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6 ways to become rich without even trying

Getting rich is something of a Holy Grail for many Americans, who have been warned that their retirement will look like a scene out of "The Grapes of Wrath" if they fail to save up at least $1 million before they're old. Although many, perhaps most, people doubt they can save and invest that much, in reality building up a $1 million nest-egg is pretty easy. In fact, if you start young and follow these six steps, you can do it without really trying.

Contribute to a 401(k): When you get your first job, there's a good chance that somebody in the human resources department will try to talk you into investing in the company's 401(k) savings plan. You may want to play poor and say no, or contribute the absolute minimum. Do the opposite.

Even though you think you're too poor to save every week, these plans make saving cheap and easy. You should use them to save as much as you can from the first moment they allow you to contribute. It gets you into the good habit of paying yourself first and it can make you rich with practically no effort at all.

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Here's why: Contributions come out of your paycheck before state and federal income taxes are computed. Assuming that you pay, say, 25 percent of your income in tax, that means that each $100 you contribute costs you just $75 in spendable income.

Even better, the vast majority of employers practically bribe you to save by matching your contributions to set levels. The matching contributions are often generous. According to the 401(k) Help Center, half of employers kick in between $1 and 50 cents for each $1 the employee contributes on their first 6 percent of wages.

What does that mean? Let's say you get a job earning $40,000 annually, or $3,333 per month. If you contributed 6 percent of that amount, or $200 each month, your employer would kick in another $200. You'd end up with $400 in savings after the first month and $4,800 after the first year, without taking investment returns into account.

Yet because your contributions were deducted before income taxes were taken out of your wages, the $200 you contributed cost you just $150 per month, or $1,800 per year, in spendable cash.

So when you're employer asks, "Do you want to invest in the company 401(k)," the real question is, "Do you want to set aside $1,800 and get $4,800?" If you answer no to that one, you're about to fail Life 101.

Invest in stocks: Another reason why you might feel uncomfortable about investing in a 401(k) is because once you decide to contribute, you have make a second choice on how to invest the money. You don't know anything about investing. You're afraid you might lose money if you invest it in stocks.

Here's all you need to know. Over short periods of time, stock prices are volatile, swinging up and down in seemingly random fashion. But over long periods of time, stock returns average 10 percent per year, according to market researchers at Morningstar. So while you don't want to invest the rent money in the stock market, it's a great place to put the retirement assets that you're not going to need for 30 years.

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What happens if you invest your $200 monthly 401(k) contribution in an "index fund" that's aimed at simply meeting (not beating) stock market performance? At the end of 30 years, assuming you get average returns and the employer match, your nest-egg is worth more than $900,000. In year 31 (if you started this at age 25, that's around your 56th birthday), you're a millionaire.

Stretch out your student loans: The typical college graduate leaves school in debt. But if your debt is made up of federally guaranteed student loans, you've likely borrowed at paltry rates of interest -- between 3 and 6 percent.

Six months after graduation, you'll be asked to choose a repayment plan out of a spectrum of options that include a standard fixed payment in which you'll repay the loan in 10 years and one that allows you to pay based on what you can afford.

If it's no trouble to repay this debt quickly, do it. Your options in life are always better when you're debt free. But if paying the debt is a struggle, pick the longest (and lowest monthly payment) you can get. The reason: This debt is cheap and flexible. Some of the interest you pay on student loans is even tax-deductible, making your net cost even lower. Low costs and flexible terms means this is the last debt you need to pay off.

Pay off your credit cards: The same can't be said of credit cards. If you also amassed credit card debt in school, stretching out your student loan payments should make it a little easier to pay these off rapidly. Since this is high-cost debt that's not deductible, you should make a point of getting rid of revolving balances and never spending more on credit cards than you can pay off the next month.

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Learn to cook: Everyone should occasionally splurge and go out to a great meal, but if you're using restaurants as a replacement for a refrigerator, you're destined for the poor house. The IRS publishes "per diem" rates, which is the agency's best guess on what it costs business travelers to eat out three meals a day. Those estimates range from $46 to $71 a day.

Even if you ate out cheaply and spent, say, half of the allowable per diem amount, that would cost you between $23 and $35 per day, or $690 to $1,050 per month. What's the average amount people spend on groceries? About $300 per person per month. That's less than one half of what you'd spend if you ate out all the time.

Procrastinate on consumer purchases: You're a grown-up now and have your own income. So no one should tell you what you can and cannot buy. But if you postpone purchases until you can afford to pay with cash or with a credit card that you'll pay off each month, you'll avoid interest charges that enrich your banker rather than you.

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