Last year, Sylvia Bloom left $6.24 million in her will to the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a non-profit that provides social services, arts programs and health care services. Sylvia’s generous legacy donation was extraordinary in more ways than one. Not only was it the single largest gift from any individual in the 125-year history of the organization, but it was left by a legal secretary from Brooklyn who gave no clues—not even to her closest friends and family—about her wealth.
Over the last decade or so, a new type of philanthropist hero has emerged: the secret millionaire. They are ordinary people who build extraordinary wealth, often funding non-profits with enormous gifts.
Secret millionaires fit few if any of the cultural stereotypes of “the wealthy.” They are secretaries, teachers, janitors and librarians. They don’t talk about money and they build their wealth in private. They are everyday, unassuming people with exceptional focus and discipline. Secret millionaires live humble lives and leave behind big gifts.
The frugal, elderly neighbor that you help with an errand might be a secret millionaire—you just never know.
Who are these secret millionaires, exactly, and what can we learn from them? Let’s take a deeper look at Sylvia Bloom and others who built unexpected fortunes in private.
The legal secretary who always took public transportation.
Bloom worked for 67 years as a legal secretary for a firm in Manhattan, during which time she amassed a fortune of over $9 million. She out-lived her husband, who was a fireman and later a schoolteacher, by a couple of decades.
Although she clearly could afford taxis, Sylvia always took subways and busses. On 9/11, when the World Trade Center was attacked not far from her firm’s office, Sylvia took refuge in a nearby building. Later, she walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and took a city bus home.
In her mid-nineties, just before she retired, a co-worker saw Sylvia trudging out of the subway in the middle of a fierce snowstorm on her way to work. He asked what she was doing there, to which she replied, “Why, where should I be?”
Sylvia only retired in her final year of life, surrendering her routine as a secretary to sharpen up her bridge game.
How did she amass her fortune? All throughout her years as a secretary, she saved and invested. Sylvia may or may not have known much about investments, but she had a clever system. In those days, secretaries acted as personal assistants who carried out all kinds of tasks. One of the tasks given to her was that of placing investments for the lawyers. When her boss instructed her to purchase a certain stock for his personal account, she would often buy fewer shares of the same stock for her own account, as her secretary’s wage allowed.
The janitor who built an $8 million dollar fortune.
Like Sylvia Bloom, no one suspected that Ronald Read was a multi-millionaire. First in his family to graduate from high school, Read enlisted in the Army and served in World War II. After the war, Ronald worded as a gas station attendant and married a woman with two children. Later, he was employed as a janitor at JCPenney.
Ronald lived simply. He drove an old Toyota Yaris and was known to park as far away as necessary to avoid paying a meter. He used safety pins to “mend” an old coat. He cut his own firewood for the wood stove in his Battleboro, Vermont home into his 90’s. After retirement, Ronald’s daily “splurge” was breakfast out, and it was always coffee with an English muffin topped with peanut butter.
How did he create his legacy? He invested in blue chip stocks such as Proctor & Gamble, Wells Fargo, Colgate-Palmolive, American Express and Johnson & Johnson. Not all of his picks were winners (he lost big on Lehman Brothers), but enough were.
Ronald read The Wall Street Journal every morning and Barron’s every week. He also read many books from the local library—surely the reason he left part of his wealth to the library. (The bulk of his legacy went to the local hospital, where he often enjoyed his breakfast in the cafeteria.)
Ronald stayed away from tech stocks and anything he didn’t know or understand. He favored stocks that paid dividends, reinvested the dividends, and held most stocks for the long-term. Reported The Wall Street Journal in 2015, “Mr. Read owned at least 95 stocks at the time of his death, many of which he had held for years, if not decades.”
Not one to splurge on a newfangled personal computer, Read did it the old-fashioned way. After he passed, the executor of his estate found a five-inch stack of stock certificates in Read’s safe deposit box.
The multi-millionaire who lived in a one-bedroom house.
Lake Forest is one of America’s richest towns, filled with grand estates and luxury cars. But in the middle of town lived Grace Groner in a simple one-bedroom home. Having lived through the Great Depression, Grace was no spendthrift. She shopped at rummage sales and preferred to walk rather than buy a car.
Orphaned at age 12, Grace and her sister were then raised by a nice couple who also paid for their schooling at Lake Forest College northern Illinois. She never forgot that generosity.
At age 25, Grace bought stock in Abbott Laboratories, where she worked as a secretary for 43 years. While investing only in the company you work for is risky strategy (just ask Enron employees), Abbott Laboratories became a biotech leader and its stock steadily climbed. She never sold the stock and always reinvested the dividends.
Grace was frugal, but no miser. Her own needs were simple, but she enjoyed traveling in her retirement and gave generous gifts to those in need—sometimes anonymously.
Grace lived to be 100 years old. And when she passed in 2010, she left her alma mater $7.2 million dollars to fund educations for children whose dreams were bigger than their means. In doing so, Grace fulfilled her own lifelong dream of helping the less fortunate, just as a kind family had helped her.
The Secret Millionaire Club is growing!
Perhaps you have heard about these ordinary people who built extraordinary wealth:
Doris Schwartz was a former flight attendant and teacher who was frugal almost to a fault, seemingly surviving on peanut butter and ice cream. But when Schwartz died at 93 in 2013, she left $3.4 million to a local community foundation to help teachers and students, according to the York Daily Record. While travelling as a flight attendant, she had made diverse investments around the world.
Robert Morin worked for 50 years as a librarian at the University of New Hampshire, also his alma mater. When he died in 2015, he left the school a sum of $4 million. A single man who lived simply and drove a ’92 Plymouth, few people knew Morin was wealthy. He put most of his earnings into bank accounts, investments, and several life insurance policies which benefited the University, his financial advisor told The Boston Globe. The majority of the funds were earmarked for the development of a new, expanded career center that would serve both students and alumni. The library and a new football stadium also benefited.
Eugenia Dodson was a hairdresser who left the stunning sum of $35.6 million to the University of Miami for medical research in 2005. Living to nearly 101, Eugenia nurtured the modest legacy her husband left to her 57 years earlier through investments. He had held a stake in a limestone quarry, which went to her after his death. While she could have afforded a lavish lifestyle, she instead lived in a small condo and refused in-home care until she was nearly 100.
“She denied herself the trappings of wealth. She was dead-set on doing good for humankind,” said the co-trustee of her estate. “She had a big heart.”
Margaret Southern was a retired teacher of special-needs children in Greenville, South Carolina who left an astonishing gift of $8.4 million dollars to local charities to benefit children and animals. Similar to Dodson, Southern grew a modest legacy left to her by her husband—an actuary who she outlived by 29 years—into a much larger gift.
Southern managed most of her own investments until age 80. After that, she asked a trusted wealth manager to handle it for her. There was, however, a catch: He had to promise to take care of Margaret’s dachshund, Molly, should something happen to her. (Margaret lived many more years to age 94—outliving her dear pet.)
5 Things Secret Millionaires have in common.
- They live simply.
While some are more frugal and others are known as generous, none care to “keep up with the Joneses.” Many have lived through the depression or come from immigrant families who have experienced economic challenges. All are disinterested in a lifestyle of consumerism. Secret millionaires tend to lack what we might think of as outward signs of wealth such as new cars, big homes, or the latest fashions and technology.
- They are disciplined savers and investors.
Secret millionaires save consistently over time and always live within their means. Many are completely self-made, starting from scratch. Other benefitted from a smaller legacy gift which they invested with discipline, patience, and restraint. They are proof of the saying, “slow and steady wins the race!”
- They make long-term investments.
Secret millionaires employ long-term strategies and invest for several decades. Most started saving and investing early—such as in their 20’s. Most live into their 90’s or beyond, giving investments many years to grow.
Some employ buy-and-hold strategies with primarily “blue chip” stocks. Others hold more diversified portfolios, including life insurance. They rarely concern themselves with chasing trends, applying leverage, using option strategies or timing the market.
- They stay active.
Surely one of the secrets of living long is staying active. The millionaires we profiled kept both physically and mentally active into their 90’s.
- They prefer privacy.
Secret millionaires are often humble, private people. Even when passionate about the causes or institutions they donate to, they typically do not desire to receive acknowledgements in their lifetimes for the gifts they plan to make. It is common to see stories of representatives from charities saying, “This donation is amazing… we never even met this person!”
It’s not too late to create a legacy that matters!
How can you adopt a secret millionaire habit or two to build more wealth? Can you save more, spend less, or adopt proven long-term investment strategies?
Perhaps you don’t have 50 or 60 years left in your investment timeline. But even if you are retired, it’s not too late to leave meaningful gifts for the people and the causes you care about.
Whole life insurance allows you to create a legacy for loved ones and/or your favorite charity, church, or university with the stroke of a pen. And unlike universal life policies, whole life pays an ever-increasing death benefit—no matter how long you live.
Need a reference to a Prosperity Economics advisor who can help you with this type of policy? Contact us and we will get you the help you need.