The Timelessness of The Millionaire Next Door

I resisted reading The Millionaire Next Door for a long time, because the title led me to the assumption that it was a get-rich-quick tome.  I was very wrong about that, and I was disappointed that I waited so long.  I’ve now read the book several times.  Far from being a book in the genre of Rich Dad, Poor Dad and its ilk, the book, written by Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D. and William D. Danko, Ph.D, grew out of hard research they had performed about the affluent in America.

Live like a millionaire

In keeping with the subject of the authors’ research, a key premise of the book seems to be that achieving millionaire status is an important goal and worthy of focus.  Not all readers will agree with that.  Nonetheless, there are lessons in this book about financial comfort and independence that are universally applicable.  Living within our means is a sure way to a happier life, and that is the underlying message that I took from this book.

Before I go any further, I should stress that the book was originally published in 1996, and one million dollars went a bit further then.  We’ve had three significant shocks to the financial system in the interim, but the lessons still apply, even if some of the statistics are outdated.  In fact, applying the concepts in this book would have saved a lot of people some pain over the last couple of years.
There are a few fundamental concepts that I think are important.  Beyond that, I highly recommend getting this book (preferably at the library) and reading it closely.

What is wealthy?

The basic thrust of the book is that the average millionaire in the United States probably does not fit the profile that most people imagine when they think of millionaires.

The authors appropriately define wealth in terms of net worth rather than the number of expensive vehicles in the garage or the size of the house.  In 1996, they used a crude, absolute threshold of $1 million in net worth to be considered “wealthy”.  In today’s dollars, that translates to something close to $1.4 million.  However, they define a much more informative measure that describes how wealthy a person should be given his or her age and income level.  The formula is as follows:

Expected wealth = Age multiplied by pretax annual income (from all sources except inheritance), divided by ten

This is a much more useful measure, as it factors in standard of living.  To a significant degree, this metric captures whether or not an individual is living within his or her means.

Are you a PAW or a UAW?

The authors highlight two categories of savers:  Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth and Under Accumulators of Wealth, or PAWs and UAWs.  Accumulating wealth at a rate greater than at least 75% of the population qualifies an individual as a PAW, while doing so at a pace that is less than 25% puts one in the UAW group.  To make this more universal, they offer a simpler rule:  your net worth should be twice the level of expected wealth to be a PAW, while less than half of the expected net worth would place you in the UAW range.  So, if you’re 35 and making $100,000 per year, your expected wealth is $350,000.  If your net worth exceeds $700,000, you’re a PAW.  If it is less than $175,000, you fall into the UAW category.

This highlights another distinction called out by the authors:  balance sheet affluent vs. income statement affluent.  Examples abound of doctors and lawyers making over $500,000 per year while having little in the way of sustainable assets to show for it.  More impressive are the examples of individuals who make less than $100,000 per year in earned income, but can never work another day and be comfortable.  It’s all about living within your means.

They earned it!

Another interesting point was that 80% of the wealthy in this study were first-generation millionaires.  They were not born with silver spoons in their mouths.  However, the country clubs of America are littered with inheritors who are quickly blowing through the cash their parents have left them, with no means of replenishing it.

That brings us to the concept of economic outpatient care.  This was much more of a black-and-white issue for me before I had children, but the statistics are still very powerful.  Adult children who had received any kind of financial assistance from their parents suffered for it.  The authors “found that the giving of such gifts is the single most significant factor that explains lack of productivity among the adult children of the affluent.”  In eight of ten occupations held by children of the affluent, households that received regular gifts had lower net worth than those who did not.  Overall, such individuals had an average of 81% of the wealth of their non-receiving counterparts, although this was skewed upward by teachers, who apparently used the gifts they received to build additional wealth.  Receivers of EOC invest less and use more credit.  They come to depend on the gifts as supplements to their income, and proceed to live at a higher level.

The book offers a lot of data that is very eye-opening, and it clearly demonstrates that the average wealthy individual is not driving around in a Ferrari.  However, the takeaway ideas are pretty straightforward and are full of common sense.  That doesn’t mean they’re easy to apply, though.  Reading this book really reinforces that common sense.  Similarly, Thomas J. Stanley’s latest book – Stop Acting Rich – doesn’t really present radical new concepts beyond those of The Millionaire Next Door.  It does, however, reinforce the concepts in much the same way as its predecessor.  It, too, is worth reading several times.

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About Kevin O'Reilly, CFP®

Kevin O'Reilly, CFP®, is a financial advisor who specializes in working with parents of twins and triplets. Have a financial question? Ask Kevin!

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  1. Mick Jagger Guards Against Economic Outpatient Care | Multiples and Money - March 29, 2013

    […] Over the years, several books have had a big impact on me in the sense that the ideas have stuck with me.  I’d like to believe that some of them addressed broad, weighty matters that transcend the ages.  For better or for worse, though, from a practical standpoint no book has stuck with me more than The Millionaire Next Door. […]