Don’t Let Your Paycheck Limit You

It's your financial strategy that determines how well you build personal wealth

Sam and Bandace Bell are living the typical American dream. They are college-educated with good-paying jobs, a nice home, and three cars. Sam, 33, is a tuition consultant with TIAA-CREF and Candace, 29, is a sales consultant with Novartis, a pharmaceutical company. Together, the couple earns six figures. But more important is their positive net worth–about $300,000.

The Bells’ biggest debt is their mortgage on a four-bedroom home in St. Louis. They have $5,000 in finance charges for home furnishings but plan to use their year-end bonuses to pay off the balance. The Bells became debt-adverse and cost-conscious when they married in 1998. The college sweethearts, who met at Clark Atlanta University, created a budget, reduced their credit card debt to zero, and paid cash for items.

While many of their neighbors drive a Lexus, Cadillac, or Mercedes-Benz, the Bells are riding comfortably in a 2001 Buick and the 1993 truck and car (both paid in full) that Sam and Candace had in college. Moreover, when Candace learned last November that she was expecting, they set up a separate savings account (into which they transfer $100 every pay period) to cover daycare, diapers, formula, and other baby costs.

The Bells also are contributing $150 per pay period to a college-education fund. Specifically, they are taking advantage of Tennessee’s BEST 529 Savings Plan for College and the Missouri Saving for Tuition Program (MO$T).

The Bells clearly understand and adhere to DOFE Principle No. 4: to measure my personal wealth by net worth, not income. Net worth is not the same as your paycheck or the draw from your business. Rather, it is your current liabilities minus your current assets. A negative net worth means you owe more than you own. It also signals that you will have less to leave behind to your loved ones.

Here are a few things you can do to optimize your net worth:

  • Find ways to cut costs. Ways to save money: Carpool, buy generic brands, shop with coupons, go to movie matinees, cut one cable station, or download music from the Net. Better still, stick with one or two credit cards with the lowest interest rates. “People will have 10 to 15 credit cards, especially store cards, which carry the highest interest rates,” says Sam. The Bells confess that there was a time when they bought Gucci, Armani, and Hermes; ate at the finest establishments; drank the finest cognac and champagne; and commuted to and from St. Louis to Atlanta daily during their long-distance courtship. “We live more modestly now,” says Candace. “If we want to purchase (a big-ticket item), we place it on a 24-hour wait period rather than make a spontaneous decision,” adds Sam. “Over 80% of the time we never purchase it.”
  • Establish wealth goals. You know the drill: set aside 10% to 15% of your income for savings and investments; have a cash reserve worth three to six months’ living expenses. As your income increases, instead of buying expensive material goods, allocate more money toward your savings.
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