Perhaps you have heard the story of Ronald Read. A lifelong resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, Read was a quiet man. He preferred flannel shirts and spent much of his career as an attendant at a local gas station. Yet, when he died in 2014, even his closest friends were surprised to learn that Read had accumulated a fortune of more than $8 million.
Stories like this seem to occur with some regularity. In 2010, for example, Grace Groner, who led a quiet life as an administrative assistant in Lake Forest, Illinois, left behind $7 million. In 2013, Doris Schwartz, a former school teacher in Pennsylvania, left behind more than $3 million. And, in 2016, Sylvia Bloom, a legal secretary in Brooklyn, left nearly $9 million.
In each of these cases, the story in the local paper was virtually the same, highlighting the individual’s unusual, and often extreme, thrift. Grace Groner lived in a one-bedroom house and bought her clothes at garage sales. Sylvia Bloom continued taking the subway to work every day until she retired at age 96. Doris Schwartz lived on peanut butter. And Ronald Read used clothes pins to hold his coat closed after the buttons fell off. Read’s appearance was so modest that one day a stranger paid his tab in the local coffee shop, believing it to be an act of charity.
When Read passed away, the Wall Street Journal’s headline read, “Route to an $8 Million Portfolio Started With Frugal Living.” Readers love stories like this. Who doesn’t enjoy the image of the humble retiree clipping coupons while quietly amassing a multi-million-dollar fortune? These are feel-good stories that appeal to the American spirit of hard work and self-reliance. That’s why, I think, we see them so often.
But, I also believe these stories are misleading and convey the wrong lesson. To be sure, thrift played an important role in building wealth for Ronald Read and Grace Groner and others like them. But I don’t think that is the only explanation. In my view, thrift is just the superficial explanation that seems to make the most sense. But, if we take a closer look, I believe there are at least two other factors that are equally important to keep in mind as you look to build your own wealth:
1. Time: All of the multi-millionaires I have described here lived unusually long lives. Ronald Read was 92, Doris Schwartz was 93, Sylvia Bloom was 96 and Grace Groner lived to 100. That was a key factor for all of them. If you have that many decades, the fact is you don’t need to have a high income to amass a seven-figure net worth. Consider someone like Ronald Read, who began working in 1941, when he was 18 years old. Let’s assume that in his first year he started out at minimum wage, which was then 30 cents an hour, and that his salary increased over time no faster than inflation. Let’s also assume that he saved 15 percent of each paycheck, which was not too far out of the ordinary back then, and that he continued to save at that rate until he retired at age 65. Finally, let’s assume that his investment returns were in line with the overall stock market. The result? By the end of his life, his modest savings would have turned into more than $3 million. That is the power of time.
The lesson: You can’t control how long you will live, but you should always be aware of the power of time in building wealth and try to use it to your advantage. Start saving as early as you can, even if you are still in school. If you have children, get them started with their own retirement accounts as early as you can. As I pointed out in a past article, a child of any age can contribute to a Roth IRA if they have any income at all (even from babysitting or mowing lawns).
2. Luck: In the example above, I assumed that Ronald Read’s investment returns matched the overall stock market in each year. But, that overlooks the fact that, when it comes to the stock market, average is not typical. For every person whose investments underperform in a given year, there are, by definition, others who will outperform by an equal amount. In the above calculation, Mr. Read would have accumulated just $3 million. But, if his investment returns were one or two percentage points better than the overall market, he easily could have reached the $8 million that he ultimately saved. According to the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of Read’s impressive investment portfolio, it sounds like that is exactly what happened.
The lesson: Be careful of assuming that your future returns will match the stock market’s historical average returns. While Ronald Read was fortunate to do better than average, and you may too, it’s always best to plan conservatively. Better to be pleasantly surprised than to come up short.