Why are some people wealthier and better off than others? Given similar income levels, what predicts who will build greater wealth? Why are people of the same age and similar background factors so different in their wealth in later life? Well, Henry Ford was half right, what you don’t spend, and the factors that influence that, are important, but what you earn matters too.
We examined predictors of wealth accumulation in a large research study (over 90,000 UK adults). The variables that showed the strongest overall relationship to wealth accumulation were (largest relationships first): age, planning ahead, income and associating money with security. Income provides a base from which to save and invest and age represents the time in which to save and invest. However, the skills and habits of planning ahead and the emotional sense that money represents security rather than freedom, love or power helps determine ‘what you don’t spend’.
We know a great deal about the economic and social factors that influence higher wealth, for example, having the luck to be born to well-off parents and being part of a social group with good money skills. However, rather less research has been done on the individual differences in attitudes, financial capabilities and predispositions that influence wealth accumulation.
I collaborated with Adrian Furnham in a research study that drew on data from over ninety thousand UK adults1. We looked at three types of personal wealth: property wealth, savings and investments, and valuable items2. We first examined demographic factors (age, income, gender, and education). Then, controlling for these we looked at the additional influence of financial capabilities, the tendency to buy impulsively, and money attitudes.
What did we find?
First, the variables we looked at explained quite a lot of the variability in accumulated wealth; around half for savings and investments, two thirds for property wealth and about a quarter for the value of physical items.
The variables that showed the strongest overall relationship to wealth accumulation were (largest relationships first):
- Planning ahead (one of the financial capabilities);
- Income; and
- Associating money with security, rather than freedom, power and status or love (the four money attitudes we looked at).
For the different types of wealth there were some interesting differences. For example, associating money with security predicted higher savings and investments but lower property wealth and valuable physical items. One explanation may be that those who associate money with security may be less inclined to take the risk of stretching their capacity to service a loan to purchase property, or to buy expensive items impulsively.
Although we did not find important direct effects on wealth for impulsive buying behaviour or education, there are indirect effects. Higher education levels are associated with greater income, which, in turn, influences wealth accumulation. Impulsive buying has a strong negative relationship with financial capabilities, especially planning ahead which is strongly related to wealth accumulation.
Why does it matter?
The results should be useful for those involved in financial advice, planning , counselling, and education, as well as those interested in building their wealth. Too much attention has been paid to the single variable of client risk-appetite within personal finance and not enough to other related attitudes and behaviours. These results also give insights for financial education, which needs to be not just about numeracy and basic financial knowledge, but also to engage learners in thinking about their attitudes to money and developing the habits that underpin sound financial capabilities.
- Fenton-O’Creevy M, Furnham A (2022) Money attitudes, financial capabilities, and impulsiveness as predictors of wealth accumulation. PLoS ONE 17(11): e0278047. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0278047
- We did not look at pension wealth since it is difficult to estimate for many survey respondents. However, we suspect similar results may apply to those for investments and savings.