Carmen Ulrich on Building Wealth

UPDATED: January 3, 2010
PUBLISHED: January 3, 2010

The day I took control of my income was the day I quit my job. Of course, my timing was perfect, as my husband had just gotten laid off the week before. Two missing incomes, one mortgage and a lot of bills. But it pushed us to talk seriously about our potential to make it on our own, to build our own business and open the doors to even more success.

We both knew it was a huge risk and put plans B, C and D into place, but we also both knew that our happiness with our careers would determine much of the happiness of our lives. I realized that I needed to take a big risk to find the success I was looking for.

So much of success and wealth is about not only risktaking, but also planning and putting one very important person in charge: you. If you’re not taking classes, stretching your mind and possibilities, keeping up with social networking and blogs in your industry, making yourself better and worth more to not only your employer, but to your own future, you’re missing out on what could be your income and what could be your wealth.

Granted, if you’ve been laid off in a dying industry (as my husband and I had been), you may feel very little control. But these are the times to shake things up and decide if you’re going to remain within that industry and possibly accept a much smaller way of life and paycheck, or if you’re going to take time to shift, adapt and open up possibilities that lead you toward the success you crave.

When and if you go out on your own:

Make sure to protect yourself and manage your money well by incorporating and keeping your personal and business finances separate. That means putting some pros on your team: a great lawyer, a tax specialist, and, when the big bucks roll in, a trusted and well-screened certified financial planner or advisor.

Spend a little on building an attractive and interactive Web site, a vital ingredient in success these days. To start, pool together Web sites that have the look and user-friendliness you’d want on your own. Ask around for referrals for a Web pro, or click through your favorite sites and contact those designers.

Don’t be afraid of self-promotion. Look up old contacts and let them know what your plans are, and network not only with the people you know, but also through everything from your local parenting message boards to Facebook to flyers at community hot spots.

If you’re on the fast track at the office or looking to jump on, always think like a freelancer. Never get comfortable or assume that you’re completely aware of what’s going on in the corner office. Keep those classes going and diversify your skills. Become a member of an affinity group to build up your roster of contacts and meet others who share the same goals. Search out mentors; after all, it’s rare for a mentor to choose you. It can be as easy as a frank discussion of your goals and a simple question: Will you mentor me?

And make sure to have lunch or coffee with someone new nearly every day. Part of my success going out on my own was the relationships that I had formed in a corporate environment. Sustain them, and they will help sustain you.

In the end, no matter how much money is coming in, true wealth comes along only when you make the right decisions with your money. One schoolteacher who called into my show and made $65,000 a year had four times as much money in the bank as a banker of the same age who made four times as much money in one year. Getting the income you want is one thing; transforming that income into wealth is another. Take control of your money; take control of your life.

Carmen Wong Ulrich is a broadcast journalist and personal finance expert at CNBC, where she hosts On the Money. She is the author of the best-selling Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money—A How-To Guide.