Stocks — Part VII: Can everyone really retire a millionaire?

Posted: May 16, 2012 in Stock Investing Series
Tags: ,

“I wonder if it would actually be possible for every single person to retire a millionaire?”

That very provocative question was posed in the comments by reader mmrempen a few posts back.


It’s been rattling around in my brain ever since.

The short answer is a qualified “Yes!”  It is possible for every middle class wage earner to retire a millionaire.  But it’s never going to happen.  And that’s not because the numbers don’t work.

The numbers tell us that, compounded over time, it actually takes very little money invested to grow to $1,000,000. For instance, just $15,000 invested in the Dow stocks in 1975 would be worth over a cool million today.

Pretty amazing considering the financial turmoil of these past 37 years.  But compounding takes time. So it helps to start young.  Here’s a fun tool to play with:

Of course, a million dollars is a very arbitrary goal.  Perhaps the better question is:  Can everybody achieve financial independence?

Living Small

There are countless stories of people of modest income who by way of fugal living and dedicated savings get there in remarkably short time.  You can find some here.  If you can live on $7000 per year, $175,000 gets it done figuring an annual withdrawal rate of 4%.

Then too, I remember having lunch with a friend of mine a few years back just before Christmas. He’d just gotten his annual bonus: $800,000. He spent the lunch complaining that it just wasn’t possible to make ends meet on what he made. Listening to his expenses, he was right.  He’s burning thru more than 175k every three months.  Financial independence is a distant dream for him.

Money is a very relative thing.  Right now I have roughly $100 in my wallet.  For some people out there $100,000 has less relative value to their net worth.  For others, $1,000,000.  For still others it might be more than they’ll see in an entire year.

Being independently wealthy is every bit as much about limiting needs as it is about how much money you have.  It has less to do with how much you earn — high income earners go broke while low income earners get there — than what you value. Money can buy many things, none of which are more important than your financial independence. Here’s the simple formula:

Spend less than you earn – invest the surplus – avoid debt

Do simply this and you’ll wind up rich.  Not just in money.

If your lifestyle matches or, god forbid exceeds, your income you are no more than a gilded slave.

Let’s consider an example.  Suppose you make $25,000 per year and you decide you want to be financially independent.  Following some of the examples here you organize your life in such a fashion as to live on $12,500. Two important things immediately happen.  You’ve reduced your needs and you’ve created a source of cash with which to invest.

Assuming you’ll be FI (financially independent) when you can live on 4% of your net worth each year, you’ll need $312,500.  Investing your $12,500 each year in VTSAX and assuming an 8% annual return (far more modest than the actual 12% of the last 37 years) you are there in less than 15 years.  Use 12% and it takes about 12.

Now say you begin to live on the 4%/$12,500 your $312,500 nest egg can now provide.  But you decide you like working and want to continue for a few more years.  Since you’re living on your investments you can save your entire $25,000 earned income each year. Adding it to your pot and earning 8%, 11 years later you are at $1,091,000.

Or, suppose you say, “OK I’m done with saving and I’m going double my lifestyle and spend my full earned $25,000 from now on. But I’ll leave my nest egg alone.”  In 11 short years it will have grown to $675,000 without you having to add a single dime.  That yields $27,000 @ 4%.  You can now quit working and give yourself a raise.

For simplicity sake, yes, I’ve ignored taxes.  But we’ve also assumed you’ll never see an increase in income.  We are just doing a bit of “what if” analysis to help see that your money can buy you something far more valuable than trinkets and trash.

But few will ever even see this as an option.  There are pervasive and powerful marketing forces at working to obscure the idea that such a choice exists.  There’s a lot of money to be made persuading folks they really simply must have the latest in trinkets and the most fashionable of trash.

There is a huge marketing effort designed to keep people spending and in debt slavery. We are relentlessly bombarded with messages telling us that we need this, we must have that and if you don’t have the money, no problem.  That’s what credit cards and payday loans are for.  This is not an evil conspiracy at work.  It is simply business.  But it is deadly to your wealth.

buy our gin and you’ll find more than olives in your martini glass

The science behind the art of this persuasion is truly impressive and the financial stakes are huge.  The lines between need and want are continually and intentionally blurred.  Years ago a pal of mine had bought a new video camera.  It was the best of the best and he was filming every moment of his young son’s life.  In a burst of enthusiasm he said:  “You know, Jim, you just can’t raise a child properly without one of these!”

Ah, no.  Actually you can.  In fact, billions of children have been raised over the course of human history without ever having been video taped.  And, horrific as it may sound, many are still today.  Including my own.

You don’t have to go far to meet someone who will tell you about all the things they can’t live without.  You likely have your share.  But if you want to be wealthy, both by controlling your needs and expanding your assets, it pays to reexamine and question those beliefs.

One of my key objectives with this blog is to present another way.  If you’re still not so sure about the cost control part of the equation you might check out:


Our pal mmrempen followed up with another question:

“I wonder how much of our economic strength is based on reckless spending, and what would happen to it if EVERYONE started acting more responsibly with their money. I might well be out of the job!   After all, who needs to spend so much on movies?  (He is a film maker and you can check out his work here.)

“It’s no knock on your financial advice, now. Just a thought experiment.”

Still from a mmrempen film

No worries, MMR……my advice should be expected to stand up to a few knocks. :)

In fact, the whole wealth building point is to have plenty of money to do with your life as you choose. Some you’ll invest, some you’ll spend and both help drive the economy.

Your concern is based on a widely held view that consumption is the primary driver of economic success. Counterintuitive though it may be, it is only one part of a far more complex mosaic.

The concern that everyone might suddenly become responsible is a classic “non-problem.” “Non” because:

  1. It is unlikely to happen.
  2. If it does it will be at a very gradual rate allowing for easy adjustments.
  3. If it does it would be a very good thing.  Less consumption would make for a far more sustainable world. No small consideration with 6.5 billion of us running around.  Certainly such a change would cause a round of “creative destruction” as companies making and peddling trinkets and trash faced major adjustments.
  4. In a society with frugal, debt free, financially independent people the necessary and highly beneficial process of “creative destruction” vital to a dynamic economy is far less traumatic.

And my bet is they’ll still be going to movies.

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  1. […] Can Everyone Really Retire a Millionaire? @ Jlcollinsnh […]

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  5. Apple says:

    I wish there’s info on breakdown for us canadian investors…the only thing i’ve found so far is TD e-series index funds…and to open an account seems very complicated…I have to decide how many percentages (if any) to which fund. Examples on available funds are Fixed Income (TD Cnd Bond Index Fund, TD Balanced Index Fund), Cdn Equity (TD Cnd Index Fund) or US Equity or International Equity….How is one suppose to find out which is best and why?

    Thank You again for your blog for it has greatly improved my investment knowledge !!!!

  6. Trisha Ray says:

    Jim, another question. I have some of my savings in the VTSAX, as you suggest, but – since I own my own company, and I’m not a kid anymore, I figure I have enough (business) risk there.
    The bulk of my savings is in a Vanguard balanced fund, 60/40 bonds/stocks, VBIAX.
    I saw another post that mentioned that holding bonds is not as advantageous for tax reasons. Does this also apply for bond funds? Is there something about bonds I (still) don’t understand?
    Thanks –

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Hi Trish…

      Bonds are all about interest and interest, held outside a tax advantaged ‘bucket’ is taxable. So, as a rule of thumb, bonds are best held in tax advantaged buckets like IRA & 401k.

      As you point out VBIAX is a balanced fund with 40% bonds. It is yielding a bit over 2% at the moment since interest rates are so low.

      At these levels I wouldn’t worry much about it. If interest rates rise sometime in the future you might want to revisit it.

      Make sense?

  7. Never expected my comment to be answered in such detail! You respond to every single comment on here, with good humor, smart, thought-out answers, and humility. I don’t think you understand how the internet works. Where’s the trolling and flame wars I’m used to??

    Seriously though, I have another question that my mother couldn’t answer (believe it or not). It goes in the for-dummies section, so don’t go making another post about it or I’ll be embarrassed.

    This is how I understand my situation, and correct me if I’m wrong anywhere: I’ve got these stocks in this Vanguard fund. This particular fund has stocks all over the place, including Disney, Apple, etc. Vanguard takes care of the busy work of paying attention to which companies are performing in ways that I’ve told them to keep an eye out for, and for that they take a percentage. Other than that, Vanguard is a kind of middle man between me and my stocks. Is that right so far?

    If so, my question is, what would happen if Vanguard were to crash somehow? Or if their website died, or their office building got nuked, or all the employees caught the plague? How would I access my funds? Technically they don’t belong to Vanguard, right? I’m not buying stock in Vanguard per se, I’m buying it in these other companies that Vanguard is collecting for me. So if their site went down, or the company went bankrupt, how would I get my stocks back? Or would the whole portfolio die with Vanguard?

    I feel I’m misunderstanding part of the process, but that’s why you ask questions, right? And I can’t think of a more knowledgable person to ask, and neither can my mom.

    Malachi / Mikey

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Well Malachi…

      ..prepare to be embarrassed! The questions you pose regarding Vanguard are excellent. In fact, a couple of other people have expressed similar concerns so I’ve already been working on a post tentatively titled; “What if Vanguard gets Nuked??!!”

      As for your other points…..

      Thanks for your kind words on my responses. So far I’ve managed to respond to every comment, at least if there was a question. I enjoy it and I appreciate the people who take the time. Perhaps there will come a time when the blog grows to where that’s not possible for a lazy retired guy like me. But what I’ve also noticed as the blog grows is that several readers are accomplished investors/wealth builders in their own right. So all the answers might/need not come from me.

      Fortunately the flamers and trolls have been mercifully absent here and I intend to keep it that way. The calibre of comments and questions has been gratifyingly high. So far, I’ve only had to delete one comment. But my axe is ready!

      I may not know how the internet works, but I know how it’s going to work here in my little corner. ;)

      Are you back in Morocco?

  8. Beatrix Josephy says:

    Just made my way over from MMM site – love your blog. I’ve known for a while that I should move from my financial planner to index funds. MMM has been talking up the Vanguard series of funds as well. You too seem a fan. Problem is – I’m a Canadian. Any advise for us up here in the north? I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that Vanguard is not open to us, and I know there are more and more index funds on the market, which now reminds me of the earlier mutual fund business – and that the fees are starting to creep up. I used to buy high and sell low – but I hope I would now see a low market as an opportunity to buy. So perhaps I’m now mature enough to do my own set up and not be incapacitated by fear of getting it wrong by buying out of greed or selling out of fear. Here’s hoping anyway.

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Welcome Beatrix…

      ..glad you’re here and delighted you enjoy the blog.

      You are correct, I am a big believer in Vanguard. Indeed I have been accuses of writing posts that are commercials for them. I can see where my enthusiam might read like it, but I have no financial interest.

      I am also completely ignorant of the unique investment considerations in Canada, or any other country outside the US for that matter. That said, I’d be very surprised to learn Vanguard funds were not sold there. I’d suggest you click on one of the many links in my posts and give them a call to ask.

      If not, other fund company do offer Index Funds tracking the total market and/or the S&P500. To be competitive, most have very low costs. Think .25 or less. VTSAX is .06 as a reference.

      Finally, don’t worry too much about when to buy. That’s market timing and it is a loser’s game.

      Rather, give some thought to your risk tolerances, a question only you can answer. From there you can select an asset allocation of stocks, bonds and REITs using index funds as described earlier in this series. You will do at least as well as your advisor and very likely better since you won’t be losing returns to fees.

      Good luck.

  9. Chad says:

    Cool blog. I found my way here from MMM and really enjoyed your guest posting over there. I will be poking around over here and looking for more good info.

    I’m curious if you discuss using “average annual return” assumptions or talk about which avg annual return rates you use much elsewhere?

    You reference actual index returns for the total stock market as being 12% over the past 37 years. One, VG didn’t have a total stock market index going back that far and if you look at VG it has returned only 8.56% since inception in 93 and the S&P 500 has returned 10.6% since inception in 76. These are great returns but 8% isn’t maybe the slam dunk this post makes it sound like.

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Welcome Chad….

      Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by.

      The 12%/37 years is the actual return of the Dow Industrials rather than the Total Market Index, which as you point out, hasn’t been around that long. But since the Total Market tends to slightly outperform the Dow, it is not a bad proxy.

      Average annual returns are very tricky business. The percents will vary depending on the exact start and ending years one chooses. However, since most fall between 8-12% or so I simply went with the lower end to be conservative.

      So, maybe not a slam dunk but not unreasonable either.

  10. Reido says:

    I greatly enjoy your blog!

    I just wanted to share a couple thoughts… For one, bonds are much much worse investments as a result on income taxes. If you make 8% in a bond and are in the 25% tax bracket and inflation is running at 4%, then your after tax and after inflation gain will only be 2% – you have to subtract away 25% x 8% and then subtract 4% from that number. If you only make 2% per year it will take 36 years to double your money.

    Compare this to stocks with the assumption (very conservatively) that stocks beat inflation by 4% per year. Since you don’t have to pay taxes until you sell, the money grows until you cash in… and by that point you’re probably retired! This would double in 1/2 the time!

    Also, I think you underappreciate the REITs to some extent. In actuality, they’re just small companies that happen to act as managers for real estate. As a result, they perform about as well as a small cap index would – and over long periods can even OUTPERFORM stocks assuming you reinvest dividends.

    My personal portfolio is 50% Stock index ETF’s and 50% REIT’s

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Thanks Reido….

      glad you’re here and I appreciate your comment.

      Great point on the tax considerations of bonds. That’s why I hold mine in my IRA accounts. The REITs, too, as they throw off a pretty good dividend.

      The stocks – VTSAX – I keep outside the IRA.

      Points well taken on the REITs too. If I were to trim my bond allocation I’d likely divert the captal into more REITs like you have. But that would increase the risk profile and at my age and in my situation my 50/25/25 is bold enough.

      That said, your 50/50 will, over time, outperform mine. The important point is that, with just these three funds (asset classes) everyone can fine tune what they need.

      good luck and hope to see you around here more.

  11. […] 2.  I wonder if it would actually be possible for every single person to retire a millionaire?   — Jlcollinsnh […]

  12. […] Jim @ JLCollinsNH has the latest in long series on  stocks, investing and retirement:  Stocks, Part VII – Can Everyone Really Retire a Millionaire […]

  13. Oh, my gosh. An $800,000 bonus and he’s still not making enough? I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Someone needs to scale back.

    Thanks for that tool…oddly enough I was looking everywhere for something like this earlier today.

  14. 101 Centavos says:

    Your series is getting better and better, Jim.

    Marketing and peer pressure … deadly combinations.

  15. Inspiring, as always! I read that Michael Jackson’s brothers and sisters all went bankrupt, although they had earned plenty during their lives. So, you are right – it’s all relative. And, like basic thermodynamics when heating a structure, you want heat in to equal, or exceed heat out. So quantify your income, quantify your expenditures, and make certain you always have some to invest. Love your web log!

    Tom M.

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Thanks Tom….

      …always nice to see you here.

      Entertainers and pro-athletes have a terrible record in hanging on to their money. It’s a skill set they never developed and they tend to think of wealth in terms of spending. It flows out even faster than it flows in.

      Add to this the ever present circle of sharks in that pool and the surprise is they don’t all wind up broke!

  16. Pachipres says:

    Hi There,
    I know you from the MMM site. Could you answer me this question. I don’t get this 4% withdrawal rate. We have nearly 1 Million in investments but last year it made 2.3% and now in 4 months it has made 1000.00 total. Had dropped alot in last month. So how can my dh and I retire when the market isn’t even doing the 4%. I am trying to keep my expenses at 40K per year/

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Hi Pachipres….

      Welcome and glad you found your way over here.

      the 4% rule comes from some research done a number of years ago. Various portfolios were analyzed against how long they’d last using various withdrawal rates. The idea was to come up with a percentage that would have a likely chance to last for 30+ years before depleting. It assumed that each year the amount withdrawn would be increased to account for inflation.

      Basically they found that withdrawal rates of 3% or less reliably made the distance. between 3-4% did very well. 4-4.5% had something like a 90% chance. Much over 4.5% and the odds moved against you.

      As I recall, they used a 60/40 stock/bond ratio.

      As you can see, there are lots of assumptions built in, but 4% has become the widely held rule of thumb. but it is not infallible.

      somebody unlucky enough to retire in mid 2008 would not have survived with it. too big a hit early on. one the other hand, someone retiring at the start of a bull market will do far better.

      From reading this series you’ll have noted that the market from 1975 thru 2011 rose at a 12% annual rate. But, of course, the last ten years haven’t even been close to that. the 80s & 90s were far better. There is a huge difference between an average annual rate and what the market does in any given year.

      What you experienced last year is a good illustration. 4% proponents would say you’d still take 4% in that down year and later stronger years (say the market is up 8% and you still take only 4%) will close the gap. the research backs them up.

      If this uncertainty makes you uncomfortable, you might try this. Take 4% each year, but no inflation increase. over time the market does rise and your portfolio should too increasing the amount you can withdraw. but now you are only increasing on strength.

      hope this helps!

      • Pachipres says:

        Wow, thank you so much for your explanation. No one has a crystal ball including our financial advisor and in 2010 he said we could withdraw 2K a month but the way the market has been going, I am so glad we never started doing this. With 4 children still at home and helping another older one out, it would not have been wise. So far this year, the market has only made 1K on 985k. It was 108,000, 000.00 three weeks ago but my dh says it’s dropping because of Europe. So I guess we’ll see how much our portfolio makes by end of 2012. Thank you once again Jim(saw your name from another person).

        • jlcollinsnh says:

          my pleasure!

          At 2k per month/24k annually on a 1m portfolio your withdrawal rate is only 2.4%. VTSAX has a dividend of around 2% so you could almost do this and never touch principle.

          sounds like your advisor has given you sound and conservative advice.

          care to share what you are invested in?

          • Financial Noob says:

            Thanks for your blog! It’s a lot of fun to read and I’ve learned a lot from JLCollinsNH, MMM and friends (Saturday morning cartoon idea?).

            Anyway, I’m new to all of this stuff and have been going over my options for when I start into the workforce. I notice you mentioned the VTSAX as approximately a 2% dividend payment, which I’m assuming will fluctuate very mildly with inevitable market crashes (as I understand it, the big payers won’t change what they’re doing in that circumstance). Withdrawal rates are great and all, but I’m hoping to retire living off of mostly dividends (reinvesting them prior to retirement, of course) so my portfolio can continue to grow. Are there any indexes with Vanguard that focus more on dividend payers rather than the whole market? I’d still be fine just taking a piece of the whole market and letting it ride, but I really do like the idea of dividend payments vs. withdrawal rates. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on these strategies, as well.


  17. Fuji says:

    Do you think there are methods with which people can develop some resistance to marketing? It seems like some individuals are less prone to marketing than others, but the vast majority of the world are so vulnerable to it. I look at China and the zeal for branded Western goods and I flinch at how much money is being poured away. I know, good for the economy, but still…

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      Hi Fuji….

      The first step is becoming aware that we are all taught (brainwashed?) to want a lifestyle of endless consumer goods.

      Both China and India (and the rest of the world) are avid consumers of Western, mostly US, media. TV, movies, music videos and the like all paint the “good life” as one of material excess.

      As the middle class in India and China (BTW, each of these countries now have a middle class larger than the entire population of the USA and it has happened in a single generation) has exploded, it should be no surprise that they are seeking what has been dangled beyond their reach until now.

      Both countries have rich histories and cultures that espouse more deliberate and modest approaches to life. My guess is that as their experience with consumerism and its shallow rewards expands those approaches will return with a renewed vigor.

  18. Shilpan says:

    This is your best article so far Jim. I’m impressed. I wish that everyone can read this and try to live by every word you’ve written. We will have a different world — more content and prosperous.

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