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Self-made millionaire Ramit Sethi: How to build wealth

About a fifth of millennials and nearly a quarter of Gen Zers believe they would need to earn $1 million or more annually to feel rich, according to the recent CNBC Make It: Your Money survey, conducted in partnership with Momentive.

If that’s your goal, you don’t have to cut out little luxuries to get there, says Ramit Sethi, a self-made millionaire and author of the New York Times best-seller “I Will Teach You To Be Rich.”

“I’m not the guy who’s gonna say, ‘Hey, go to cut back on lattes. And if you save for the next 360,000 years, you can afford a down payment on a house.’ It doesn’t work,” he told CNBC’s Frank Holland during CNBC Make It’s Your Money virtual event on Dec. 13.

When it comes to building wealth, most people focus on the “$3 questions” like, “Should I skip buying a latte today?” or “Should I get that dessert?” Sethi tells CNBC Make It.

But, “those $3 questions make no difference in our financial life,” he says.

Instead, you should focus on the “$30,000 questions,” Sethi says. Those are questions such as “Am I automatically investing every month?” or “Have I negotiated my salary?”

“These questions are worth tens of thousands of dollars and yet we remain in the weeds and play small by asking the $3 questions,” he says.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about getting rich is that it should be an exciting process and happen quickly, Sethi says.

“Real wealth is almost always created consistently over a long period of time,” Sethi says. “It’s boring, as it should be.”

Instead of waiting and hoping to win the lottery, here are two things you can do now to start building wealth, according to Sethi.

Don't cut back too much on spending or you'll be 'miserable,' says Ramit Sethi

1. Focus on your savings rate

A key “$30,000 question,” according to Sethi: What is my savings rate? This refers to the percentage of your monthly income you’re able to set aside for the future.

“The difference between saving 6% of your income versus 7% is worth thousands of dollars over your lifetime,” Sethi says.

But it’s OK if you’re not able to save that much right away. Start by putting away what you can, say 5%, then increase your savings rate by 1% each year, Sethi says.

“That money turns into substantial savings over the course of the long term,” he adds.

2. Create a ‘conscious spending plan’

Instead of relying on a budget to manage your money, Sethi recommends creating a “conscious spending plan.”

Budgets tend to look backward, and you can end up dedicating more time to categorizing your spending than using your money to live a rich life, Sethi says.

With a “conscious spending plan,” you track four numbers instead:

  1. Fixed costs, such as your rent or student loan payments
  2. Savings, including your emergency fund and money for vacations
  3. Investments, such as your 401(k) or Roth IRA contributions
  4. “Guilt-free spending,” such as ordering food or shopping

Allocating your money in this order ensures that your financial responsibilities are taken care of first. Then, you can spend the remainder of your money “guilt-free,” Sethi says.

Keeping track of where your money is going is a critical step toward creating a plan to build long-term wealth, Sam Palmer, head of digital wealth planning and advice at J.P. Morgan Wealth Management, tells CNBC Make It.

Everyone’s idea of what it means to be wealthy is unique, which is why it’s important to create a plan based on your own personal financial goals.

And remember, wealth planning is fluid, says Palmer. As your life and priorities change, so will the financial goals you want to achieve.

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