Answer: save $5,466 a month and earn 8%.
I thought about ending the article there, because that’s all you actually need to do. Investing is simple, but it isn’t easy. No one likes the answer above, even though it really is that simple. When confronted with a difficult task, our brains are wired to look for an easier way, a shortcut. Many investors waste a vast amount of time and energy trying to improve their return by timing the market, buying last year’s hot fund, or day-trading stocks.
Unfortunately, these attempts at finding a shortcut don’t work. It’s like someone who wants to run a marathon but not train for it. There isn’t a shortcut, you just have to do the right things, stick to the training schedule, and put in the miles. You have to earn it. Yet there are entire magazines, TV networks, and firms who make their living from telling people that the shortcut is to trade frequently, and that beating the market is the sure path to prosperity.
The truth that no one wants to hear is that investors would be more successful in achieving their financial goals if they instead focused on how much they save. Let’s step back and consider what we actually can control when it comes to our investment portfolios:
- how much we save and invest
- our asset allocation and diversification
- investment expenses
- tax efficiency, which can reduce (although not eliminate) taxes
We cannot control what the market will do this month or year, so ultimately we have to accept the ups and downs of each market cycle. We have many studies which consistently show that the majority of active fund managers under perform their benchmarks over time. We also have compelling evidence that the average investor significantly lags the indices due to poor decisions and fund selection.
Few people are able to save $5,500 a month. It’s not easy, but that is the way to get to $1,000,000 in 10 years. For a family making $200,000 a year, this would require you to save one-third ($66,000) of your pre-tax income. Again, not easy, but possible. After all, there are many families who are able to “get by” on $134,000 (or much less), so it is certainly possible for a family with an income of $200,000 to save $66,000. While there are many families in Dallas who make this amount or more, saving is viewed by some negatively, as a sacrifice, rather than with pride and recognition that it is the key to accomplishing your financial goals.
If you did the math, saving $5,500 a month, or $66,000 a year for 10 years is asking you to save $660,000 over 10 years. So even at an 8% return, the market performance is not the main source of your accumulation. Your saving is the main driver of your accumulation.
However, in the next decade, after you have achieved your first million, things become much more interesting. Compounding is your new best friend. At $1 million, an 8% return means you’re up $80,000, and you’re now making more from the portfolio than you contribute annually. Continue to invest $5,466 a month for another 10 years at 8%, and you’re looking at a portfolio with over $3.2 million.
And that’s why I get very excited talking about saving with high-income professionals. If you can commit to that aggressive level of saving, your success will be inevitable. Is an assumed 8% return realistic? No one knows for 2015, but I think 8% is likely to be attainable for 10 years and almost a certainty over 20 years. 8% isn’t going to happen every year, but historically, it is possible to average that rate of return over time. In the long-run, the returns can take care of themselves when you stick with a sensible, diversified approach. The factor which needs more attention, and which you can control, is your savings rate.