One of my favorite statements about personal finance is that it all boils down to five simple words.
Spend less than you earn.
Often, I’ll break this down into two methods you can use to earn more money. You can either increase your earnings (through a better job, better investments, and so on) or you can decrease your spending (through frugality).
The other day, I was having a discussion with an old friend who reads The Simple Dollar. He mentioned that I often repeated that statement and he suggested that I was actually just talking about two different kinds of success and that what differentiated the two types of success was how accessible the action was.
He said something that really left me thinking. “Anyone can get rich,” he said, “but the ability of a lot of people to multiply their earnings is extremely limited. Simply saying ‘earn more’ doesn’t mean a whole lot to an awful lot of people. What you’re telling many of your readers is just to ‘spend less.’ That’s a success, of course, but that’s not very clear from your statement.”
In other words, personal finance success boils down to two main avenues.
Success in the Margins
Simply put, finding financial success in the margins means that you’re finding financial success through ordinary actions. Frugality is, of course, one of these, as are most methods of passive investing (putting money in savings accounts, putting money into 401(k)s, and so on).
These methods bring one to riches, but they require a continuous input of small successes. However, these small successes are available to everyone and aren’t that hard to achieve by themselves. The biggest components needed here are willpower and a good work ethic.
Frugality, as mentioned above, is a key component of this. Seeking out ways to reduce your spending is vital in this process, as it is that reduction in spending that provides the extra money that you’ll use to build your wealth.
Steady income, ideally with a steady increase over time, is another essential part of success in the margins. You have to have enough income coming in that you can cover your bills with a bit left over. Ideally, frugality will serve mostly to increase the size of that “bit left over.” A typical career falls into this category and getting steady raises over a period of time certainly falls into this category.
A savings plan That “bit left over” needs to be saved for the future. You have to have the willpower to save it and the willpower to leave it alone once you do start saving it.
Patience is a necessary component. Because the components here are so straightforward and available to everyone, they don’t magically work overnight.
Anyone can follow this path to financial success. The reason many people decry it as impossible is that they don’t have the patience to plan for the long term and they don’t have the willpower to overcome short-term temptations.
Success in the Mainstream
On the other hand, finding financial success in the mainstream means that you’re finding financial success through extraordinary actions. Think of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg when you think of these things.
Success in the mainstream means that you’re able to build wealth through enormous leaps in income. Through some mechanism or another, you’re able to earn a significant amount of money quickly. Often, some components of success in the margins (like living frugally and continuing to earn a steady income) are essential at the early stages of success in the mainstream.
There are several methods and components for mainstream financial success.
Entrepreneurship is certainly one path to this type of success. Controlling the entirety of a business so that the profits from that business flow to you is a path many people have followed to wealth, but the vast majority of businesses fail within the first few years of existence. It’s risky and it’s incredibly challenging.
Exceptional talent, usually built through a lot of uncompensated or lightly-compensated practice and sometimes mixed in with natural physical or mental gifts, can also earn a person exceptional wealth. Whenever you think of a top athlete in a mainstream professional sport, you’re usually looking at this category. They usually have some physical gifts that they’ve immaculately refined through a ton of work.
Blind luck also plays a role. People win lotteries (though this is a pretty poor strategy). People get windfalls and are included in estates. People find themselves in the right place at the right time. This is a completely unreliable path to financial success, almost completely devoid of planning or effort.
Anyone can try to follow this path to financial success. However, it is far from a guarantee, and the road is littered with people who fail along this path. It also often sacrifices success in the margin along the way.
What’s Your Success?
As mentioned above, anyone can find financial success in the margins. All it really takes is willpower and patience, traits that virtually everyone has or can cultivate within themselves.
At the same time, success in the mainstream is available for anyone to try, but is much more difficult to succeed in. Anyone can be an entrepreneur. It takes exceptional work, more than a bit of luck, and some skill to make it in an entrepreneurial path. Anyone can also be lucky, but there’s little you can do for that. Exceptional talent requires a lot of work to refine (work without compensation) and often also requires some physical gifts that not everyone has.
In other words, success in the mainstream is not a guarantee. However, many of the avenues in it provide a challenge and a pathway for those who wish to take it on.
Good luck, whichever route to success you choose to take.