Inflation may be inexorably eroding the value of a dollar, but achieving millionaire status is still an impressive and motivating goal. More importantly, it's an eminently attainable goal with hard work and careful planning. Here are some of the best ways that a younger person can think of earning a seven-figure net worth over time.
Three Key Questions
When thinking about how to accumulate a million dollars or more, there are three key issues that people must consider. First, a job must be accessible for it to offer a high likelihood of millionaire status. For instance, playing in a professional sports league dramatically increases the odds of earning enough to become a millionaire, but professional sports employ less than 5,000 athletes (among the big four North American leagues). Likewise, virtually every Fortune 500 CEO gets a million-dollar pay package (or better), but there are only 500 of those jobs available.
What's worse, while I do not understate the importance of hard work for athletes, there's an element of natural talent that must be present for this to be an option. Likewise, while being an A-list movie star or musician certainly pays well, it too relies on an all-too-rare combination of talent and luck. Accessibility can also refer to the training required and the number of opportunities that exist in a given field. Economics can indeed pay quite well at the upper echelons, but that often requires a degree from one of a very limited list of PhD programs. Likewise, while there are academic disciplines that can pay surprising well (astronomy, for instance), relatively few jobs come available in a given year.
Clearly, a job must pay well if one is to build a seven-figure net worth from it, so salary is a significant factor. It's not all about salary, though. It is also important for a career to have the duration necessary to build the requisite amount of wealth.
Sometimes It's True What They Say
There's an old cliché that parents want their kids to be and/or marry doctors, lawyers or engineers. It may be clichéd, but there's an element of truth and logic to it. Physicians, surgeons, lawyers, engineers (e.g. civil, electrical, industrial) and many other professions do in fact boast median pay of over $75,000 a year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, making them some of the highest-paying professions out there.
It's not quite that simple, though. While all of these professions can look to long careers (and pay usually increases with experience), there are sizable entry demands, including multiple years of expensive post-graduate schooling. It's also worth noting that median pay does not mean a guarantee - while practicing law can indeed pay very well, many lawyers make much less than the median pay.
Looking at income tax and net wealth data, the largest percentage of American's attain their wealth by running businesses. A person can take multiple paths to become the CEO of a major company. CEOs have come from the ranks of engineers, marketing managers and financial analysts. Often the common denominator is an MBA degree from a top-flight MBA program - a path that demands not only a fair bit of upfront monetary investment, but also a superior academic and professional background.
Running a large public or private enterprise isn't the only option, though. Starting and running your own business not only lets you put yourself in charge (and pay yourself whatever your business will support), but you also benefit if/when your business grows in value over time. You don't have to be the next Bill Gates or Michael Dell; even a modest local business can support a healthy salary for many decades.
Of course, it's not that simple. While many of the wealthiest Americans can tie their wealth to running a business (either their own or someone else's), there are plenty of entrepreneurs who struggle to make it from month to month or go out of business within a year or two of starting.
It's also very difficult to handicap the odds here. While anybody can start a business, the success of that undertaking is going to depend on the quality of your idea, your willingness to work hard at it and the conditions of the local market. Consider that while many people have made themselves into millionaires through starting engineering, construction or real estate development companies, that hasn't been a very easy path over the last five years or so.
It's What You Keep That Counts
While readers may be hoping for a map to careers where the roads are paved with gold, these maps just don't exist. That's due in part to the fact that there are so many different ways to get ahead and build towards that target of $1 million. Consider the following: a person who makes $60,000 and saves 20% of it will get much further much faster than someone who earns $100,000 and saves only 5%. Likewise, prudent investing is crucial. Even a doctor who saves $15,000 a year free and clear will need to work for over 65 years to have $1 million without any gains on those savings. Consequently, developing the skills and the discipline to save and invest effectively is almost as important as developing the skills for a six-figure salary.
Nevertheless, people need to take a lesson from Willie Sutton and go where the money is. Political scientists, economists and nuclear plant technicians may all potentially earn a lot, but there are not many positions available in a given year and there's not much job growth. On the other hand, demand for medical professionals and computer engineers continues to grow at above-average rates.
The Bottom Line
While no one should choose a career solely based upon its earnings potential, it's still a valid consideration. At the same time, aspiring millionaires need to consider how difficult it is to train for a profession, how likely it is that they can get jobs in their chosen fields and whether they will enjoy the work enough to stay at their jobs for decades. When all of those factors intersect, and you're willing to save and invest carefully, there are dozens of careers that can lead to a net worth in the seven figures before retirement.