There’s no single path to wealth.
Some people go about getting rich the old-fashioned way: Work hard, join the right industry, climb the career ladder. Others win the lottery, invent the next Veg-O-Matic or turn Instagram selfies into income.
And then there are those who luck in to parents (or grandparents, or great-grandparents) who already did one of the above, or the equivalent for their generation. (Even if your parents aren’t rich, you’ll get a financial boost if they’re college-educated.)
It’s important to acknowledge that economic mobility is far from easy in the U.S.; the above scenarios are not typical. But for those who do achieve wealth, the trick is twofold: First you have to make the money; then you have to keep it.
How to get rich
When people talk about getting rich, they don’t necessarily mean having so much money that they can set some on fire. They may just mean being financially comfortable.
You’ll have to settle on your own definition, but this is a good start: Many people feel comfortable when they no longer have to think so much about money — both where it's coming from, and where it's going.
It's worth also shooting for the kind of wealth that lets you prop up the next generation by footing your kids’ college bills, seeding educational savings accounts for grandkids or leaving an inheritance.
Maximize your income
It almost goes without saying: If you want to get rich, you need to earn more money.
There are various ways to do that, and you should expect most to take a while. (There’s a reason the words “get rich quick” are frequently followed by “scheme.”)
A few suggestions: Ask for a raise when you believe you’ve earned one. Tap your network to find out if changing companies might lead to greener financial pastures. Take on a side gig — these days, the possibilities are nearly endless: You could rent out an extra room, rideshare, walk dogs, run errands or mystery shop.
How to stay rich
Spend below your means
People get rich by earning money; they stay rich by spending less than they earn.
If you’re able to live on only 70% to 80% of your income, you’ll have enough left over to save and invest (more about this next), plus padding for unexpected expenses. To do that, focus on spending very intentionally and reducing or eliminating high-interest debt.
“People get rich by earning money; they stay rich by spending less than they earn. ”
Spending intentionally doesn’t require pinching every penny, but you should know where those pennies are going and that the destination is something you value, whether that’s travel or good food. It’s easy to fall into a habit of doing the opposite, basically a financial version of mindless eating — buying a new pair of shoes because you walked by the shoe store, for example.
Once you’re spending below your means, staying out of — or eliminating — high-interest debt should quickly follow. There’s no need to run up credit card bills you can’t pay off if you have a financial cushion, and you’ll have extra money to pay down existing debt.
Invest early and often
The single best — and frankly, easiest — way to get rich is to start investing when you’re young and never stop.
The best place to do that is in a 401(k), if you’re offered one by your employer — particularly if it has matching dollars. These can effectively double at least a portion of your contribution. Once you’re earning your full match, you can start making contributions to an IRA, which is a retirement account you open on your own.
» Learn more: Our guide to IRA accounts
Both 401(k)s and IRAs offer access to low-cost stock index funds, which let you purchase a large chunk of the stock market in one transaction — it’s instant diversification. (Here’s more about how to invest in stocks.)
If you fear investing in stocks is too risky, consider this: Investing $500 a month into the stock market for 40 years will earn you over $1 million, assuming a 6% average annual return (which is not a bold assumption). If you save but don’t invest, you’ll end up with less than a third of that.
Give your savings rate regular bumps
Whether that $1 million means you’re rich depends on your lifestyle and spending. It’s certainly hard to call someone with $1 million poor.
Still, many people need more than that to retire, let alone feel flush in retirement — so over time, that $500 monthly investment needs to increase. The best ways to do that are by investing any windfalls you receive or — better yet, and — increasing how much you save by 1% or 2% each year. A windfall might be any influx of cash you receive infrequently, such as a tax refund or employer bonus.
Likewise, when you get that raise you asked for — or you switch companies for a higher-paying role — use that extra income as an excuse to increase your investment contributions. If you avoid letting your expenses creep up as your income does, getting — or at least feeling — rich isn’t all that hard.