Portfolio Perspective

Timeless advice from self-made millionaire investors

Money may not bring happiness, but it sure does help Americans worry a lot less — about everything.

Sixty-nine percent of millionaire investors — those with $1 million or more in a brokerage account — say they never worry about not having enough for retirement, according to an E-Trade Financial quarterly investing survey provided exclusively to CNBC. That compares to 64 percent of all investors who say retirement worries are a regular part of their life ("always/frequently" at 29 percent and "sometimes" at 35 percent).

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It may seem obvious that Americans with more than a million dollars in a brokerage account worry less about retirement — if they didn't worry less, just imagine what that would mean for the less fortunate. And news about America's retirement crisis is on autoplay in the financial press.

But there's a more optimistic message from these millionaire investors.

The ones surveyed by E-Trade are self-directed, meaning they reached millionaire investor status on their own, without sophisticated investment strategies available only through an exclusive private bank or a financial advisor running their portfolio.

When you look at how they made it, you will notice that investing smartly doesn't require any secret formula. Just a few basic, simple rules.

"These are the folks who did the fundamentals right," said Lena Haas, E-Trade's senior vice president of retirement, investing and savings. "Of course it's nice to have money to have more comfort in your daily decisions, but the big factor is, they've adhered to sound financial principles."

When asked what financial advice they would give to a younger investor, these are the top three recommendations of self-directed millionaire investors:

1. Eighty-five percent advise starting to save as early as possible.

2. Sixty-three percent suggest investing for the long term and never trying to time the market.

3. Sixty-one percent say you should contribute enough to your 401(k) to get the full employer match.

Working with a financial advisor to create a plan was cited by only 9 percent of these investors.

"These people are successful not because they won the lottery. There's no magic bullet; it's just that they have done everything right," Haas said. "They started investing, they stayed disciplined, and they didn't get derailed."

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This is an old message, but it's one that never gets old in terms of its value to younger Americans. "These are the things we always talk about, but they are so fundamentally important," Haas said.

Maybe is becomes a more visceral, compelling message when it is delivered by investors who have reached success, and paired with the worries expressed by those with less money in the bank — or brokerage account.

Repeated worries about retirement are just the most extreme edge of a fear gap that exists between average Americans and those who have reached millionaire investor status.

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When asked what they worry about frequently or always, the broader group of investors surveyed by E-Trade worry significantly more about personal relationships, loss of a job and physical injury — all two to three times as much as millionaire investors.

When asked about top barriers to retirement saving, the broader group of investors were two to three times more likely to worry about the following as were millionaire investors:

  • Rent/mortgage
  • Day-to-day expenses, like food or utilities
  • "Wanting to live for today"
  • Education costs
  • Student loans
  • Childcare
  • Having an older parent move in or an older child move back

And here's one more: They were twice as likely to say they worry frequently or always about not understanding how to invest smartly.

The E-Trade survey shows that simply being hands-on with keep-it-simple investing can make you much more hands off when it comes to hitting the panic button on all the other worries life will throw at you. That's a message the half of all Americans currently not even in the market could benefit from.