers, and other technical professions can easily break into the six figure range.
You also have to take into account the costs of education.
Surgeons and specialist physicians top the list of high-paying professions, but they require 12+ years of postsecondary education and fellowships before they start getting paid big money. MBAs and lawyers earn a lot of money too, especially from a top school, but those schools will cost 150k+ for the program, plus the opportunity cost of missing wages if you attend full-time.
Getting a bachelor’s degree in a technical profession like engineering (or an accelerated 5-year master degree), and then eventually getting a graduate degree or MBA part time on the job is one of the most efficient routes. You get to start making money early with less student debt, but can still eventually transition into management or project leadership.
2) Make money with side hustles
Do you have a hobby or talent? If so, you might be able to do it as a side gig and earn an extra 5k-50k or more on the side to complement your day job and increase your overall income.
Suppose someone makes 40k after tax, and has expenses of 30k. This only leaves her with 10k to save and invest and pay off debts.
However, if she can earn just 5k in side income after tax and keep her personal expenses the same as they are now, it would only boost her total income by 12.5% (from 40k to 45k), but it would increase her savings rate by a full 50% (from 10k to 15k)!
If you save an extra 5k, and invest it at just 7% per year, you’ll have 100k extra in your portfolio in 15 years after adjusting for inflation.
If you’re more ambitious, and can figure out how to pull in an extra 20k on the side after tax, and invest it at 8% per year, you’ll have 430,000 in extra money in 15 years. Again, inflation-adjusted.
Small or medium side gigs can seriously put you in the top 5% of people by wealth over time.
Internet side-gigs:
• Freelance writing or editing
• Freelance web design or coding
• Freelance translation
• Help out as a virtual assistant
• Coaching, consulting, tutoring, marketing, copywriting, etc.
Offline side-gigs:
• Work part-time as an adjunct professor at a local college
• Become a part-time fitness or yoga instructor
• Do freelance property management or handyman fix-ups
• Be a part-time freelance private chef
• Tax preparation, bookkeeping, watching kids or pets, tutoring, etc.
Some of these you can jump into quickly, while others may need an investment of time and money for training and certification.
3) Start a business, full or part time
The reason that so many millionaires are business founders is that successful entrepreneurship satisfies both aspects of wealth building: achieve a high income and achieve a high rate of return on your accumulated wealth.
A rather small percentage of people are going to start the next Facebook, but it doesn’t need to be that glamorous. If you know a trade, like plumbing or construction, you can eventually start your own contracting company and scale it up.
If you can provide a service, like marketing, consulting, fitness instruction, and so forth, you could eventually open your own place, hire people, and increase the scale beyond your own reach. If you coach something really well, you might be able to turn it into a digital course and sell it to more people.
How to Achieve a High Growth Rate on Your Savings
To invest money for high rates of return, you usually either need to take on increased risk, increased volatility, or decreased liquidity.
Here’s an overview of how to achieve your target rate of return. Usually you’ll want a blend of several of these asset classes for optimal diversification:
How to produce 0-3% annually:
• Treasuries
• Corporate bonds
• Municipal bonds
• Savings accounts
It used to be that savings accounts and treasury bonds would give you decent conservative returns, but not now.
Investment-grade bonds only give about 2% annual returns currently.
The reason for this long-term reduction in fixed-income returns is that the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates dramatically over the past few decades, and especially since the last recession:
The interest rates for savings accounts, bonds, mortgages, loans, and other types of debt are extrapolated from the federal funds rate, which is the rate that banks can borrow at from each other overnight.
As long as interest rates remain at historically low levels, bonds will continue to be unimpressive investments in terms of their risk/reward ratio. If the federal funds rate moves a few full percentage points higher, up to at least 2% or so, and bonds begin returning substantially more than inflation, they’ll become more worthwhile again.
Bonds and savings accounts have a place in a conservative portfolio, but they’re not going to build you a ton of wealth over the long-term.
How to produce 3-8% annually:
• Preferred stock
• Peer-to-peer lending
• Index funds
Historically, bonds provided returns in this range, but that’s not the case today.
And as described in more detail in this article, equity returns from index funds and ETFs are likely to be lower over the next 10-20 years than they have been historically, since the market currently has a high cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratio. (In other words, it’s overvalued). Expecting somewhere in the lower end of 4-8% returns would be reasonable.
How to produce 8-12% annually:
The historical rate of return of the S&P 500 fell in this range. It’s less likely to be that good over the next decade or two.
Going forward, smart investment strategies may achieve returns in this range, but it’ll be difficult. I believe the most likely paths to reaching this level going forward will be:
• High-yielding dividend stocks with reasonable pay-out ratios and long histories of consistent annual dividend growth
• Emerging markets and other international stocks or ETFs trading at low valuations.
• High-quality Real Estate Investment Trusts and Master Limited Partnerships
• Investment strategies employing the use of cash-secured puts and covered calls to give good returns even in overvalued markets
• Certain alternative investments that offer decent returns in exchange for lower liquidity, like perhaps Fund rise.
I think the best investment platform for most people is M1 Finance. It is totally commission-free and expense-free, and allows for automatic investing in individual stocks and ETFs, and includes easy re-balancing:
How to produce 12-15% annually:
• Top-quartile private equity
• Direct real estate investing
Private equity often provides returns in this range, since private equity managers can actually change and improve the businesses they acquire, and they typically invest for years in order to achieve the transformations that they set out to accomplish.
If you’ve already got several million dollars lying around, investing in a reputable private equity fund may be a viable move. In exchange for low liquidity, your returns may be pretty high.
Perhaps ironically, there are also publicly-traded private equity funds that you can invest in, like Brookfield Business Partners. They do the same type of work as private equity (buying troubled businesses, transforming them to be more profitable, and then selling them or continuing to hold them, or strategically lending money to them), but the ownership of the fund is broken into little pieces and sold on a stock exchange.
There’s no guarantee that any private equity fund will achieve the same results over the next few decades as they have over the past few decades, though. And measuring private equity returns as a group hasn’t been very transparent, so it’s hard to know what percentage of private equity funds do well vs those that fail.
Highly successful private real estate investing, employing considerable use of mortgage leverage, also has a decent chance of achieving this range.
How to produce 15%+ annually:
• Be a world-class investor
• Start a successful business
History’s best investors have achieved long-term returns in this range. This includes top hedge funds, top private equity funds, billionaire investors, etc. Most people don’t come anywhere near this high with the stock market.
For example, Warren Buffett has grown the per-share book value of his company Berkshire Hathaway by an average of over 19% per year since 1965. It’s important to note, though, that he used financial leverage to achieve this return.
Seth Klarman has also achieved better than 15% annual returns over three and a half decades so far for his Baupost Group hedge fund.
Peter Lynch grew the Magellan Fund at a compounded 29% rate of return during his tenure from 1977 to 1990.
A more likely path to achieving returns in this range is to start your own business. The probability that you’ll be a world class investor is extremely low, but your chance of being able to create a highly profitable small business is not too bad.
Successful small and large businesses often achieve returns on equity that surpasses 15% per year. For small and highly scalable businesses like software or services, return on equity can exceed 30% or more in their early stages.

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