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How to make a million dollars
Forget the joke about starting with $2 million. These people had better ideas. Here are nine stories -- and tips -- about making that first million.
By Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine
Being a millionaire isn't what it used to be -- but it sure beats not being one. Just ask the 8.2 million U.S. households -- an all-time record -- that had a net worth of more than $1 million in 2004, excluding the value of their primary residence. That was a 33% increase over the previous year, reports a survey by TNS Financial Services.
The surge was driven mostly by consistent investing in the stock market. But there are other ways to make a million -- start a business, invest in real estate, put yourself in the right place at the right time. Kiplinger's sought out people who did all those things and more. We found that although they had taken different routes, they followed a pattern; you might call that pattern the nine habits of highly successful millionaires. And all of them had a 10th trait in common: They never lost sight of their goal.
'Do whatever it takes'
Marco and Sandra Johnson started out saving lives in their community of Lancaster, Calif., and ended up running a multimillion-dollar business whose customers come from across the United States.
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The idea was born on the job. Marco, a full-time firefighter and paramedic, would come home from an incident and complain to Sandra that lives might have been saved if bystanders had been able to administer first aid. At the time, the Johnsons were trying to have a second child, and Marco was particularly upset when "children died unnecessarily because no one at the scene knew CPR," says Sandra.
In 1997, they began offering CPR and first-aid classes to local businesses. Sandra handled scheduling and other arrangements, and Marco taught classes between shifts at the firehouse. At first they borrowed material and equipment and brought it to each site; after a few months they scraped together enough money to rent a 400-square-foot office.
The business started to take off when workers whose jobs require CPR certification, such as schoolteachers and bus drivers, sought them out. Then students asked them to start training emergency medical technicians because local junior colleges had a two-year waiting list for EMT classes. Within a few years, the Johnsons had become accredited for EMT training and moved their Antelope Valley Medical College to bigger quarters. "Everything was happening fast," says Marco.
Riding the momentum took seven-day-a-week stamina. Marco alternated shifts at the firehouse with classroom duty, and Sandra was "always on the phone" setting up appointments. The couple didn't want to take out a business loan, so they plowed their own income into the school and sometimes put off making mortgage payments on their house to pay their employees. Says Marco: "There were times when it was a gut check. We looked at each other and said, 'What did we get ourselves into?'"
Now the Johnsons can breathe easier. In 2004, their school was expected to pull in revenues of $7.5 million, and their corporate clients have included businesses from Boeing to Burger King. That boom in business has given the couple the means to own several houses and to treat their extended family -- a group of 12 -- to vacations in Hawaii.
Even more rewarding, says Sandra, is the example they can set for their children: To accomplish your dream, "do whatever it takes." As for herself, "We're saving lives. It's awesome to know I was part of that with my husband." And Marco is finally planning to retire his fire helmet.
TIP #1: Go flat out. Between shifts at the firehouse, Marco Johnson, with his wife, Sandra, started a school to teach emergency medical techniques.
'I put my money where my mouth is'
Elmo Shropshire had a day job as a veterinarian in Marin County, Calif., and a side gig as a bluegrass singer when he recorded the holiday song that put him on the map -- and put his vet business out to pasture. The song, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," has sold 10 million copies, inspired a music video and a movie, and made Shropshire a millionaire five times over.
Shropshire first heard the saga of the tipsy grandma and the renegade reindeer after bumping into songwriter Randy Brooks, who wrote the piece, at a bluegrass performance. Convinced that the ballad suited his twangy voice and comic singing style, he shelled out $500 to record it himself and another $700 to make 500 singles. "Grandma" aired on a San Francisco radio station in 1979 and caused an instant ruckus. "Kids were calling in and saying, 'Play it, play it,'" says Shropshire.
Despite the enthusiastic reception, he couldn't find a record company to take "Grandma" national. Nevertheless, the song was frequently requested over the next several holiday seasons. Says Shropshire, "It was one of the few songs in history where public clamor rather than company hype drove demand."
Shropshire went for broke in 1983, investing $30,000 to produce his own "Grandma" music video and $10,000 to make an album featuring the song. The gamble paid off when MTV picked up the video (it still appears regularly) and Columbia Records offered him a distribution deal. In the three weeks before Christmas, the company sold 500,000 "Grandma" singles and 100,000 albums. Shropshire got a royalty check for $50,000.
The singer retired from his veterinary practice in 1995 and now works full-time on "Grandma"-related enterprises, which include sheet music, a stuffed singing reindeer and a recently released album called "Christmas in the U.S.A." Says Shropshire of his unlikely success, "I had this blind belief in the project. I put my money where my mouth is."
TIP #2: Support your idea. Elmo Shropshire, who recorded a hit holiday tune, invested over $40,000 of his own cash to produce a music video and an album.
'Figure out your strengths'
Soon after Scott and Mandi Leonard were married in 1996, they took a big risk. Scott quit his job as a stockbroker and started his own financial-planning business. He had no clients, no income and a big mortgage -- the Leonards had just put a 10% down payment on a $320,000 house in Redondo Beach, Calif.
For three years, Scott and Mandi lived on the income from Mandi's jobs with technology companies. Employed by Oracle and PeopleSoft, she earned valuable stock options during the go-go years of the late 1990s.
By 2000, Mandi wanted to quit working: Son Griffin was a year old and Jacob was on the way. Her PeopleSoft stock, for which she had paid $6 per share, had risen to $43, and Scott was getting nervous. They decided to sell the stock, trade up to a bigger house and stash some of the money in the bank. Says Scott, "Having a safety net was more important to us than trying to get an extra $10 per share on the stock." And a good thing, too. Within a year, the price had dropped into the teens.
The Leonards also made a smart real-estate investment. They sold their first house for about $500,000 and moved up to an $800,000 house in Hermosa Beach. With an ocean view and a rooftop deck, the house was recently appraised for $1.45 million.
Meanwhile, Scott's business began to take off -- he now manages about $100 million in assets for his clients -- and once again the Leonards decided to invest in real estate. About two years ago they paid $1.25 million for a historic but dilapidated house overlooking the water in Redondo Beach. They spent about $250,000 -- mostly in cash -- to renovate the property for Scott's business. That building was recently appraised for $1.8 million.
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