In this land of opportunity, Americans may believe that it’s harder to get rich than it used to be. But when asked about the likelihood of getting rich personally, one-third say it’s very or somewhat likely that they will attain wealth because of their work, investments, inheritance or good luck.

On the other hand, six out of 10 (63 percent) say it’s not too or not at all likely they’ll get rich. Just 2 percent volunteered that they’re already rich.

Bankrate commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to explore how people feel about their chances for prosperity, as well as how they define wealth and their motivations for pursuing it.

Hope springs eternal — for the young. More than half of those aged 18 to 29 (54 percent), believe they will get rich. Meanwhile, cynicism sets in with the passage of time. Only 34 percent of respondents in the 30 to 49 age range believe they will be rich, while one out of five (21 percent) in the 50-plus age group think so.

What is rich, anyway?

Most people don’t equate wealth with a yacht in the Mediterranean and a house on every continent. A meager 7 percent of respondents define “rich” by possessions such as houses, cars and boats.

Instead, rich means having just enough money not to worry, to at least one-third of Americans (33 percent), according to the survey. That’s a subjective definition that varies with lifestyle and attitude. Another 26 percent define rich as having enough money to quit their jobs.

“I think there is a paradox about it. People could live smaller than they do. There are a lot of McMansion inhabitants who could do that if they wanted to, but they slide on the golden handcuffs, and that is part of what keeps you from feeling rich,” says Peter Rodriguez, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Few people put a dollar amount on the definition of wealth. Just 17 percent say that being rich means having a net worth of $1 million or more, and 11 percent say that a six-figure annual income makes someone rich.

Most people who are rich don’t even consider themselves rich. It’s a relational feeling, says Rodriguez.

“For example, you take someone who has been earning $40,000 a year and bump them up to $100,000 — they feel rich. Even if they increase their lifestyle, they don’t have to worry about their old bills anymore. But if you take someone who is making $150,000, they feel poor unless they make $300,000,” he says.

How to get rich

One-fifth of Americans (20 percent) believe that starting your own business is the most likely way for someone to get rich today.
History supports that assumption. Most self-made millionaires are small business owners, says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s senior financial analyst.

Choosing a high-paying job or career comes in second (19 percent) as the most likely path to getting rich.

Unfortunately for most people, having a high-paying job is the ticket to an expensive lifestyle and nothing more lasting, says Todd Tresidder, a financial coach at FinancialMentor.com and self-made millionaire.

Surprisingly, just 9 percent of survey respondents say real estate investments offer a likely path to wealth. Though real estate investors have gotten creamed in the past year, it’s been a major moneymaker for some over the years, though it’s by no means a sure thing. Plenty of people go bankrupt in real estate.

“You do have to have deep pockets to play the game,” says Dan Danford, principal and chief executive officer of the Family Investment Center in St. Joseph, Mo.

It offers a couple of advantages. For one, you can leverage the investment which dramatically increases the return or magnifies the loss.

“The research shows that owning your own business and real estate are two of the most common paths to achieving wealth and financial security. There is a reason for that. Owning your own business and real estate have two principles: They have leverage and tax advantages,” says Tresidder.

Surprisingly, 15 percent of people say that getting lucky via the lottery or an inheritance is the most likely road to riches, while 15 percent point to living frugally and saving money as best.

Though living frugally may not have you living like a Rockefeller, it’s a more likely route to wealth than winning the lottery.

“Living frugally and saving money are helpful, sure, but winning the lottery isn’t even a plan. That’s called hope,” says Tresidder.

Motivations for attaining wealth

Despite what advertising messages might convey, most people are not motivated to pursue wealth for material reasons. Only 11 percent of those surveyed say they want to be rich to afford material things and pursue leisure activities.

Instead 41 percent of Americans wish to obtain personal prosperity so they can provide a better life and future for their children.

Statistically, only a small fraction of the population will ever be truly rich. Americans sometimes sabotage themselves or are too anxious about current economic conditions to take steps toward prosperity. Danford has a fatalistic point of view when it comes to getting rich.

“I work with a broad spectrum of people, and one of the truisms I’ve come up with is: People who have money will always have money and people who don’t (have money) won’t ever have money.”

The majority of Americans appear to agree, according to Bankrate’s poll. But optimism prevails with at least a third of Americans who aspire to be wealthy.

Results are based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults, age 18 and over. The interviews were conducted from Nov. 12 through Nov. 15, 2009, under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were conducted on landline and cell phones using random digit dial, or RDD, sample. Sample demographics were weighted to match population parameters derived from the Census Bureaus’ 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplement data. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points for results based on the total sample. Results based on smaller subgroups are subject to larger margins of sampling error. In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting surveys can also introduce error or bias to poll results. For full results and methodology, download this PDF.

See Bankrate’s Financial Literacy series on How to Prosper.

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