If you are pondering the challenges of maintaining a respectable net worth during unpredictable economic times, you might wonder how the wealthy build and sustain economic security.

Regardless of government intervention designed to redistribute wealth, the majority of net worth will always return to a small percentage of the population within a few years. When a math class flunks a challenging test, the teacher uses a curve to reset the highest of the dismal grades as the A level, and the lowest few as the F grades. Most of the grades cluster around the average of the bell curve. The highest wealth levels occupy the end of a similar bell curve. They are the A-level rich.

Despite the American dream—equal opportunity to achieve great wealth if one is ambitious, skilled and perhaps a bit lucky—there is no magic formula that guarantees everyone a fair share, however that may be defined. Attempts to impose systems to equalize wealth have often produced lackluster results, as motivation disappears when top earners are excessively taxed and the population accepts a less-than-optimal median income level.

Entrepreneurship depends on the belief that hard work and diligence will be rewarded with wealth accumulation. If the right formula can be identified, any individual should ideally be able to employ it. Is the achievement of wealth a teachable skill, or does it depend on innate characteristics?

Nature versus nurture
A growing field of study, neuroeconomics, combines neuroscience, psychology and economics to study how people make financial decisions. Some researchers have revealed possible links between genes and financial risk-taking. The levels of the chemicals dopamine and serotonin in the brain affect addiction, anxiety and mood. People with a “high-risk” type of dopamine--related gene tend to make riskier investment decisions, while those with the “high-anxiety” type of serotonin-related gene were more careful with their money.

The level of the male hormone testosterone has also been linked to risky financial behavior. Subjects with levels of the hormone one-third higher than the average invested 10 percent more of their money during an experimental game. In London, financial traders with above-average testosterone levels in the early morning earned higher daily profits.

These effects probably account for less than one-third of the variation in risk-taking behavior, according to one of the researchers. The primary factors influencing investment decisions are still the traditional ones: education level, knowledge of the past performance of a potential investment, cultural influences and current events. So your ability to blame hormone levels or your genetic makeup is limited.

What does it take to be a millionaire?
The United States has more than 10 million millionaires, and the number is projected to double by 2020, with a combined wealth of nearly $90 trillion versus the $39 trillion in 2011. An AP-CNBC poll found that almost two-thirds of U.S.

esidents were less confident about investing, but they were making savings and investment a top priority. Almost one-third believed they would need at least $100,000 to $500,000 to retire comfortably, and more than one-fifth believed at least $1 million would be needed. Only about one-fifth believed they could accumulate this much in the next decade, and more than 60 percent believe that it is “very” or “extremely” difficult to become a millionaire.

Reaching that goal is easier with a defined plan. Use a calculator such as the one available at Bankrate.com to quickly compute the savings level you need to reach $1 million by a certain age. If you start with $10,000 at age 35, and save $850 per month, you can be a millionaire by age 70, given a 5 percent growth rate. If you are 55, plan on putting away $4,000 a month. Then, you have to take inflation into account because $1 million would only be worth about $650,000 in today’s dollars, given a modest 3 percent inflation rate. Playing with these numbers is a wake-up call if you have dipped into your savings, or liquidated investments, to stay afloat during the recent economic crisis.

Ultimately, discipline and thoughtful behavior are required to build wealth. You can become a millionaire, achieve your financial goals and retire comfortably by creating a plan and following it. Diversify your portfolio and rebalance it at least annually to keep it aligned with your growth requirements. Commit to saving a targeted amount each month. Be willing to defer retirement until your nest egg is large enough to meet your projected lifestyle needs. Most important, always live within your means, regardless of the temptation to take advantage of a great deal or succumb to the pull of instant gratification.

Unless you were born with a trust fund, the road to wealth is traveled at a steady pace with a carefully drawn map.


NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at ddjohnson0336@sbcglobal.net.