Long-time personal finance columnist Scott Burns writes that by working for four summers starting at age 16, putting the money in a Roth IRA, investing it wisely, and waiting until age 67, it’s simple to become a millionaire. That’s the 51-year plan. But what if you’re not that patient—or that young? Lucky for you, there are many ways to hit the million-dollar mark, but the faster you try to get there, the harder it becomes.

Key Takeaways

  • Becoming a millionaire may seem like it is out of reach for many Americans, but it is nonetheless achievable.
  • Being a diligent saver and investor in a well-diversified and tax-advantaged portfolio can help you get there, but this, of course, will take some patience.
  • If you start saving in your 20s, you can be on track to having at least a million bucks by the time you retire.

$1 Million the Hard Way

Let’s say you want to become a millionaire in five years. If you’re starting from scratch, online millionaire calculators (which return a variety of results given the same inputs) estimate that you’ll need to save anywhere from $13,000 to $15,500 a month and invest it wisely enough to earn an average of 10% a year. That means taking calculated risks, diversifying, and avoiding investment fees such as loads and broker commissions.

Obviously, in order to regularly save this much money each month, you’ll need to have a fantastic income. At the low end, to meet the $13,000 a month savings goal, you’d probably need to make around $265,000 annually. The specific number will vary considerably depending on your income tax situation, but the point is that it’s high.

According to the salary calculator at PaycheckCity.com, if you make $265,000 a year, are single, claim two exemptions on your federal tax return, and live in one of the nine states with no state income tax, you’d take home around $185,000 a year, or about $15,400 a month. Saving $13,000 would leave you with $2,400 a month to meet all your expenses—a perfectly reasonable number for many singles, and even some couples.

If you're willing to be extremely frugal—let’s say you can get by on a mere $700 a month—will it make a big difference? In this case, not really. You’d still need to make almost $250,000 a year.

If you’re in a committed relationship, however, things get a little easier. You can get away with making around $132,500 a year then, as long as your significant other can make up the difference and is on board with your savings plan. Of course, then you’ll have to share your millionaire status.

$1 Million the Harder Way

Of course, $132,500 (or $265,000) might seem attainable (or like pocket change) for some C-level executives, but according to PayScale.com, the median salary for workers with 20 or more years of experience was a mere $71,578 in July 2009. And it’s still only $125,166 for the average CFO with the same amount of experience. Becoming a millionaire in the short-term, therefore, requires a more ambitious strategy than steadily collecting a well-deserved paycheck.

Alan Corey, author of “A Million Bucks by 30” (2007), claims to have made a million dollars in seven years while earning a salary that more of us can relate to: $40,000 to $50,000 a year. He happened to put some of the money he saved while living very frugally in New York City in the right place (real estate) at the right time (the expansion of the most recent real-estate bubble). Of course, he also had some of the most important personality traits of success: determination, a strong work ethic, confidence, and a willingness to make some extreme sacrifices.

$1 Million the Easy Way

A short-term plan for creating wealth certainly includes these personality traits, but it often includes factors such as timing, luck, and/or possessing an incredibly valuable idea and knowing how to implement and market it. If you know you’re closer to average, consider a more traditional, more attainable approach.

The longer-term road to wealth involves such time-honored tactics as avoiding consumer debt, diversifying your investments, minimizing your investment fees, tax planning, minimizing housing expenses, and, for two-earner households, living on one income.

Putting aside someone's $40,000 in take-home pay every year—and earning that 10% return as described above—will get you to millionaire status in about 15 years. Halve those savings and you’re still only looking at 20 years. It will take more work for sure, but it’s a lot faster than 51.