At a time when so many Americans are in such a desperate financial situation from the COVID-19 outbreak, it's hard to focus on wealth-building. But it's also important to acknowledge that the pandemic has changed what it means to be wealthy.

Prior to COVID-19, Americans said it took a net worth of $2.6 million to be wealthy, according to a Charles Schwab survey. But Americans have since lowered their expectations in light of the pandemic, and now, they say it takes $2 million to reach that same status.

Of course, accumulating that amount of money in your lifetime might seem next to impossible, especially if your circumstances aren't exactly rosy right now. But actually, now's a good time to map out some financial goals because if anything, that will give you something to look forward to. And here's another thing that might change your outlook for the better: Amassing $2 million may actually be more doable than you'd think.

Pile of hundred-dollar bills

Image source: Getty Images.

How to get to $2 million

To be clear, you're probably not going to wind up $2 million richer in the span of a couple of years (unless, you know, you invent the next big thing or become an overnight internet sensation). But what you can do is save consistently and invest wisely so that over time, you manage to accumulate a very respectable amount of money.

Let's be optimistic and say you can start saving a lot more money than you're able to save today once the pandemic is over. Let's also assume that you're willing to invest your savings in the stock market. As long as you have an emergency fund with enough cash to cover three to six months of essential living expenses, you should feel comfortable going heavy on stocks, especially if you're fairly young. The stock market's average return, historically speaking, is around 9%, so let's play it a little safer and assume that your investments manage to generate an average yearly 7% return. Here's the amount of wealth you might accrue over the next 40 years based on these assumptions:

Monthly Savings

Approximate Balance After 40 Years (Assumes a 7% Average Annual Return)

$800

$1.9 million

$1,000

$2.4 million

$1,200

$2.9 million

$1,400

$3.4 million

Calculations by author.

Of course, this is just a single illustration, and one that also assumes you're earning a healthy salary. Not everyone will be in a position post-pandemic to save at the levels above. Many people won't get close, at least not for a while. But again, we're taking an optimistic view here.

Now, another thing we should talk about is where to house your long-term savings. If you have access to a 401(k) through your job, that's a good bet, as that will allow you to save in a tax-advantaged fashion. (An IRA is a good choice as well, though with an IRA, you're limited to $6,000 in annual contributions if you're under 50, or $7,000 if you're 50 or older). That said, with a 401(k), you won't be able to access your money until you're at least 59 1/2. Withdraw funds earlier, and you could face costly penalties.

As such, you may want to split your savings between a retirement plan and a traditional brokerage account. The latter won't offer tax benefits, but it will allow you to access your money as you please without having to worry about penalties.

Is $2 million within reach for you?

Amassing $2 million is doable if your earnings are strong, you're willing to be disciplined, and you invest efficiently. But not everyone will manage to get to the $2 million mark, and that's also OK.

In fact, just because one survey points to $2 million as the definition of wealthy doesn't mean you should beat yourself up if the best you ever do is $1 million, or even less. There's no single way to determine what wealthy means, so you might decide that instead of fixating on a single number, you'll instead focus on saving enough to meet your goals, live the lifestyle you want, and avoid financial stress when unplanned bills come up. And if you manage to reach that point on well less than $2 million, all the more power to you.