When you hear the word investment, you probably think of your home, stocks and mutual funds, your retirement account, maybe your baseball-card collection. But how often do you think of your job?
You should, because for all but the wealthiest, your job is probably your No. 1 investment. Just think of your wages as the equivalent of a portfolio's income stream. The median household income in the U.S., about $51,000, equals the income of a stock-and-bond portfolio worth more than $1.2 million--assuming sustainable withdrawals of 4% a year.
Most U.S. households don't have anything close to $1.2 million saved. Among households with financial assets like stocks and bank certificates of deposit, the median portfolio was barely $30,000 as of 2010, according to Federal Reserve data. Or, to put it in corporate accounting terms, most Americans are all income statement and no balance sheet.
So while everyone should learn the basics of investing, most workers should treat their ability to earn and save as their biggest asset. With that in mind, here are some hot investments that you probably don't think of as investments. But for most households, they matter more for growing wealth than the fine details of portfolio management.
1. Your benefits.
There are many ways to save, but for typical families, one seems to be working better than others. Between 1989 and 2010, the share of household financial assets held in retirement accounts nearly doubled to 38%, according to the Federal Reserve.
Not coincidentally, the number of active 401(k) participants has also ballooned, from 7.5 million in 1984 to 73.7 million last year. Few savings vehicles can match the 401(k) on features that promote long-term success. Workers typically add money automatically from their pay and get a tax break on their contribution, plus, more often than not, a matching contribution from their employer.
Even a middling 401(k) experience can pay off handsomely. A Congressional Research Service study in 2007 projected that a median-income household could stash away $468,000 after inflation in a retirement account by age 65 simply by starting at age 35, contributing 8% of pay and earning typical stock and bond returns. Worker benefits can add to wealth in plenty of other ways
Group life insurance can be a money saver too. Many plans offer a small amount of free coverage and the opportunity to buy more with few questions asked about health--a boon for older or unhealthy workers. Also, don't forget health insurance, tuition reimbursement, corporate travel discounts and credit unions.
Then there's Social Security, which is basically like a lifetime annuity from an insurance company. Some couples retire with Social Security income equivalent to that generated by investments worth over $1 million.
2. Your body.
Workers who exercise regularly earn 9% higher pay, on average, than those who don't, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Labor Research.
By scoring subjects on their propensity to exercise, based on factors like age, education level and school sports involvement, the study showed a cause-and-effect relationship between working out and earning more. Other studies have documented an obesity penalty to earnings, which seems to hit women hardest.
The financial benefits of fitness extend well beyond earnings. The fit pay less for life insurance than the fat, and spend less on health care.
Plus, the benefits to employers of worker fitness--fewer sick days, higher productivity and so on--are enough to make companies want to chip in.
Put it all together, and for a typical household the return on investment for getting in shape over the next year dwarfs the likely gains from financial assets.
3. Your marriage.
Married couples gain financial leverage by sharing things like expenses, assets and health-care coverage. As a result, they increase wealth by 4% a year simply as a result of being married, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University.
For couples who divorce, the same study found, wealth a decade later is three-quarters lower than for couples that remain married.
Considering the stakes, unhappy couples should view $100 a pop for weekly visits to a marriage counselor as a wise investment.
4. Your spending.
Small savings here and there can add up to meaningful wealth come retirement, for those who start early. For each $5 trimmed from daily expenses and invested at 6% yearly returns, the result after 40 years is nearly $300,000.
Discovering that $5 starts with tracking expenses, but fewer than one in three Americans prepares a detailed budget, in writing or on a computer, that tracks income and expenses each month, according to a Gallup poll last year.
For the other two thirds, creating a budget can generate an extraordinarily high return on investment. Some personal-finance sites, such as Mint.com, are free and automatically download information from financial institutions. You Need a Budget, a popular downloadable program, costs $60 and requires more manual entry.
5. Your community.
Homes are the biggest nonfinancial asset for most households, and 70% of home-owning households have a mortgage. The median amount was $112,000 in 2010. That means that, since location is a key determinant of home values over time, many households are making a leveraged bet on the health of their communities.
Unlike with stocks, a little market manipulation here is encouraged. Show up for the Saturday school cleaning. Press the town to fill in nearby potholes. Help a sick neighbor mow her lawn.
Worst case, your efforts bring only personal satisfaction. Best case, others follow your lead and gradually increase neighborhood home values.
Randy Pollak多数美国家庭的存款都远远达不到120万美元。美国联邦储备委员会(Federal Reserve)数据显示，截至2010年，拥有股票和银行定期存单等金融资产的家庭投资组合中值仅为30,000美元。用公司会计术语来说就是，多数美国人都只有“损益表”而没有“资产负债表”。
即使是表现普通的401(k)账户也能带来可观回报。美国国会研究服务处(Congressional Research Service) 2007年一项研究估计，对收入居于中值的家庭来说，只要从35岁开始将收入的8%存入回报率与一般股票和债券相当的退休金账户，到65岁时，退休金账户上经通货膨胀调整后的金额就能达到468,000美元。员工福利还能以许多其他方式增加你的财富。
《劳工研究杂志》(Journal of Labor Research) 2012年刊登的一篇研究论文显示，经常锻炼的劳动者比不经常锻炼的人平均收入高9%。
已婚夫妇可以通过共同承担花销并共享资产和医疗保险来获得财务优势。因此俄亥俄州立大学(Ohio State University)人力资源研究中心(Center for Human Resource Research) 2006年的一项研究显示，仅结婚这一项因素就能让财富年增4%。
其余三分之二的人如果动手制定预算，是有望获得极高投资回报的。Mint.com等一些个人理财网站可免费使用，能自动从金融机构下载信息。还可以下载很受欢迎的理财程序You Need a Budget，费用为60美元，该程序需要较多的手动输入。