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What does it take to build up a million-dollar nest egg? What about just an emergency fund? The answers to these questions might actually be the same.
In the 1980s and 90s, two researchers named Thomas Stanley and William Danko studied the behaviors of people who had accumulated over a million dollars of net worth. The culmination of their research was the 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door. Stanley and Danko's findings showed, as their book's title suggests, that millionaires don't tend to look or act the way we expect them to, much less the way popular culture has trained us to perceive them.
Millionaires: They're just like us
In reality, the people who build up lot of wealth also drive boring cars, hunt for bargains, and fly coach even when they have the means to throw their money around if they wanted to. They would be more comfortable in the middle-class home of The Simpsons than in the gaudy beachside manors of The O.C.
Building on this insight, The Millionaire Next Door goes on to argue that people who accumulate wealth have certain behaviors which can in turn predict a person's wealth-building potential.
In reading Stanley and Danko's conclusions, I couldn't help but compare these behaviors with those of the freelancers I know and work with. While I can't say I know many millionaires, I do know a lot of freelancers who exhibit the types of behaviors that can indicate the potential to build and maintain wealth.
Building wealth millionaire-style
If your goal is not just to survive on your freelance work but to achieve financial security and even build wealth over your career, your behavior today will affect your chances of reaching that goal in the long run. With these six behavioral traits from Stanley and Danko's millionaires next door, you can give yourself a better chance at achieving a secure financial future.
Successful freelancers, whether they admit to it or not, have a high degree of confidence in their work. Freelancing requires confidence that your skills are valuable enough to make a living from them, and despite feelings of doubt, anxiety, and impostor syndrome, that underlying confidence is what supports the drive to pursue your passion.
To achieve financial security, you must first believe in your ability to reach that goal. The same underlying confidence that drives your freelance career can also feed your financial decisions. Like developing your skills as a freelancer, making confident financial decisions requires knowledge and practice. It might also require collaborating with someone you trust, like a spouse, parent, or financial advisor. Just make sure not to go too far: As anyone with experience in the stock market can tell you, overconfidence can be just as damaging as underconfidence when it comes to holding onto the money you've earned.
Freelancers recognize the importance of staying focused while they're doing their work. Whether you decide to rent a desk at WeWork or you're perfectly comfortable cranking out projects on the living room sofa, the overriding factor in choosing a particular work environment is whether it helps or hinders your ability to focus and stay productive.
Staying focused is a key behavior for accumulating wealth. Think of your financial plan like a long-term project: There are lots of mundane tasks to check off like tracking your expenses or contributing to your retirement plan, and you might endure long stretches where it feels like you're not making any progress. It can be easy to get distracted and seek short-term satisfaction with a new gadget or a weekend trip. Staying focused on the end goal–the deliverable of your financial well-being–is crucial to sticking with a long-term strategy, whether it's a big project for a client or your own financial plan.
While not all of the freelancers I know can be described as frugal, we can all speak of lean times we've had at various points in our careers. Frugality is defined as the ability to live below one's means, and it's crucial to the ability to build wealth–after all, you can't expect to have much savings to build on if you've spent all your money to begin with.
Freelancers have a unique situation when it comes to income that can make it hard to track expenses and plan for saving. Slow periods and late-paying clients can force even established freelancers to dip into savings or carry the occasional credit card balance. If work picks up and those checks finally arrive but you're still behind the point where you started, you may need to examine your spending habits and find ways to cut back. I'm not saying everybody needs to go back to living on instant noodles and Three-Buck Chuck, but a little awareness on how you're spending money may make you recognize ways you can spend less without meaningfully impacting your lifestyle.
How do you set out processes in your work? If you've got some experience, you've probably come to realize that it's possible to get more work done (and often with a better end product) with an orderly workflow, a road map that gets you from the starting point to the end goal. Winging it won't get you very far: You'll either see the light and adapt good processes, or your career will be brief and frustrating.
Financial planning is what I do, so obviously I think it's an important behavior for achieving financial security. Having a vision of where you're going and how you're getting there can help you achieve things you might have never thought were possible, like buying a home or retiring at a certain age.
Like a good project manager, you need to have clear goals, specific milestones to note along the way, methods of monitoring your progress, and good communication with all of your collaborators. Spending a little time on each of these things, or hiring a professional to help you out, can make financial security attainable even if you're just setting out.
When you're your own boss, the buck always stops with you. Freelancers are acutely aware of the role they play in their own success, and usually feel responsible–sometimes disproportionately so–for their setbacks.
This can be a hard thing for people to accept. In the real world, there are countless factors–including luck–that contribute to anyone's success or failure, many of which the individual may be unable or unwilling to recognize. But Stanley and Danko's research shows that people who nevertheless feel responsible for their own roles in their financial outcomes are more likely to build wealth over their lifetimes. (It's worth noting here that the affluent subjects of their research didn't start out with large gifts or inheritances, so we can presume that most of them had at least some role in their financial outcome.)
I don't think you need to lug around a copy of Atlas Shrugged everywhere you go in order to maintain a healthy level of accountability. It's OK to keep a sense of perspective on your sense of responsibility. Just be careful if you find yourself repeatedly dismissing any successes or failures as the machinations of luck. Your decisions today matter for the long term, in your freelance life and your financial plan.
Social indifference is the ability to avoid being influenced by your peer groups' lifestyles–what past generations called "Keeping up with the Joneses." People with high levels of social indifference are able to ignore pressure from friends, family, celebrities, and society to always own the newest and the best. Stanley and Danko identified this trait back in 1996. Since then, internet and social media companies have doubled down, making jillions of dollars by making it virtually impossible to ignore what your social peers are doing–and buying–day in and day out.
There's an additional challenge for freelancers, many of whom believe that portraying yourself as already successful makes you more desirable to potential clients. There's even more pressure to keep up when it feels like your career is riding on it. If you let others' actions control your decisions, however, you'll never get out of the cycle of upgrade-and-envy that accompanies the fear of falling behind.
The best way these days to achieve a higher level of social indifference is to log off. When you do find yourself on social media, remind yourself that the whole ecosystem is geared toward showing you things to buy.
Finally, keep your long-term financial goals in mind. The urge to spend now will decrease when you can envision the life you're working toward.
It's not about getting rich
If your own behavior doesn't match every one of these traits, it doesn't mean you'll never increase your net worth. Not all of the millionaires studied by Stanley and Danko were exceptional at all six behaviors. But if you're aware of the areas where you're doing well and the ones where you might struggle, you can put your energy where it's needed most.
Few of the freelancers I know aspire to millionaire-hood. Most truly only want some financial stability and the sense of security that comes along with having enough of a safety cushion to get through a few down months. But even millionaires had to start somewhere, and even if your goal is just to find a stable place the steps are still the same.
It all starts with the behaviors and attitudes that will make it easier for you to plan, save, and achieve financial security.
Ben Henry-Moreland is a financial planner who specializes in working with freelancers, entrepreneurs, and business owners. In his early career he was a professional opera singer. He also blogs at benhenrymoreland.com