Why do some people get rich while others struggle just to make ends meet? This question is asked again and again by economists, sociologists and, understandably, those who are on the struggling end of the spectrum. If your parents were like mine, they probably told you — pretty regularly — that life's not fair. And luck certainly has a role to play here (although I'm one of those glass-half-full people who believes that, to a great degree, you can make your own luck.) But a boatload of recent research that's been done on the subject of wealth inequality points to the fact that luck isn't the only factor or even the most important determinant of your prosperity. Lisa Keister, associate professor of sociology at Duke University and author of the book “Getting Rich” (Cambridge University Press, 2005), has spent a good deal of her time focusing on not just who gets rich in this country, but why. What she's found is that upbringing and the things that come with it (think religion, education, personality and social habits) have a huge effect on where you'll end up on the financial totem pole. Does that mean you're stuck where you are? Not necessarily. “It's tough to break out if you're born at the bottom,” Keister acknowledges. “But what I've found is that there are a huge number of people who do move up.” Here's how you can make that jump, and get your children off to the right start as well:Focus on education
There's no question about it: A good education is huge part of that background that shapes you financially. And although high school may have sufficed for previous generations, it's just not cutting it now. “People who finish college now do better in all sorts of measures,” explains Keister. “They do better in income, and by and far they do better in wealth ownership.” That makes sense for a lot of reasons. Although financial education has quite a way to go, many colleges do offer students classes and programs that will help them learn to manage their money. But more than that, college is a place to build up your social contacts, a network that can give you a huge boost when it comes time to build a career. (And note: It's never too late to go back to school. You won't be alone — the National Center for Education Statistics predicts a 15 percent increase in the number of college enrollments by students 25 and over by the year 2014. Just the other day, an e-mail landed in my inbox from a 58-year-old recent grad. Kudos to her!)Prioritize
If you want to build up your assets, you can't open your wallet for every little thing you — or your kids — want. “A lot of people have one asset, and that's their house. They mortgage it to buy consumer goods, and that's just foolish. If you can't afford to pay cash for your purchases, it doesn't make sense to buy them,” says Keister. A huge part of money management is making choices, and learning to accept the fact that you can't have everything you want. If your goal is to be rich, remind yourself of that every time you're in the mall or tempted by a new restaurant. You'll fall into a pattern that'll allow you to build wealth and keep it. In the process, you'll also teach your children a couple of important lessons, including how to set goals, make smart choices and that money isn't a renewable resource.Save
The foolproof way to achieve wealth is to save early and often. “I really thought I was going to find some super secret, but the truth is that the people who do well save their money every month,” Keister explains. It's a habit they most likely picked up from their parents. If you read this space enough, you know I'm a fan of putting the whole saving process on autopilot. If you have contributions to your 401(k), IRA or other savings plan pulled out each and every month, you won't have to think about it. Make it even easier on yourself by plotting out your budget after you've subtracted money for savings, not before. You won't miss what was never there. Pass on the lessonKids learn by example, and they'll absorb your habits pretty quickly. Make this a positive thing by showing them how important it is to live within your means and make regular savings contributions. Unfortunately, as convenient as it is, modern technology tends to get in the way a bit here. Back when checks and cash were the primary means of making a purchase, your children could see the money changing hands. Now, with debit and credit cards, ATM machines, direct deposit and online banking, money just doesn't seem as tangible. You have to make an extra effort to explain the whole process, from paycheck to purchase. And don't be afraid to throw in a little information about your 401(k) plan as they get older, because Keister says it may have an effect on their future in the market.
“We can't help but look at what our parents did, and if they had a certain kind of investment strategy, we're more likely to use that same investment strategy.” All the more reason to make it a good one.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .