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The Invisible Rich

The biggest barrier to becoming rich is living like you're rich before you are.

A while back I was leading a personal-finance seminar at a high school, and I posed this question to the teens: "When you see a man cruise by in his $65,000 BMW 550i, what do you assume about him?" The answer: "He's rich." And a man who drives by in a ten-year-old Chevy? "He's struggling."

Elusive realities. Just the answers I was looking for, and they provided a launching pad for a lively discussion of deceptive appearances and realities. By the end of it, these teens had a clearer sense of how little you can determine about wealth from a person's visible consumption. The BMW, I noted, is probably leased (perhaps for three years, no money down), so we can infer only that the driver earns enough to handle a $1,131 monthly lease payment. We know nothing about his net worth, which may be great ... or may be almost nonexistent.

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And the man in the old Impala? Maybe he is struggling financially, but there's another possibility: His income is just as great as that of the dude in the Bimmer, but he's not saddled with a lease payment -- and he's investing the money in mutual funds that are growing at 10% a year.

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The message in all this: The biggest barrier to becoming rich is living like you're rich before you are. Why? Because all that discretionary spending -- the chic apartment, frequent travel and restaurant meals, consumer electronics, fancy clothes and cars -- crowds out the saving that will enable you to be rich someday.

I often hear complaints from young adults, twentysomethings to those in their early thirties, that they'll never be able to buy a home because they can't afford the down payment. But when I probe them about their budgets, I find that they earn enough to make a down payment in just three or four years -- if they cut back on their spending, and if their starter-home expectations are reasonable.

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Know who grasps this best in American society today? Recent immigrants, whether they're from Latin America, Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe. Many of them come to the U.S. almost penniless. They work long hours at modest wages and send some of those earnings to relatives back home. But, miraculously, they still have money left over each month because they live simply. Often they double up with friends and family in crowded housing.

What do they do with their savings? They buy a home, often in a less desirable neighborhood that other strivers are leaving behind. They fix it up, rent rooms to friends and relatives, and then trade up to a nicer home. They may keep their first and second homes as rental properties, becoming hands-on landlords.

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A niece of mine sells new homes in the outer Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The houses cost $500,000 -- a "middle market" price in this affluent area. Many of her buyers are Latinos. They don't look or act rich, and they often need translation help. Many of them arrived in the U.S. with nothing but ambition. They worked hard, started small businesses and saved 30% of their incomes.

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Someday, when they finally feel as financially secure as they will actually be, they might start living it up. They might buy -- not lease -- a BMW, most likely a used model. High school kids will assume them to be rich and cast admiring glances at them and their fancy cars.

Proudly invisible

But just like overspending, the habit of frugality is hard to break. Maybe these folks will just keep the old Chevy. They will remain proud members of the Invisible Rich -- a growing army of super savers whose net worth is more impressive than their income. They'd rather live within their means, sleep well and forgo the covetous attention of their fellow citizens. Not a bad way to live at all.

Knight Kiplinger is editor in chief of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, The Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger.com. This classic column was originally published in 2006 and is the kind of timeless financial wisdom we like to highlight again and again.

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