How To

College Grads, Here’s How to Become Millionaires

photo: elycefeliz 

Do you want to become rich beyond your wildest dreams? The question may seem right out of a late-night infomercial — unless you follow one strategy that may actually help you achieve it: Act poor.

If you do this, you’ll be fast on your way to having a million dollars — or more. That money can buy you a lot of stuff, of course, which would allow you to act rich and show off in no time. But if you’re smart, you’ll use it to buy freedom and give yourself options that the rest of your graduating class won’t have because they just weren’t as smart coming out of the box.

What do I mean by “act poor?” Pretty much act like you have for the past four years. Maybe even live with Mom and Dad for a year or so, promising that you’ll tell them when you’re coming home at night and help with the dishes. (As a parent, I had to say that.) The point of keeping your expenses low is to save your socks off.

Your friends probably won’t be doing this. The moment they get jobs, they’re going to want a better car; fewer roommates; dinners on the town. And that’s ever so tempting to do since you’ve likely suffered through lean years as a college student. And that new job you’re getting could allow you to pay for some luxuries, even if it doesn’t pay a lot.

But there’s a great pay off to living like a college student. If you manage to save really prodigiously for just a couple of years, you can build an emergency fund that will tide you over when times are really bad. And you can get started on long-term stock market investing at the best possible time.

How could I possibly say that this is the best possible time to be investing in the stock market, when stocks have gone nowhere for a full decade? I’m a student of the market, the author of Investing 101 and can say with some authority that the market’s miserable decade-long performance is exactly what spells huge opportunity for you.

A company called Ibbotson Associates has been compiling data on investments for decades. Let me throw a few of their statistics at you so you can understand why I’m so bullish — and particularly bullish for those of you who get to start investing now.

Average stock market returns from 1926 to the present work out to 9.6% for big company stocks and 11.67% for small company stocks. But stocks rarely hit that average in any given year. Instead, prices dive and soar, scaring out the faint of heart — and those who don’t understand why they’re investing. These price swings are often lasting, which is why you never invest short-term money in stocks. Put the rent money in the stock market, and a normal market swing might just send you back to living with Mom and Dad. But over the long run, those downswings are matched by equally rewarding upswings.

Consider: During the decade of the 1920s, big company stocks returned an average of 19.2%, according to Ibbotson — way above the long-term average. But the next decade was miserable, with returns on big company stocks dropping 0.1% over the 10 year period. In other words, if you invested $10,000, at the end of that decade, you would have a little less than $10,000 and probably feel demoralized. What happened then? In the 1940s, market returns were pretty manic — alternating between big losses and huge gains. The average return, however, ended at 9.2%. Still, because of the really rotten returns in the 1930s, investors could expect a “catch-up” decade and they got it. During the 1950s, average stock returns rose 19.4%.

Stock gains were below average in the 1960s and 70s —  up 7.8% and 5.9% respectively; then way above average in the 1980s and 1990s — up 17.8% and 18.2% respectively. Are you detecting a pattern?

Okay, so the relevant decade for you was the one just completed, when stock prices fell 1% on average, according to Ibbotson. That’s the worst decade in history, which is a really good sign when you’re starting now.

It’s not clear whether your “catch up” returns will hit this year, next year or some time in the future, but the chances are great that you’ll get a stretch of above-average returns. What does that mean in dollars and cents?

For the updated version of Investing 101, I did an analysis of what would happen to somebody who put $1,000 a month into the stock market starting in January of 1970 — the last really miserable decade for stocks– and stuck with it for 30 years. The first decade was rotten (5.9% returns), but the next two decades were awesome.

At the end of 30 years, this investor had $4.03 million. If he earned just the average return over that time– or earned his returns in a different order — he would have had $1 million less — $3.08 million to be precise. Why? He had the least at stake when returns were rotten and a lot of money to compound when times got good.

I know $1,000 a month is an insane amount and feels really crazy to you now. You don’t have to save that much to get a big reward; you just have to start saving as much as you can.

But if you get a job where your employer offers a 401(k) plan, it’s not as hard as you might think to save even that stunning $1,000 a month. That’s because your contributions come out before tax, which reduces your out-of-pocket cost because it also cuts your tax withholding, and most employers match your contributions — some even at 100% on the dollar.

In other words, you contribute $500 and your employer contributes $500. And because your contribution comes out before tax, your paycheck is reduced by just $400 (assuming you pay 20% of your income in state and federal tax).

Think you can’t save that much — or even at all? Try tracking all of your expenses, suggests Danny Kofke, a special education teacher and author of How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary.

Little things like going to lunch each day, instead of packing a sandwich, are likely to cost you about $5 bucks a day, $25 a week and $1,300 a year. The soda that you buy from a vending machine is likely $1 more than the one you bought at the store. And, of course, if you put off buying that new car and drive your junker (or take the Metro or bus), you’re likely to save $150 to $300 each month on car payments, too.

“Times are tough to get a job, but if you can start off without immediately getting used to spending how much you’re making, you can get way ahead,” Kofke said.

This is the formula that Thomas Stanley explains in The Millionaire Next Door and is, in fact, the most reliable way to get rich. If you play your cards right, you could be the youngest millionaire on your block.

Kathy Kristof is a syndicated personal finance columnist, speaker and author of three books, including the recently updated Investing 101 (Bloomberg, 2008).

More on Money Watch