Think Most Millionaires Inherited Their Wealth? Think Again

A survey from Ramsey Solutions found that almost 3/4ths of Millennials believe that most millionaires inherited their wealth.

If true, this would mean that most millionaires today got rich based on dumb luck and pure chance. They didn’t truly earn their wealth. They were born into a rich family and were provided their riches. They won the “lottery of life.”

But, the numbers from multiple studies clearly paint a very different picture.

Do Millionaires Inherit Their Wealth?

While it’s popular and comforting to believe millionaires simply inherited their millions, the numbers uniformly show this notion is untrue.

Here is just a small collection of studies that disprove the inheritance myth.

For instance, the Cato Institute has consistently proven the vast majority of millionaires earned their wealth rather than inherited it. The notion that “most millionaires inherit their wealth” is a myth, Cato says.

“A survey by US Trust found that 70% of wealthy Americans grew up in middle‐​class or lower‐​income households. Even among those with assets in excess of $5 million, only a third grew up wealthy,” wrote Cato.

The article also points out that the role of inheritance has diminished over the last generation.

Fewer wealthy people than ever on the Forbes 400 list grew up in rich households, nor did most inherit their wealth from their families. Data suggests that wages, rather than inheritance, is the predominant factor in building wealth for the majority of wealthy Americans.

A Ramsey Solutions study of 10,000 millionaires found that only 21% of millionaires received any inheritance at all. Of those, 16% inherited more than $100,000 and only 3% got more than a million.

“We gave the millionaires in our study a list of items that could contribute to someone becoming a millionaire, and then we asked them to rank them,” the study said. “What ranked number one, beating out everything else? Financial discipline.”

The late Dr. Thomas Stanley, who wrote the influential book “The Millionaire Next Door“, spent years studying millionaires in the United States from all walks of life. His findings prove just how little of an influence inheritance has on building wealth.

From Chapter 1 of his book, here are a few of his most insightful findings:

  • Only 19 percent receive any income or wealth of any kind from a trust fund or an estate.
  • Fewer than 20 percent inherited 10 percent or more of their wealth.
  • More than half never received as much as $1 in inheritance.
  • Fewer than 25 percent ever received “an act of kindness” of $10,000 or more from their parents, grandparents, or other relatives.
  • Ninety-one percent never received, as a gift, as much as $1 of the ownership of a family business.
  • Nearly half never received any college tuition from their parents or other relatives.
  • Fewer than 10 percent believe they will ever receive an inheritance in the future.

A 2017 study from Fidelity Investments found that a whopping 88% of millionaires today are considered “self-made”, which means they did not inherit the majority of their wealth. Only 12%, the study found, inherited significant money.

The vast majority grow up in normal neighborhoods and shop at regular stores, not the exclusive country club neighborhoods and ritzy outlets you might expect.

What about the super rich? Very wealthy people with a net worth of $30 million or more showed very similar results. WealthX found that 68% of very wealthy people earned their wealth themselves, primarily through businesses and other types of investments.

About 23% had a combination of inherited and self-made wealth. Less than 10% of those surveyed completely inherited their wealth.

Why the Notion of Inherited Wealth is Dangerous

The numbers clearly show that the vast majority of millionaires earned their wealth.

Why, then, do so many people continue to believe the lie?

It gives people an excuse. “We all can’t be lucky enough to inherit millions,” you might say. With this belief, it’s no wonder you cannot build wealth. You just aren’t one of the lucky ones.

But, wealth isn’t a function of being “lucky”. While luck has its place, it’s far from the predominant factor behind building wealth, and the numbers prove it. There are enough “rags to riches” stories in this world to continuously reinforce this concept.

Wealth is built along a timeline. While simple, it’s not always easy.

It looks like this: Wealth = Income + Investments – Lifestyle.

Now, I want to draw your attention to a couple of critical elements. 

Notice that “saving money” is not a part of the equation. 

Yes, saving money has value. An emergency fund is a great example of the benefit of saving money within the larger wealth-building timeline.

And, notice that your lifestyle is a part of the equation.

In other words:

  • income and investments build wealth (over time)
  • lifestyle expenses drain wealth

Whatever is left is the wealth that you truly possess.

You will not get rich by saving money alone, or assuming all rich people simply lucked into their wealth through inheritance. Wealth – and I mean serious, goal-accomplishing wealth – is built through hard work, providing value, and investing your income. 

Investments are what make wealthy people wealthy.

The other critical component that most people don’t consider is lifestyle.

Your lifestyle is the “accounts payable” portion of your life. It’s not profit. Your lifestyle (such as your home, your car, the things you buy, the vacations you take, etc) all need to be funded. Your lifestyle takes away from your wealth.

And, this means something brilliantly simple: the more that we control our lifestyle, the more of our income + investments become profit

The more money we keep.

Forget inheritance. It happens, but inheritance isn’t how the vast majority of millionaires got wealthy. The sooner you stop believing this popular lie, the sooner you’ll start building serious wealth for yourself.

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I am not a financial advisor. Before making big money decisions, speak to a certified financial advisor for a tailored financial plan made just for you.