Get Rich Slowly

What the rich do differently: Habits that foster wealth and success

I’m fascinated by the differences between rich people and poor people. Are the differences mostly a matter of class and economic mobility? Are people born to wealth and poverty and destined to remain there? Or are there observable differences in attitude and action that tend to lead people to specific levels of affluence?

From my experience, it’s some of both.

I believe that there are absolutely systemic issues that contribute to wealth and poverty. But I also believe that there are attitudes and habits that foster wealth and success. These attitudes and habits can be learned. They can be applied to our own lives, allowing us to build better futures.

My Story

I grew up in a family that had always been poor, a family that had lived for nearly 100 years in rural Oregon, barely getting by. The things we had and said and did were “lower class”, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

I was raised in this trailer house:

My father was a serial entrepreneur and the primary breadwinner for the family. Occasionally his businesses did well. Mostly, they didn’t. But even when our family did have a decent income, Dad spent that money on boats and airplanes and computers. He didn’t save. Then when hard times came — and hard times always came — he had to sell those toys to put food on the table.

The boom times were rare though. During the 1970s and 1980s, Mom and Dad spent most of the time living paycheck to paycheck. They fought about money. When Dad’s businesses weren’t doing well (which, again, was the norm), he worked as a salesman for various industrial companies. Or he was out of work. He spent long stints unemployed. We had to have help from extended family and from our church. (I can’t recall that we were ever on government assistance, but it’s certainly possible.)

Just before he died in 1995, Dad pulled me aside to apologize for how poor we were when I was a kid. “I remember that one Christmas when we didn’t have enough money for presents,” he said, “You and your brothers wrapped your existing toys and gave them to each other. I felt so ashamed. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you guys a better life.”

So, I’ve experienced poverty. Maybe not poverty as extreme as some others, but poverty.

I’ve also experienced wealth.

Today, my life is very different than it was when I was growing up. I’m fortunate (and grateful) to have a solid financial foundation. I achieved that financial success through a combination of hard work and luck. (And make no mistake: There was definitely good fortune required to get me where I am today.)

My brothers too have managed to work their way to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. We have it better than our parents did. At the same time, it’s clear that the three of us retain some of our old habits and attitudes. (So too, I think, do other members of our extended family who also grew up poor.)

From my experience, I believe that poor people have certain habits, attitudes, and expectations. I think that these habits, attitudes, and expectations differ from those of wealthy people. Sometimes these qualities are a result of being poor (or wealthy); sometimes these qualities lead to being poor (or wealthy). In other words, it’s neither the “chicken” or the “egg” — it’s both.

What do I mean? Let’s take some time today to explore the types of habits that foster wealth and success.

Important note: Before we go any further, I’d like to acknowledge that this is a complex subject, one weighted with political, economic, and social issues. I don’t expect for one blog post to be a definitive exploration of the topic. I do, however, hope that this article can highlight some insights from myself and others — including you. This piece is not meant as a takedown of the rich or a takedown of the poor. It’s meant to highlight habits and attitudes that can improve the odds of success.

The Secret Language and Behaviors of Wealth

First up, here’s Chelsea Fagan from The Financial Diet sharing eight things wealthy people do differently. Fagan breaks down what she calls “the secret language and behaviors of wealth”.

At first I thought this video would be cheesy. It’s not. It’s excellent — which is why I’ve placed it at the top of this article. Fagan’s observations are astute, and she offers lots of practical advice for her intended audience: young women.

“Wealth isn’t just about how much money you accumulate,” Fagan says. “Particularly in America, there’s a whole different approach to life — not just the financial parts of it — when you’re wealthy.”

She continues: “There are many specific behaviors that wealthy people tend to practice which are adapted to perpetuating their wealth. The good news is there are many of these habits ane techniques that you can adopt even if you’re on a serious budget.”

According to Fagan, these are the eight things wealthy people do differently from the rest of us:

This video is truly excellent. If I had a college-aged daughter (or a college-aged son), I’d urge her to watch it. But I think it contains good info for anyone at any stage of life.

The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals

Tom Corley is the author of a book called Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals, which summarizes his research into the habits of the rich and poor. (He defines “rich” as those having an income over $160,000 per year and net liquid assets of more than $3.2 million. To him, poor means a gross income of $35,000 or less and no more than $50,000 in liquid assets.)

Corley’s approach is unique because he took time to interview people from both ends of the financial spectrum. While I haven’t yet read the book, I did manage to track down a piece he wrote for Success magazine that gives some insight into the results of his study. According to Corley:

I’d love to see the raw data that led Corley to make these conclusions but I don’t think his book includes that info. From what I can tell, it’s written as a story, sort of like The Wealthy Barber. His website does give some background on his methodology, however.

I found other articles about Corley at Business Insider (some stats included) and Entrepreneur. Corley also appeared on an episode of the Afford Anything podcast. Finally, here’s Corley’s appearance on the Art of Charm podcast:

The Secrets of the Millionaire Mind

When I first decided to dig out of debt in 2004, I devoured every book about personal finance that I could find. One volume that had a profound influence on my future financial philosophy was The Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker.

Eker believes that we each possess a “financial blueprint”, an internal script that dictates how we relate to money. Our blueprints are created through lifelong exposure to money messages from people around us, especially our family and friends, and from our country’s culture and mass media. (I agree with Eker. See my recent article about money blueprints.)

Eker says the unfortunate truth is that most of us have faulty blueprints that prevent us from building wealth.

“Money is a result, wealth is a result, health is a result, illness is a result, your weight is a result. We live in a world of cause and effect,” writes Eker. “A lack of money is never, ever, ever a problem. A lack of money is merely a symptom of what is going on underneath.” (This echoes my advice that debt reduction is a side effect of doing the right things and ought not be a goal in and of itself.)

At the core of Millionaire Mind are Eker’s “wealth files”, a list of seventeen ways in which the financial blueprints of the wealthy differ from those of the poor and the middle-class. According to Eker:

Eker says that most people are motivated to make money out of fear. People don’t call it fear, though. They say they’re motivated by security. Eker notes — correctly — that fear and security are essentially two sides of the same coin. The tough truth is that money doesn’t dissolve fear.

Eker writes:

Fear is not just a problem, it’s a habit. Therefore, making more money will only change the kind of fear we have. When we were broke, we were most likely afraid we’d never make it or never have enough. Once we make it, however, our fear usually changes to “What if I lose what I’ve made?”

“When the subconscious mind must choose between deeply rooted emotions and logic, emotions will almost always win,” writes Eker. Even if you know what you ought to do intellectually, it can be tough to do it because your money blueprint controls your thoughts and behavior. To change your habits, you have to work consciously and constantly to create a new plan. This takes time and practice.

Want to read more about how fear affects our decisions? Check out my article on how to build confidence and destroy fear.

Millionaires vs. the Middle Class

In The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class, Keith Cameron Smith also makes an attempt to delineate the difference between the rich and the rest of us.

His ten “distinctions” — in order of importance — are:

Some of the items on Smith’s list seem to be derived from Eker’s philosophy. But although there are similarities, Eker’s list gives me warm fuzzies and Smith’s list doesn’t. I’m not sure why.

Maybe the difference is this: From my experience (and your experience may be different), Eker’s many distinctions hold true (at least in the U.S.). I’ve seen the differences he describes in my own life. But I’m not convinced that the differences Smith lists do hold up.

For instance, I know lots of poor people who talk about ideas rather than things and people, and many of the same folks embrace change. A lot of my friends love learning but they’re not millionaires. And haven’t we seen statistics that show, based on a percentage of income, poor people give more than the rich do?

There are differences between the mindsets of the rich and the poor, of this I’m sure. But I think they’re closer to Eker’s list than to Smith’s.

A Brief Rant
Without taking anything away from personal responsibility (which you all know I think is vital to success), I’d like to suggest that both Eker and Smith are too quick to dismiss systemic causes of poverty. Perhaps neither of them knows what it’s like to be poor? Some of their observations make sense, but some seem to come from people who’ve lived lives of privilege.

“Rich people act in spite of fear,” Eker writes. “Poor people let fear stop them.” Why is that? Could it be that the rich can act in spite of fear because they have a safety net? Could it be that when you grow up poor, a scarcity mindset becomes so deeply ingrained that it’s almost impossible to shake? (That’s been my personal experience, by the way.)

There’s no question that wealth brings opportunities, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Those with money have more choices. The rich can take risks, and they’re often rewarded for taking them. (Thus, “the rich get richer”.) I have so many more options now than I ever did when I was a boy, when my family was poor. I think this element of “luck” is something ignored by both Eker and Smith (and many other people).

Ten Habits of Successful People

Instead of defining the differences between rich people and poor people, I think it’s more constructive to look at what separates successful people from unsuccessful people. Maybe I’m picking nits, but in this case I think focusing on a financial scorecard misses the point. It’s possible to be successful and poor, and it’s possible to be rich and a fool.

I’ll admit there seems to be a strong correlation between wealth and success, but the two qualities don’t overlap precisely.

From looking at my own friends, and from thinking about the stories readers have sent me during the past decade — especially stories about how people have moved from debt to wealth — I’ve seen the following patterns.

None of these differences is absolute, of course. Most people (including me) follow a few of these rules but not others. Or we adhere to certain rules only part of the time. The most successful people I know do all of the things on this list; the least successful people do none of them.

The Bottom Line

That’s a lot of words — almost 5000! — about how the mindsets of the wealthy and the poor differ. And while I do agree with these generalizations, I think it’s important to note that they are generalizations. These principles aren’t applicable to all people.

There are plenty of poor people who have the right mindset but struggle because of external factors. There are plenty of rich people who do not have these attitudes but have managed to obtain wealth anyhow.

For me, the real takeaway from discussions like this is that regardless your circumstances, you can increase the odds that you’ll achieve your goals if you model your actions on those of the people you want to emulate. If you want to be rich, look for common themes in the lives of the wealthy. Do what you can to incorporate them into your own life. If you want to be successful, learn from the lives of successful people.

“If you don’t change direction,” my father used to tell me, “you’ll arrive where you’re going.” I didn’t really undersand what he meant when I was in high school. Now I do.

In life, there are often default options. If you don’t consciously and deliberately choose something different, you get the default. Most people live their lives in default mode. They accept the default without question.

My aim for myself — and for you, the readers of Get Rich Slowly — is to both be aware of the defaults and to question them. Sometimes they’re fine. A lot of times, however, there are better ways to live. By examining the habits of the wealthy and successful, I think we can all find ways to change direction so we reach a better future.

What do you think? From your experience, what are the differences between the rich and the poor? What qualities separate successful money managers from those who remain broke? Given roughly similar backgrounds, why do some folks build wealth and others struggle to make ends meet? How do the rich think differently? What behaviors to the poor and the middle-class have that the rich do not? Or is it even possible to create distinctions like this? Does it all just come down to luck? (Please keep conversation civil and respectful. No poor shaming — but no rich shaming either.)