Many U.S. citizens can accumulate a large amount of wealth during their lifetimes, if they make two key choices. The first is to complete additional education and training. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau reported median earnings for households where the main earner had only a high school degree of $33,124; for those with a two-year associate degree, median earnings were $40,560 and for those with a four-year bachelor’s degree, median income was $54,340. Learning is not only good for you, but it pays off financially, too.
The second key choice is to start saving money early in life, and to give the power of compound interest a chance. Imagine that at age 25, you save $3,000 and place that money into an account that you do not touch. In the long run, it is not unreasonable to assume a 7% real annual rate of return (that is, 7% above the rate of inflation) on money invested in a well-diversified stock portfolio. After 40 years, using the formula for compound interest, the original $3,000 investment will have multiplied nearly fifteen fold:
Having $45,000 does not make you a millionaire. Notice, however, that this tidy sum is the result of saving $3,000 exactly once. Saving that amount every year for several decades—or saving more as income rises—will multiply the total considerably. This type of wealth will not rival the riches of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, but remember that only half of Americans have any money in mutual funds at all. Accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars by retirement is a perfectly achievable goal for a well-educated person who starts saving early in life—and that amount of accumulated wealth will put you at or near the top 10% of all American households. The following Work It Out feature shows the difference between simple and compound interest, and the power of compound interest.