Retiring Wealthy On An Average Salary: The Story Of The Charitable Cook And Contractor

I’ve had a continuing series on this site over the past couple of years that I like to call “Retiring Wealthy On An Average Salary”.  It looks at the inspiring stories of men and women who made what might be called average salaries during their working years, but in the end retired wealthy, with plenty of money to spend and give.  How did they do it? By being good with their money, spending lower than their means and saving regularly while they still made an income. I’ve also found that to a fault most of them were very generous.  You almost wouldn’t think that would make sense, but it seems to be true.

Today I found another story, that once again speaks to just how powerful saving your money and being conscientious about your spending can be.  It can lead to a big nest egg that in the end can help a lot of people.

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The Story Of The Charitable Cook And Contractor

Elinor Sauerwein didn’t seem like someone who had money according to a lot of folks that knew her.  In fact, a lot of people thought that she was poor because she had few outward signs of wealth – choosing instead to live frugally and save as much as she could to be able to leave a large amount of money to the Salvation Army.  In the end she left them almost 2 million dollars.

She was taught by her mother to never waste a thing. She never purchased a dryer, hanging her laundry on a clothesline in the backyard. She painted her home when it needed a touch-up and mowed her lawn until her early 90s. She refused to go to restaurants, the movies or pay for cable TV.

It could be said she took frugality to a whole new level.

Needless to say, it was a shock when a check for $1,731,533.91 from the estate of Elinor Sauerwein was presented to a California branch of the Salvation Army last Christmas Eve.

“It was a surprise and a blessing,” Capt. Michael Paugh of the Salvation Army in Modesto told ABC News.

Paugh was getting ready to head home for the holidays when he got a call from John Bullock, Sauerwein’s longtime friend and financial adviser, who had power of attorney over her affairs. Bullock was on his way over to present the freshly printed check to the charity.

“She said every dollar I save is another dollar that could go to the Salvation Army. Her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army,” Bullock told ABC News. “She did an excellent job at it.”

She was able to save a large amount of money over the years through some pretty extreme frugality by some accounts.  I’m not sure most of us would be able to duplicate her level of frugality, but it’s still an object lesson on how someone with a smaller salary can amass a fortune.

By all accounts, the scrimping started early. In the late 1930s, after she’d graduated from college, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Crookston, Neb., traveling to her job on horseback. When she arrived, she’d light a fire to warm the room for the schoolchildren, teach, clean the room and hop back on her horse for the ride home.

She soon met her husband, Harold, and they married in 1945 and moved to California, settling in Modesto, where Sauerwein cooked for ranch hands on the ranch where her husband landed a job. She later worked at LM Morris business machines, according to the Modesto Bee.

Harold Sauerwein became a contractor and built their two-bedroom home with his own hands, said Bullock. Harold, said Bullock, was just as conservative as his wife when it came to spending money. When Harold Sauerwein died in 1994, Bullock promised him he would “look after Elinor.”

When Elinor Sauerwein died on Oct. 30, 2010, Bullock started compiling her funds for the big donation that she’d planned for “years and years.”  By December 2011, everything was in order. The only restriction on the money was that the Salvation Army had to use it in the Modesto community. This posed no problem, said Paugh, and the charity was happy to comply.

“The money will stay in the community. The neat thing is we stick it in an endowment, and her gift will be helping people 50 years from now, even 70 years from now,” Paugh told ABC News.

“Her gift will keep on giving for years to come.”

While we may not be able to duplicate her extreme frugality, I think Elinor had a positive goal in mind and a reason for doing what she did. She wanted to make a positive impact for others and improve others lives by denying herself a few pleasures.

Does this story of living on an average salary and retiring wealthy help you realize just how powerful frugality can be?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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I’m a thirty-something Christian Midwestern father of one son, and have been happily married for 9 years to my beautiful wife. I love playing tennis, shooting hoops, or taking part in the occasional flag football game. Of course, I love writing and financial topics as well, and that's how this site came into being! Check me out on Google +!

Last Edited: 5th March 2012


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  1. says

    I love reading stories like this. These people are both an inspiration to me and a cautionary tale. I find them inspiring for their sheer discipline and ability to amass their nest egg but at the same time, I try to also use them as an example of what happens when we don’t use moderation in our saving and investing. We are saving aggressively but we continuously keep an eye on what we save and spend to ensure we are also enjoying our lives today. Finding the balance is the hard part of personal finance!

    • says

      I agree, I probably would have balanced the saving and frugality with a bit more of the living for today. Maybe a vacation here or there, and eating out slightly more. At least she did it all in the name of a good cause. :)

  2. says

    You definitely need to strike a balance between being frugal and enjoying life. Who knows – maybe she got more enjoyment out of knowing how much she’d be able to give to the Salvation Army!
    For us – we couldn’t give up our annual vacation or cable TV or occasional restaurant meal. It’s just not worth it. If I were to die tomorrow…. I want to have no regrets.

  3. says

    Wow! That was very generous of her. I only hope that she had fun in life and maybe she did even being too frugal as she was.

    I agree with Julie. There is a definite need for a balance. We don’t go out to restaurants all the time like we used to, but we still do at least once a month (we used 3-4 times a week).

    We believe in being frugal, but in enjoying life also. Sometimes that requires us spending some money and that’s ok :)

  4. says

    What a powerful story! I am surprised that “hanging laundry in the backyard” and “painting her own home” are considered extreme frugal measures. Doing things yourself is one of the best ways to keep more of your money in your pocket.

  5. Sandra says

    I agree with you, Julie. I am VERY cheap! I do try to eat out once a month or so, and occasionally I treat myself to breakfast from McDonalds or pick up a single serving of chili from Wendy’s.

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