Note: This article is from J.D. Roth, who founded Get Rich Slowly in 2006. J.D.’s non-financial writing can be found at More Than Money, where he recently wrote about the relationship between action and fear.

A couple of weeks ago, a reporter from Kiplinger interviewed me about financial habits. “Do you think there are specific habits that make certain people more successful with money than others?” she asked.

I generally don’t like to make generalizations, so at first I hedged my answers. But the more I talked with the reporter, the more I realized that I do see differences in the way people handle money. I thought about the people I know who are always broke, including my brother. These folks seem to share some common qualities. And the people I know who have managed to build wealth? They share some similarities too.

Note: The outcome of the Kiplinger interview was this slideshow (yes, I hate slideshows too) about the reasons people remain broke.

None of these differences are absolute, of course, but from looking at my own friends, and from reading the stories Get Rich Slowly readers have sent me over the years — especially stories about how people have moved from debt to wealth — I do think there are some patterns, including:

  • Successful people surround themselves with positive people. They limit their exposure to negativity and naysayers, preferring to spend time with folks who have can-do attitudes. They don’t have time to listen to the reasons something can’t be done; they’d rather find ways to make it happen.
  • Successful people aren’t flummoxed by failure. They know that mistakes are inevitable and should be treated as stepping stones to success rather than signs of weakness or reasons to stop trying. (As a side note, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best thing we can do for our children is not to praise achievement, but to praise effort. The former breeds fear of failure.)
  • Successful people manage their time effectively. They recognize that minutes and seconds are a precious non-renewable resource. So, they set priorities and pursue them with passion. My successful friends seem to watch less television (and play fewer videogames) than my unsuccessful friends, for instance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with TV and Flappy Bird, but they suck up time that could be spent exercising or reading or taking a class.
  • Successful people ignore the opinions of others. They don’t feel compelled to “keep up with the Joneses.” They limit their exposure to mass media not only because it allows them to be more productive, but also because it reduces the influence of advertising and the pressure of cultural norms. When investing, they don’t follow the herd. The wealthy people I know all drive older cars (many of them bought used!), dress modestly, and avoid conspicuous consumption. But the people I know who are most often broke? They’re on top of trends and fashion.
  • Successful people have direction. They act with purpose. They know why they’re working hard and saving money. They have a mission, even if it’s as simple as putting their kids through college, and their daily actions are aligned with their long-term goals. None of the folks I know who struggle with money have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives.
  • Successful people focus on big wins. Yes, they develop smart habits and pay attention to the small stuff. But they also understand that if they’re diligent with their dollars, then the pennies will take care of themselves. The average person economizes on the small things but isn’t willing to make sacrifices when it comes to housing, transportation, or income. And the folks who are broke all of the time? Well, they fritter away their pennies and their dollars.
  • Successful people do what’s difficult. They don’t procrastinate. My friends with money work longer, harder, and smarter than my friends who have less. They practice deferred gratification, sacrificing small comforts today in order to obtain greater rewards tomorrow.
  • Successful people make their own luck. They practice awareness so that they can recognize opportunities when they come along. Moreover, they act boldly, seizing these opportunities where others might hesitate to act.
  • Successful people believe they’re responsible for their future. They have an internal locus of control. That is, they understand that although it might not be their fault they’re in a given situation, it is their responsibility to change it, to respond productively — and proactively.
  • Successful people grow and change over time. They adapt. They evolve. They’re not afraid to entertain different points of view. Most importantly, they’re not afraid to change their minds. They seek knowledge and experience, and they allow the things they learn to mold them.

Most people (including me) follow a few of these rules but not others. The most successful people I know do all of the things on this list; the least successful people do none of them.

Note: For a similar (but different) discussion, check out this controversial three-year-old article on the differences between the rich and the poor.

I guess the bottom line is my friends who are successful with money (and life) take what they do seriously. They treat their personal life as if it were a business. They act as both CEO and CFO, and they do their best to “grow the business” over time.

Your personal wealth is your real business; everything else just supports it.

From your experience — and from observing the people around you — what qualities do you believe 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? And have you seen anyone overcome their past to build wealth?

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