This post is another installment in our recurring series, “Retiring Wealthy On An Average Salary“. To see the other installments, please click on the link in the navigation bar above. The idea behind the series is to highlight the stories of average folks who made good decisions in order to be able to retire wealthy – even though they made an average salary during their working years. The hope is that it will help to inspire the rest of us as we continue on our own journeys of building wealth.
Today I want to highlight the story of one woman, who flew under the radar much of her life, only to give away millions of dollars when she passed away. I'm going to call this one “The Story Of The Saving Secretary”.
The Story Of The Saving Secretary
Grace Groner was a simple woman who lived a frugal lifestyle. She never owned a car, and shopped at rummage sales. She worked for many years as a secretary, and only after she passed away did people realize that she was a multi-millionaire.
She lived in a tiny one-bedroom cottage in Lake Forest, Ill.She bought her clothes at rummage sales, didn’t own a car and worked most of her life as a secretary for a pharmaceutical company.
Yet after her death at age 100, Grace Groner left Lake Forest College a gift of $7 million to be used for scholarships. The money came from three shares of stock she bought–and held on to–in 1935.
“She did not have the (material) needs that other people have,” William Marlatt, her attorney and longtime friend told the Chicago Tribune. “She could have lived in any house in Lake Forest but she chose not to.…She enjoyed other people, and every friend she had was a friend for who she was. They weren’t friends for what she had.”
Ms. Groner seemed to have plenty of friends, but they were close friends because of who she was and not because of what she had. Many of them didn't even know how much she had. Her lifestyle didn't really give any clues to the fact that she was wealthy.
While Ms. Groner did end up retiring wealthy, how she did so may not be something we would necessarily want to emulate. In some respects she ended up being very lucky.
Ms. Groner’s story might seem like a classic Millionaire Next Door fairy tale–the thrifty, conservative, hard-working saver who hoards pennies over a lifetime to accumulate vast wealth. And that is certainly part of the story. Aside from occasional trips, Ms. Groner was rigorously frugal due to her Depression-era upbringing. (Not having a husband or children may have also helped her savings rate.)
Yet the way Ms. Groner garnered her wealth was, in fact, more like one big, lucky gamble than a lifetime of scrimping and saving.Ms. Groner worked for 43 years as a secretary for Abbott Laboratories. In 1935, she bought three specially issued shares of Abbott for $180. She never sold a share, even after repeated stock splits. She also kept reinvesting the dividends. By the time of her death, she owned more than 100,000 shares valued at about $7 million.
As David Roeder of the Chicago Sun-Times points out: “It is a grave error to put your nest egg behind a single company, and it is worse when the company is your employer. Groner had a winner, but others have done this with Enron, General Motors or Bear Stearns.”The all-in-one basket strategy was, of course, a grave error for employees of Enron and others. And financial advisers love to herald diversification, which didn’t turn out so well for many investors during the financial crisis.
But Ms. Groner’s story shows that savings alone probably doesn’t get you to $7 million. It seems that loading up on a one single investment and getting tremendously lucky over a long period of time can get you there. But don’t count on it.
So basically she became so wealthy because she saved religiously, but especially because she bought 3 specially issued shares at $60 a piece back in 1935. She never sold the shares, and it doesn't sound like she diversified at all. In the end she was very fortunate that the company she worked for didn't have problems, because if it had she may have ended up losing her entire fortune.
While I wouldn't suggest others try to get wealthy in the way that Ms. Groner did, I still think her story bears out the importance of valuing relationships over money, of not buying things you don't need, saving and investing (although her specific strategy I wouldn't recommend).
What do you think about her story? What keys do you pull out of this story? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.