"If we have a problem in this country," said Malkiel, speaking from the point of view of an economist. "It's a problem of inadequate savings." Malkiel is the author of the classic "Random Walk Down Wall Street" and currently the Chemical Bank chairman's professor of economics, emeritus at Princeton University and CIO of online investment advisor Wealthfront. "It isn't simply a one-time affair, but one should save regularly," Malkiel said. "It doesn't matter if you make 20 percent on your money or 2 percent or .5 percent of 1 percent. If you have nothing to invest, you don't make any money. It all starts with saving and investing."
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Only about 55 percent of Americans are invested in the stock market at all, down from 60 percent in the late 1990s, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. And almost all American households that are investors are invested through their retirement plans. Investing enough in your retirement plan is a crucial beginning — but if you want to be rich, it's just the beginning.
For one thing, you can turbocharge your 401(k) by making the maximum contributions. In 2015 you can now contribute $18,000 per year, that's up from $17,500 in 2014. For those over age 50, the maximum contribution is $24,000. So if you invest $18,000 over a 40-year working life, you are almost assured of retiring as a multimillionaire, with more than $2 million in assets (assuming a 6 percent return).
The quicker, albeit riskier, path to riches also depends on saving and investing — in addition to your retirement savings. For instance, if you start investing $500 a month at age 22 with a conservative 6 percent rate of return, you'll have close to $100,000 within about 10 years and a quarter-million dollars within about 20 years. If you adopt the habit of investing young, lots of good things are likely to happen: You will love the feeling of security and keep investing more, and you will learn how to take some measured, careful risks with your pool of assets. It's those opportunities that you make for yourself that will likely lead to real wealth.
In a volatile market, investing regularly is even more crucial. Consider the comparison of $1,000 invested regularly in a volatile market, versus $1,000 investing in a rising market. You'd expect that latter to producer higher returns. Not so. Because you can buy more shares during a flat or volatile market rather than a rising one, you get more for your money.
Adopting investing as a habit — a real habit, as basic and as psychologically strong as, say, brushing your teeth every night — gives you three big advantages: