Thinking Big: From Middle-Class American to Millionaire

A funny thing happened to Janine Bolon when she quit her middle-class job as a pharmaceutical chemist to take care of her first child. She devised a system she hoped would lead to financial independence for her and her husband - a system that ended up turning them from middle-class into millionaires.

Bolon said the most money she earned as a scientist was $45,000 a year, and it outpaced her husband's earnings. So their middle-class income dropped by about 53 percent when she stopped working, spurring her to become a "frugal zealot," and read scores of books on financial independence. Based on what she learned, Bolon created a "60/40 principle" to make her and her husband financially independent in 14 years, meaning they'd no longer need to work.

They did it in half the time: Within seven years they were financially independent, having amassed their first million well before.

The Bolons' story may seem an anomaly. After all, a majority of middle-class Americans don't become millionaires-but the numbers are on the rise.

According to "Affluent Market Insights 2006," a report by the Spectrem Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in affluent and retirement markets, the number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more, excluding primary residence, hit a second-consecutive record in 2005, rising to 8.3 million. That number represents an 11 percent increase from the 2004 millionaire total of 7.5 million.

So what's the key thread woven through such financial success?

Some financially independent Americans, including the Bolons, say there's no magical formula. But they say it does take a combination of hard work, motivation, and financially savvy maneuvers.

The 60/40 Principle

Janine Bolon's 60/40 method is a savings and investing plan that advises living on 60 percent of one's income, saving 20 percent (10 percent in a long-term account and 10 percent in a short-term account) and giving away/donating 20 percent in 10 percent allocations to religious and/or philanthropic organizations.

"To me if it's not simple then it's not a true principle. You have to find a way to simplify-we are very good at making things complicated," said Bolon, 42.

Since creating the 60/40 concept, Bolon has written four books - including Ditching Debt and Money - It's Not Just for Rich People and obtained her master's degree in education from George Wythe College in Cedar City, Utah, where the Bolons reside. She refers to herself as a financial coach, traveling the United States and Canada to speak and teach on her system.

Bolon also takes clients seeking help in gaining financial freedom. She said her average middle-class client in the state of Utah earns about $30,000-$40,000 a year and has between $200,000-$300,000 in debt. Most of her middle-class current clients have an "addiction to debt," she said; she tries to get them to be "wealth accumulators," which she defines as someone saving 10 percent of his or her income every month.

"We are in negative savings just because we are consumers. ... If I can get someone to save 10 percent of their income, that means they are leaps and bounds ahead of their neighbors," Bolon said.

According to a March 1 release from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income was a negative 1.2 percent in January, compared with a negative 1.4 percent in December.

Passion for Saving Money

Rob Bennett, a Purcellville, Va.-based journalist and author of the Financial Freedom blog agrees with Bolon that saving money is a critical element of financial freedom.

"Saving money is five times more important than investing. People who save well always end up fine, no matter how they invest. People who invest well don't always do well if they don't save well," Bennett said. "Investing does matter. But the big problem most people have is that they don't save enough."

Bennett, 50, was a correspondent at the Daily Tax Report from 1983-1989, and later served as the electronic publications editor and columnist at Tax Notes, from 1989 to 1991. From 1991-2000, Bennett worked in the National Tax Department at Ernst & Young, first as senior manager and later as director. It was the loss of his Tax Notes job that prompted him to find a path to financial freedom. He and his wife re-evaluated their personal finances and established a plan rooted in saving money, ultimately enabling him to resign in 2000 from his $125,000-a-year job at Ernst & Young.

"I continued living the middle class life but was saving enormous amounts of money. My best year I saved $88,000, but I only did that for a few years. When I had enough to make this switch I handed in my resignation. My boss thought I was insane," Bennett said.

Today Bennett's total net worth, including the value of his house, which is paid off, is about $850,000. "My hope is that in time the writing business will generate a large enough income to get me over $1,000,000," he wrote in an e-mail message.

Bennett said he believes individuals who achieve financial freedom all have one thing in common: motivation.

"Something motivates the person to care about saving money more than the average person does. Once they do that, all sorts of things follow. Unless you do that it won't happen-it doesn't happen by accident," he said.

Bennett also pointed out that so-called middle-class millionaires-to whom he dedicates a the Finding Life Purpose section of his Website-figure out that having money in the bank means having power.

"You've got to have some power or you're not going to get done with your life what you want to get done. Money is power, choices, opportunities," he said.

Correction: When Janine Bolon stopped working, the Bolons’ income dropped by 53 percent, not 63 percent, as she had originally stated. Ms. Bolon regrets any confusion this may have caused.

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