"You gotta have money to make money." It's one of those pearls of wisdom we've heard for eons and is borne out by experience. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Rarely do we see someone bootstrapping themselves from the ravages of poverty to the highest echelons of high society.

Yet despite all we've heard and all the evidence we've seen, such truisms simply aren't true.

You don't need a million dollars to make a million more. In fact, you don't need hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Actually, all you need is $135. And time.

Time is of the essence
Time is the key ingredient here. With enough time you can turn just about any amount of money into $1 million. But there's not always as much time as we'd like, particularly if you've done what I did and put off investing until later in life. I don't have a million dollars yet, but I still have time. And, really, so do you.

My first investment at age 36 was $1,000 in International Paper (NYSE:IP). It was all the money I had, and I belatedly realized that if I had any hope of achieving a comfortable retirement, I'd better start investing -- and soon. Time was running out.

The longer you wait to invest, the more you need to contribute. If you start investing with just $1,000 at 18 and continue until you're 65, you need to add about $55 a month earning historic market rates of return to reach $1 million by the time you retire. Do like I did and wait till you're 36 to begin, and that monthly addition jumps to more than $440.

A tale of two investors
Think of it this way. At 18, Investor Jane puts $1,000 to work right away investing it in an index fund. She adds $100 a month for the next 10 years before stopping and never adds another dime. Her money, though, stays in the account and continues earning the historical average of 10.5% per year.

Investor Joe, also 18, holds onto his $1,000, but on the day Jane stops investing, that's when he begins. He also contributes $100 a month, except he does so for the next 37 years -- until he turns 65. Wanna guess who's better off at the end?

Jane, who put a total $13,000 into her account before stopping, has amassed more than $1.15 million. Joe, who contributed more than $44,000, has less than half that amount. How can that be? Time! By starting early your money begins to work for you sooner and grows faster.

Better late than never
OK, you're convinced that starting early and investing regularly is good advice -- for your kids! Yet you didn't have the foresight to start early. Here it is late in the game now and you've got nothing saved. How are you going to get that million dollars without subsisting on cat food for the next few decades?

Index funds -- like Vanguard's 500 Index Fund (VFINX) and Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX) -- are the best places to start. Through recessions, depressions, world wars, gout, and obesity, the market index has resolutely risen at a 10.5% average annual rate. The top five holdings of the Total Stock Market Index are as follows:


% of Net Assets

YTD Returns

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)



General Electric (NYSE:GE)



Citigroup (NYSE:C)






Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)



Data courtesy of Morningstar.com

By buying the index, you're buying the biggest and best of the market. You smooth out a lot of the noise and volatility that can wrack your portfolio -- and your stomach.

A dollar and a dream
And that's where the $135 and your future million dollar portfolio come in. If you're in your mid-30s like I was with only $1,000 to start, you only need to add $135 a month and tweak those average market returns to earn just 15% a year to have a million-dollar portfolio when you retire.

You can tap into that eight-decade history of growth with an index, then begin a search for the very best individual companies or mutual funds that can juice the returns needed to secure your million-dollar nest egg.

Foolish final thoughts
I've long since sold my International Paper stock, but it was the start of an investing passion that lasts till today. By starting early enough, each of us can ensure that even if that's where we're starting, we can work towards getting ourselves out. "A dollar and a dream" may be a lottery agent's marketing claim to fame, but we've got better odds to stack in your favor.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial interest in any stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.