It is widely proclaimed that in order to make money, you must first have money, but evidence shows that's not actually the case.

PNC (NYSE:PNC) recently released its Wealth and Values Survey, in which it solicited the opinions of almost 1,000 high-net-worth individuals on what they believed were the biggest contributing factors to their financial success and well-being. And their answers may surprise you.

By Brett Levin Photography

Source: Brett Levin Photography via Flickr.

The actions of the rich and famous
Often it is thought that wealthy individuals simply come from money. Huffington Post even ran a story in October titled "The American Dream Might As Well Be Dead: Here's Proof" that cited a recent survey where only 43% of respondents felt "that achieving the American Dream is possible in this economy."

Just last week, a report funded by the National Science Foundation done by economists at Harvard and UC-Berkley noted that while the chance of moving up the proverbial income ladder has remained relatively stable over the last few decades, it is still "lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries," especially in some parts of the country like the South and the Rustbelt.

When the wealthy individuals were asked what "actions most contributed to personal financial success," only 12% cited "receiving an inheritance," and only 3% noted "marrying someone with money."

In fact, it wasn't until the fourth action that money earned is even cited, as only 26% of respondents noted that "earning a lot of money," was a contributing factor to their financial success. Instead of citing those things that were beyond their control like family circumstances, the wealthy individuals noted the biggest contributing factors were "saving early and regularly," cited by 56% of respondents, 38% felt "controlling spending" was key, and "38%" highlighted "making smart investment choices."

By Images

Source: Images of Money on Flickr.

What we can learn
It would be easy to claim these "high-net-worth individuals" made their responses disingenuously, but that misses a critical point and masks the reality.

Consider an example of a 25-year-old who made $38,750 and received a 3% raise each year, working until they were 72. Let's then say they save 5% of their income each year, and then pledge to save just 0.1% more each year. So when they're 30, they'll be saving 5.5% and by the time their 72nd birthday comes, they'll be saving 9.7%. Lastly, let's assume they're able to earn 7.5% on average from the stock market over their lifetime.

How much they'll have after 72 years turns out to be a rather stunning $1.7 million dollars:

Lifetime Savings | Infographics.

As shown in the chart above, if the savings rate starts at 10% instead of 5% at age 25, then the lifetime savings jumps all the way to $3 million. Even if the individual doesn't start saving until age 30 at a 5% rate, lifetime savings still stands at $1.3 million.

The Foolish bottom line
Of those individuals surveyed earlier, 65% noted "hard work" was the biggest influence on their personal financial success, and three out of every four individuals thought their financial success was "much better," or "better" than where they thought it would be. These answers show the American Dream is indeed still accessible.

Becoming a millionaire is absolutely a challenging lifetime endeavor and is by no means easy; however, as noted by the respondents of the survey and the example above, with hard work, patience, and intelligent spending and savings habits, it is a reality that can be had by all.

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Fool contributor Patrick Morris has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of PNC Financial Services. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.