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Issue: 71 - Nov 14, 2014
Who Wants to be a Real Millionaire?
By: Dr. Phil ZeltzmanPhil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ
Dr. Phil Zeltzman1

During lunch with a colleague, I recently witnessed a fascinating change in the belief system of a teenager.

Let me set the stage. Our colleague, owner of a small-animal clinic in a modest, rural area, had worked hard all of his life and was toward the end of a successful career. His wife had just retired as a researcher at a Fortune 500 company. I thought our conversation was quite fascinating. We talked about work, the economy, retirement, personal finance and our profession. Mesmerizing stuff, wouldn’t you say?

Around the table was also a 19-year-old. As opposed to us, our conversation probably bored him to tears. If given the choice, he probably would have preferred hanging out on Facebook and chatting with virtual "Friends."

Meanwhile, I was enjoying a great conversation with real friends. After lunch, feeling bad for the kid, I felt compelled to tell him: "You know, these nice people who just left are millionaires.”

His facial expression was priceless. His jaw dropped. I mean that literally. His jaw dropped because they just did not fit his idea of millionaires.

To him, a millionaire was what he saw in YouTube videos and on TV. A millionaire was somebody driving a fancy sports car, living glamorously in a lavish mansion in an upscale neighborhood, and traveling the world in a private jet with an entourage. Millionaires, in his view, included famous rappers, singers, actors, sports stars and Donald Trump. And this is of course true.

I then explained to him who most millionaires truly are, based on the finding in the classic bestseller “The Millionaire Next Door*.”

The authors, a couple of academics, discovered the following 7 common denominators among millionaires:

1. Frugality

They live well below their means. Millionaires next door don’t splurge; they are frugal. The irony is that they could buy all kinds of toys. Cash. But they choose not to, as they prefer long-term thinking rather than social status and instant gratification. The millionaire next door doesn’t look like a millionaire! Most own their homes in a modest neighborhood. After all, Warren Buffett has lived in the same humble house for decades…in Omaha, Nebraska. Not in a 20 bedroom, 30 bathroom mansion in Beverly Hills.

2. Investing

They allocate their time, energy and money wisely. They save compulsively. They budget with discipline. They control their expenses. They don’t try to keep up with the Kardashians and compete with the Jones’. They hate debt (or at least they use it in a constructive manner). They carefully plan their investments. They start investing early in life. That is difficult to do when you “invest” 8 years of your life and a lot of money in your education.

3. Choices

They choose financial independence over image. Rather than fancy cars, they drive domestic models that they keep for years. Many buy used cars. The top 3 car manufactures are GM (27%), Ford (19%) and Chrysler (12%). Rather than a Rolex or a Tag Heuer, they wear a Seiko.

Millionaires next door may be high income earners, but they are not high spenders. Interestingly, their attitude toward money is more important than their income or occupation.

4. Inheritance

They did not inherit their money, or at least 80% of them didn’t. And most were not financially supported by their parents.

5. Kids

Likewise, their adult children are economically self-sufficient. Giving money to adult children decreases their ability to succeed, the authors found out. Millionaires would rather teach their kids how to catch (financial) fish than to give them the fish. In other words, they teach their kids (financial) discipline, they help them out with schooling, they teach them how to become financially independent.

6. Careers

They are good at spotting market opportunities. Ironically, the authors of the book suggests considering careers catering…to the wealthy. They may be frugal in their daily lives, but they are big consumers of accounting, estate-planning, tax and legal services.

7. Self-employment

They chose the right occupation. Many are well educated. Most of them own a business. “Self-employed people are four times more likely to be millionaires than those who work for others.” Most work between 45 - 55 hours per week.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that they all are brain surgeons in Manhattan. Most make their money in “dull-normal” industries. They build things, fix teeth or own bowling alleys. Some are pest controllers and paving contractors! Most of the wives who work are teachers. Hardly the kind of professions you would associate with the word "millionaire..."

This little slice of life around lunch is a vivid illustration of why many among the newer generations may miss out on basic principles that made our elders successful: work hard, spend less than you earn, save compulsively, invest regularly, plan for retirement, and enjoy life all at the same time. In other words, “work hard, play hard.”

And if this sounds like a dull and boring lifestyle, how does life sound with maxed-out credit cards, anemic savings and an empty retirement account? Overspending creates the illusion of wealth.

I hope that this realization will help this teenager (and readers) understand the difference between his bling-covered one-time wonder superheroes, and real-life millionaires who often enjoy a simple, non-pretentious lifestyle. I suspect that this is how our colleague arrived where he is in life.

When I talk to young colleagues, they are convinced that a million dollars at retirement is an unattainable goal. What they don’t seem to realize is that, sadly, a million ain’t much these days.

By many financial planners’ estimation, a million in the bank only allows you to draw a $40,000 yearly “salary.” It's not that much money to pay taxes, travel the world, enjoy a few hobbies, pay the mortgage and housing bills (insurance, lawn care, pest control, replacing the dish washer, property taxes, utilities…), visit the kids and grandkids around the nation, and simply pay the bills - including likely higher medical bills.

But a “mil” remains a mystical number. It’s a good first goal to keep in mind.

So dear Reader, where are you at in your conquest of retirement?

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (

* Thomas Stanley and William Danko, Hyperion 1996.