What Does It Take to Be in the Top 1%?

By Kate Ashford · June 15, 2023 · 5 minute read

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What Does It Take to Be in the Top 1%?

You’ve likely heard about the 1%: Those people who’s net worth is among the top 1% in the nation. Just how wealthy are these individuals? Recent data shows that while the median U.S. income is $70,000 a year or so, the 1% can earn up to $955,000, or just a hair under a million dollars a year.

If you are curious about what it takes to be among the 1% or have your sights firmly set on joining their ranks, read on. Here’s a closer look at how the wealthiest people in America got their plus some of their most effective strategies for financial success.

What Does it Mean to be in the Top 1%?

While many people might think “top 1%” and immediately imagine a CEO whose salary is in the tens of millions, the top 1% in terms of net worth aren’t necessarily the people who earn the most.

Net worth refers to the value of the assets a person owns (which includes checking and savings account balances, the value of securities such as stocks or bonds, real property value, the market value of automobiles, etc), minus the liabilities (or debt, like mortgages, loans, credit card balances) they owe.

A deeper view of the top 1% indicates that this wealth accumulation is spurred by more than one source: Income, investments, tax breaks that help the wealthiest keep more of their money, property, and more. All of these help make up the resources a household or individual has socked away as net worth.

Recommended: What’s the Difference Between Income and Net Worth?

The Income and Savings of the 1%

Having a high net worth isn’t just a matter of earning more. It can also mean saving more. Consider these numbers:

•   The median household in the U.S. has $11,700 in savings.

•   The top 1% of American households have a median savings of $1.1 million.

•   The lowest 20% of income earners have no savings, as you might expect, as they may be living paycheck to paycheck.

These numbers indicate that not only do high-wealth households make more money, but they also know the value of keeping some of it in a secure location, where it’s likely insured and earning a high-yield interest rate.

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Is There a Formula for Becoming Part of the 1%?

There’s no one formula for joining the 1%, but several factors appear to play a role in the rise of many one-percenters. These include:

•   Saving. Many people who save through traditional 401(k) retirement plans and other vehicles may receive a match from an employer. You might choose to save the minimum amount required to get that match, but saving more — the max allowed in a 401k and additional after-tax contributions — builds net worth faster.

•   Starting early. The earlier you start saving and investing, the more you stand to gain due to compound earnings, which is when any returns you earn are reinvested to earn additional returns. This “interest on interest” can help your wealth snowball over time.

•   Income consistency and growth. The more you earn and the more that grows over time, the more likely your household will be to enter the top 1% of wage earnings. There are some in-demand careers (like software engineers and data scientists) where average Big Tech salaries are in the range of $200,000 per year. But regardless of your particular job, staying consistently employed and saving is a path to building wealth versus leaving the work force or deciding to forego savings for a few years to, say, travel more.

•   Frugality. You’ve heard that Warren Buffett wears outdated suits and lives in a house he paid $31,500 for in 1958. He’s worth approximately $113.3 billion. He also buys reduced-price cars, doesn’t spend big on expensive hobbies and he even clips coupons. Not all 1% are spending lavishly on yachts and third and fourth homes. If you want to be a part of the 1% and you didn’t invent the best thing since sliced bread, it may be helpful to stay motivated to save money vs. overspending.

Recommended: How to Stop Overspending

•   Family history/Luck. Having a head start can certainly help. However, research indicates that 79% of 1%-ers are self-made. Finding the right solution for a big problem at the right moment can lead to a big windfall in a new company, or, starting the next Facebook or Amazon is a little bit luck, a little bit skill.

Recommended: Investing vs. Saving: How to Best Grow Your Money

Moving Towards the 1%

Thomas Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door, identified the seven characteristics of people who become big accumulators of wealth—and thus have a chance to build the wealth it takes to be in the top 1%. These common traits include:

1. They live below their means.
2. They allocate their money, energy, and time in ways that contribute to building wealth.
3. They believe that financial independence itself is more important than appearing to have a high social status.
4. Their parents did not provide money for their basics in adulthood.
5. Their adult children are self-sufficient economically.
6. They understand how to target economic opportunities.
7. They choose the right occupation.

Not all of these are factors one can fully control—and not everyone has a knack for targeting economic opportunities. In addition, many people choose an occupation around a passion, not around wealth-building. That doesn’t mean you can’t get there—or get close.

The Takeaway

Being part of the 1% appears to take a combination of luck, talent, hard work, and determination. Being diligent about saving is also a key way to grow your net worth over time. The more you can sock away, the better off you will likely be in the future.

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