Do you want to be rich? Of course you do. Even if you're not a greedy or materialistic person, there is always room for more wealth in your life -- even if you want to give that wealth away to the needy or to worthy causes. The real trick, though, is to move from wanting to be rich to acting like you want to be rich -- and then, with a little good fortune, to actually being rich.

The great thing about this country is that if you really want something, you can generally achieve it. Same goes for wealth. There are plenty of avenues to material success if you have the requisite talents, temperament, and/or work ethic. But not all of us are cut out to become the next Michael Dell, and very few of us have the talents to be the next Michael Jordan or Gene Simmons. What's left to us, then, is to build our wealth through a firm appreciation of value and what it means to building and maintaining wealth.

The habits of highly wealthy people
If you want to be rich, it can't hurt to do a bit of studying about those who've successfully gone before you. I don't pretend to have all the answers, nor do I believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach that's sure to work. But I do believe there are a few common traits among the likes of Astor, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Buffett, and Gates.

It seems as though many who become wealthy are -- in no particular order -- cost-conscious (i.e. "cheap"), patient, diligent, comfortable sticking to what they know works, and ruthless with respect to their personal standards.

Wealth starts cheap ...
There's a good reason why many wealthy folks could credibly be described as "cheap" in their early years. It's simple math, really -- the less you spend, the more money you have left to put to work for yourself.

Building wealth through investments requires a similar focus on costs. It's easy to lose a fair chunk of your investing capital simply by paying too much for commissions. It's even easier to lose more by overtrading. Trading is exciting, but every time you click on the "buy" or "sell" button or call in a trade to your broker, you're taking money out of your pocket.

Likewise, you can eat away at your capital base by overtrading and paying away your capital in the form of capital gains taxes. Every time you sell a winner that you've owned for less than a year, you surrender a chunk of that accumulation to short-term capital gains taxes. If you sit tight for a year, the damage is more modest, since the long-term capital gains rate becomes more favorable. The differences may not seem like much, but believe me when I say that they add up over time.

Watching other costs is also important. There is no shortage of vendors out there looking to sell investors all manner of can't-fail investment tools and strategies. A few of these are useful, but most are just expensive wastes of money. All you really need to succeed in the market is a library card, a basic high school education, and a willingness to work hard. A basic home computer and an online service subscription make things dramatically easier, and most people already have those things anyway.

... and so does good stock-picking
Being cheap should also extend to your stock-picking philosophy. If there's no need to overspend on commissions or investing gewgaws, there's absolutely no reason to overspend on the stocks themselves. Many a great investor has made a fine career by buying into situations where a dollar's worth of merchandise was selling for $0.85. Now, I'll be the first to admit that finding these opportunities takes a little bit of work, but they're almost always out there.

Furthermore, the market almost always overprices hope and potential. Will SuntechPower (NYSE:STP) dominate the market for solar cells? Do you want to pay 13 times next year'ssales to find out? How about Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI)? Are you willing to risk your hard-earned money on the idea that they'll best some of the world's greatest technology companies in the race for nanotechnology leadership?

In the meantime, you have well-established companies like Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Home Depot (NYSE:HD), and AIG (NYSE:AIG) all trading at pretty interesting prices. Pfizer is just starting the road to recovery, AIG is already coming back strong from scandals that never really hurt its long-term prospects, and Home Depot is just beginning to tap into a new growth concept (professional/contractor supply).

Invest with an eye toward safety
I'm not sure whether he actually said it, but Warren Buffett reportedly declined to get involved with the RJR buyout of Barbarians at the Gate fame by saying, "I'm too rich to buy a tobacco company." In other words, he felt he had more than enough wealth to avoid taking on the risks that would come from owning a tobacco company.

Investors would do well to follow this advice when they look at the subject of risk. I'm increasingly struck by how well you can do for yourself in the markets without taking on all that much risk. And if you're going to take on risk, make sure you're likely to be well-compensated for that risk. After all, sometimes a bigger risk does mean a bigger reward, but sometimes it just means a bigger risk.

I can offer you a real-life example. Earlier this year, shares of biotech stock AmylinPharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AMLN) got beaten down on a classic "buy the rumor, sell the news" reaction, even though the company had two drug approvals in the bag. You could have bought shares at $15 or less.

At the same time, you could have bought shares of medical technology company CABG Medical (NASDAQ:CABG) for about $4 or Pier 1 Imports for about $15. Today, Amylin trades in the low $40s, CABG trades around $1.25, and Pier 1 is around $9. Very different companies, of course, but all were risky bets with very unequal near-term payoffs.

How do you invest with an eye toward safety? Carefully consider which companies have true economic moats (in other words, defensible competitive advantages) and are trading within a margin of safety.

Referring to the previous example, Amylin had two patent-protected drugs set for commercial launch that were first-of-their-kind treatments for diabetes. For CABG, you were looking at a very early-stage company in a field littered with past failures and little in the way of fallback options. And Pier 1 was an already-troubled retailer that got even more troubled. Time will tell on all three stocks, but at least in the short term, you can say that Amylin's risk was attractively priced.

Value brings wealth
I believe that a keen focus on value builds wealth over time. But it's important to remember that value doesn't mean a certain type of stock, but rather a way of life and a philosophy of evaluating stocks.

There are values to be found in medical technology and retail, and there are dramatically overpriced stocks in pharmaceuticals, but as my prior example might suggest, the reverse is also true. Just because a stock is huge and trades at a discount to book value (General Motors, for instance), that doesn't make it a guaranteed value. Likewise, very un-Buffett-like stocks like SanDisk or Lam Research can be real values in their own way, rewarding investors who buy at the right time.

The key to becoming wealthy is to not only control your costs and limit your mistakes, but also to have a keen sense of what works and what constitutes a fair price. Our team members at the Motley Fool Inside Value newsletter spend much of their time pondering those very questions. Not only do they look for well-run companies with a firm grasp of what works, but they also bide their time and wait for those shares to reach a point where the valuation fits into that margin of safety. In other words, they look to maximize the risk/reward equation by finding as much of the latter as possible with as little of the former as needed.

If you'd like to judge their reasoning and track record for yourself, sign up for a free trial subscription today. If you don't like it, you can cancel it. If you do like it, you might find it to be a valuable and cost-effective tool to help you on your way toward building real wealth of your own.

This article was originally published on Dec. 23, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson owns shares of Amylin Pharmaceuticals but has no financial interest in any other stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares). Pfizer and Home Depot are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.