Making A Million Is Easier Than You Think!

Leigh Gallagher
One million dollars. It sounds like something you have to win the lottery or invent the next Google (or at least get a profit-sharing job there) to attain, right? Not necessarily. It's surprisingly well within the reach of many Americans, and you don't have to brown-bag your lunch or give up your half-caf soy lattes to do it.

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Indeed, with a reasonable income, a little patience, and a planned, disciplined approach to five key aspects of your financial life, it's possible for many people to stash away enough over 10 years to become a member of the ten-figure club. At SmartMoney, we enlisted a team of reporters to talk to experts, consult academic research and do a little math to figure out how to best do it, using a hypothetical couple in their early 40s with two children, a combined income of $120,000, and a big mortgage on a $460,000 house. You may have to adjust accordingly depending on how much you vary from our savers, but the theory is the same: with smart planning, a little patience, and the magic of compounding, it's not as hard as you may think.

1. HEALTH: Most people don't make the link from health to wealth, but how well you take care of yourself has a surprising effect on your own bottom line. Studies have shown that health and well-being plays a surprising role in determining how much you earn; of course, there are the practical savings when it comes to expenses, too: a single man in his 40s will pay somewhere in the range of $35 a month for a $500,000, 20-year term life insurance policy. That figure quadruples for someone of the same age who smokes and is overweight. By staying in good health, our couple saves around $85,000 over 10 years.

2. SPENDING: This is fairly straightforward; if you want to save more, spend less. The easiest ways to make the biggest cutbacks are with your home and your car. Switching to a 7/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, and lowering their mortgage rate from 6 percent to 5 percent for the next seven years saves our couple roughly $24,000 in interest. Switching from leasing new cars to buying used cars can save a bundle here, too: $31,500 over ten years, factoring in buying and maintenance costs.

3. SAVINGS: Make a giant leap towards that million-dollar mark by doing one simple thing: invest in your 401K, the biggest retirement weapon at your disposal. If our couple sacks away 15 percent of their combined salary of $120,000, or $18,000 a year, over 10 years that will amount to $397,000, and that's before any investment gains. Then, take some of what you've been saving by cutting your spending above, and sock that away, too, and our couple has a discount brokerage account with a balance of $80,000.

4. INVESTING: Saving is just half the battle; you've got to invest in a way that will maximize returns and minimize fees. Invest the bulk of your portfolio, 80 to 90 percent, in low-cost funds that track the market indexes. If you're in your 40s, put 60 percent in a U.S. stock fund, another 20 percent in an overseas stock fund, and the rest in fixed income. Expect a 9 percent return, on average, on this mix. If you've followed the savings advice above, that's another $300,000 or so on top of your contributions. Put the rest of your portfolio in a discount brokerage account that's yours to invest more aggressively in stocks and funds with the goal of beating the market. At 9 percent a year, a $3,250 annual contribution to an $80,000 account will grow to $239,000 in ten years.

5. CAREER: Sure, you can do your job, even do it well, and get a 3 percent raise every year. But if you can boost that raise to six percent a year, you'll earn an extra $171,000 over ten years. How? Go above and beyond your job description. Make yourself invaluable not just to your boss, but to your colleagues and managers in other departments. Get yourself noticed. It's not easy, but think about your own bottom line.

Leigh Gallagher is a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and a regular contributor to "Cavuto on Business".