8 signs you’re not building wealth as fast as you think

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  • A growing 401(k) balance is always a good thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re building wealth. In fact, your net worth could even be decreasing as your investments grow in value.
  • There are plenty of signs you’re not building wealth, and lifestyle inflation is a big one. If your higher earnings have you spending more than ever, you may be in worse financial shape than you think.
  • If your goal is building wealth, make sure you understand why you care in the first place. Sometimes recalibrating so you can focus on your goals is the best way to stay on track.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

No matter how eager you are to build long-term wealth, the path to get there is usually long and slow. Instead of becoming a millionaire overnight, the small steps you take every day – and with every paycheck – will snowball until enough time has passed to let compound interest thoroughly do its job.

But are you living up to your financial potential? Now, that’s a tough question to answer. You may be investing regularly and saving plenty of money, but that doesn’t mean you’re not also working against yourself.

We reached out to financial advisors and experts to find out how you can tell if you’re building wealth as fast as you could be. Here are some signs they pointed to that could prove that you’re not.


1. You’re spending your money on status symbols

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Tom Diem of Diem Wealth Management in Indiana says you may not be building wealth as fast as you think if you’re constantly flexing your financial muscles to make luxury purchases.

“It’s a ‘watch me’ thing,” he says. “It usually is homes, cars, jewelry, and vacations.”

If your goal is building wealth, Diem suggests asking yourself an important question before you make a large purchase: Is this money coming from a reliable stream of investment income or earnings from work?

If you still need to work to buy luxury items, you are using investment money that could generate an income later, he says.

“Your financial independence ultimately comes from your ability to generate investment income, not your ability to work to spend.”


2. Your net worth isn’t increasing

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Here’s another sign you’re not really building much wealth – your net worth remains stagnant, even as you earn more and more money.

Morgan Ranstrom, a financial planner in Minneapolis, says far too many people focus on the investment performance in their IRA or 401(k) without paying attention to other factors that can impact their financial lives.

“For example, you may have a 20% return in your 401(k), but your net worth could be flat or even have decreased if you financed a new car or took on some credit card debt,” he says.


3. You’re not taking advantage of your employer-sponsored 401(k) match

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According to financial planner Luis F. Rosa of Build a Better Financial Future, you’re definitely not building wealth as fast as you think of if your employer offers a match and you’re not taking advantage.

“For example, if your employer matches up to 5% of your pay and you’re not contributing at least 5%, you’re leaving money on the table,” he says.


4. You have a ton of money in a savings account

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If you have a big wad of cash sitting in a savings account – and even one with a high yield – you’re not building wealth as fast as you think. Rosa says you’re even losing money over time because the rate of inflation will slowly diminish the purchasing power of your money.

“The interest received in the bank account is not keeping up with the rise in cost of goods and services,” he says.

It’s still a good idea to have your emergency savings in a high-yield savings account because of its liquidity, but any long-term money should be invested in an account that could bring a much higher return.


5. You’re not trying to boost your income

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Justin Pritchard, a fee-only CFP in Montrose, Colorado and founder of Approach Financial, Inc., says saving money and investing it wisely can eventually help you reach your financial goals.

However, you also need to focus on the earning side of the equation – as in, you should try to earn more money.

That doesn’t necessarily mean starting a business, he says, although you can potentially earn more with self-employment or a side hustle.

“You can also earn more by developing your skills and being savvy about increasing your earnings in your current field,” says Pritchard. “Changing employers, asking for a raise, or getting more education can all improve your earnings and provide resources for building wealth.”


6. Your credit card balances keep going up

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Here’s another telltale sign your wealth isn’t booming like it could be – you’re taking on credit card debt. Financial adviser Walter Russell of Russell & Company says ballooning credit card balances mean your wealth cannot possibly be accelerating the way you want.

Keep in mind that the average credit card interest rate is currently over 17% – and that any money you pay in interest is basically set on fire. It’s also very unlikely any investments you have are earning a higher rate of return.


7. You’re allowing ‘lifestyle creep’

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Riley Adams, a personal finance expert and CPA who writes at Young and the Invested, says it’s hard to build wealth when your income increases at the same pace as your cost of living, a phenomenon also known as “lifestyle creep.”

If you spend every raise because you “deserve it” or want to have what your friends have, you’re destined to fail at reaching your financial potential.

“This amounts to running in place because no incremental amount gets saved to build your net worth,” he says.


8. You’re forgetting to look at the big picture

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Finally, never forget what the journey is all about.

Brandon Renfro, a financial adviser and Ph.D. who teaches personal finance at the university level, says you aren’t doing as well as you could be if you’re not thinking about why you’re building wealth and putting that into context.

For example, are you trying to retire early, help your kids with college, or reach a point in your life where you don’t have to work if you don’t want to?

Take the time to think through your goals and dreams then make sure your actions will help you get there.

“With a slight change in perspective, you can more accurately assess an increase in wealth,” he says.