by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

The July 25 Tribune chronicled the plight of the Troms, who lost $175,000 to a neighbor’s scheme that promised to earn back their initial investment in 14 days, after which they “would then get $500,000 a month for 10 months, for a total return of $5 million.” You can certainly feel for the Troms, but I imagine most people who read the article were wondering: How could anyone think they can get rich that quick?

Well, it’s the age-old lure of easy money-a fairy tale that is constantly re-enforced in our society.

Television is almost a nonstop catalog of easy ways to get rich. Reality shows are all about “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” or who wants to work for a millionaire. “Extreme Makeover” shows will pick one lucky person or family and either alter their home, body or psyche for the better. Late-night commercials advertise videotapes and books on how to buy houses with no money down and then sell them for thousands or millions of dollars in profit. For a small fee, SMC Corp. will help you learn how to become financially independent by selling their bric-a-brac. It is just amazing that someone would be so nice as to share these secrets on how to make easy money.

These hypnotic messages have us believing we will all be millionaires soon and that someone will come “fix” our lives. While we are in this trance, we don’t question why real wages for working Americans have been declining for the past 30 years, or why affordable housing and health care is not available to some Americans.

Unfortunately, the government is a conspirator in promoting the idea that you can get something for nothing. I am not talking about running a state fee office, I’m referring to the Missouri State Lottery. I am still amazed that some newspapers report on lottery winners as though they had accomplished something meaningful. Why don’t they report on the millions of people who lost the money this one person wins? Why not report on the millions of people whose hopes and dreams were dashed when “their” numbers didn’t come up? Or were at least deferred until the next drawing.

But it is not just individuals who fall in love with the idea of easy money. The Tribune recently reported on the demise of Fera Technologies, a company whose new owner was under the delusion that there was lots of money to be made in repairing PCs. After investing tens of thousands of dollars in advertising and retail space, he apparently discovered what most technology professionals already knew: Repairing PCs is a market with small margins and finicky customers.

In my own unbridled enthusiasm for making money without having to work, I decided to start an online store in the late 1990s. My idea was I would spend a few hours each day processing orders and make lots of money. After six months, I had managed to sell one speakerphone to a guy in Canada. Unfortunately, the phone was lost in shipping, and I had to send back the customer’s money. I no longer have an online store.

Einstein was once asked what was the most powerful force in the universe, to which he replied, “compound interest.”

That law of finance and business always works, and we can all benefit from it. $175,000 invested in a retirement account would compound to more than $1 million in 20 years. No one can magically fix your life, but you can make little changes each week that will compound so that you reach your goals. Many PC repair businesses prosper by starting small and building a customer base that compounds over the years.

Aside from marrying into money or inheriting it, we all need to face the cold hard fact that there is no easy way to get rich.