The safest way to get what you want is to deserve what you want. That's according to Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), who recently made that statement at a USC commencement address.

Buffett, meanwhile, has offered similar advice. Speaking to students at Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska in 2000, he said: "Behave like the people you admire, and life will change for you. You can get rid of the negative qualities you see in yourself."

Those are powerful words. We're probably best off aspiring to be happy, healthy, and well-loved, but let's face it -- most of us would like to be wealthy, too. So what should we be doing to emulate the rich?

What the wealthy do
At, Liz Pulliam Weston recently listed some traits of the wealthy.

  • They're more generous toward charities. Households with half a million dollars or more in investment-ready assets donated an average of 6% of their income in 2004, versus 2% for the overall population. (The poor are more generous than average, too, with households earning less than $25,000 donating a quite significant 4%.)

  • They're more likely to own businesses. This may be a bit of a circular point, though, because it may be these businesses that made the households rich in the first place. Still, the point can be made that if you want to get rich, you might have more control over your earnings by working for yourself. (A lot of small businesses fail, though, so this is no surefire strategy.)

  • They borrow money sensibly. You may not think of your credit card debt as reflecting your borrowing habits, but it does. Pulliam notes: "The richest 10% of Americans are half as likely to have credit card debts (22.4% vs. 44.4% overall), although the median balances for those who carry balances are about the same for both groups (around $2,000)." The debt you'll find much more often among the rich than the poor is mortgage debt -- sometimes on two or more properties. Nearly 100% of the wealthy are homeowners, versus just two-thirds of the general population. Considering that mortgage interest rates are still near historic lows, while credit card interest rates have been going through the roof -- well above 25% for many people -- it's easy to see which kind of debt is more defensible.

  • They're sensible about cars, too. I have to quibble here, though. Pulliam explains that according to a Federal Reserve Board survey, "The median value of all vehicles owned by the wealthiest 10% of households was $25,400, compared to $11,800 for households overall. But vehicles represented just 2.4% of the wealthiest households' median net worth, compared with 8.8% of net worth overall." This is what I'd expect, since having much more in net assets means that your vehicle values are more likely to represent a smaller chunk of your net worth. If you don't own much, your car is going to be, de facto, a big percentage of what you own.

The biggest factor?
The wealth of the wealthy seems to be parked mostly in stocks and bonds, and not in real estate or other options. Having a lot of your money in stocks makes sense to me, because over long periods, the U.S. stock market has been a hard investment to beat.

As you emulate the rich, you can very easily invest in stocks -- via a broad-market index fund, such as one based on the S&P 500. An index ETF such as the SPDR Trust (AMEX:SPY) will put you in companies of various types and sizes, from behemoth General Electric (NYSE:GE) to smaller up-and-comers such as Big Lots (NYSE:BIG) and Lexmark (NYSE:LXK). The overall stock market's average annual rate of return over many decades has been 10%.

If you want to beat that performance without spending hours and hours studying stocks, look into mutual funds. The vast majority don't perform as well as a simple index fund, but there are some outstanding exceptions with strong track records and stellar prospects. I invite you to test-drive (for free, with no obligation) our Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter. It offers up some top-notch low-fee funds each month, and I've found a bunch of great funds there myself.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any one of our investing services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.