6 Lessons from 96 Year Old Millionaire Secretary

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a story on Sylvia Bloom, a Brooklynite who amassed a fortune of over $9 million. Ms. Bloom, wasn’t an investment banker, a lawyer, or any stereotypical high earning New York employee. She was a secretary, who worked at the same law firm for 67 years, retiring at the age of 96. As I read the article, I noted a couple of money and life lessons we can all benefit from, courtesy of this millionaire next door.

Lesson 1: Emulate the habits of those who have achieved what you want to achieve

Ms. Bloom obviously wanted to build wealth. She recognized that she was working with people who were doing just that for themselves. What she did next is what most people fail to do. First, she observed, and second, and most importantly, she took action. Ms. Bloom observed what the lawyers were doing with their money, taking note of their investments. She then proceeded to purchase the same investments each time. Had she simply watched what the lawyers were doing and not taken on their “habits” she most likely would not have amassed such wealth.

Lesson 2: Smaller steps towards your goal are better than none at all

Although Ms. Bloom earned significantly less than her bosses, she didn’t let that deter her from becoming an investor. She was wise enough to know that making small stock purchases for herself was just as meaningful and significant as the large purchases she was making for them. She didn’t wait until she had saved up a certain amount of money to begin investing. She started with what she had and she did it consistently. Although we don’t know how small her investments were, the aggregate gains amassed to a $9 million fortune. Not bad for a “small” investor. Ms. Bloom illustrates the benefits of starting small and starting slow. The main thing is to start.

Lesson 3: Not everyone needs to know your business

Everyone close to Ms. Bloom was surprised to learn about her wealth when she passed away. She simply never talked about it. Her niece even speculates that Ms. Bloom’s husband may not have known about her riches. The article suggests that this could have had to do with Ms. Bloom’s independent nature, but there could be several other reasons for her keeping mum. Perhaps she just didn’t want other people’s unsolicited advice, or perhaps she knew that some people would try to instill fear by telling her all the reasons why she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do what she was doing. It’s possible that she was a private person who didn’t feel the need to share certain details with others. She was a child of the Great Depression after all. It’s also possible that she knew that she would make other people uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, her decision not to share the details of her finances with her closest friends and family was one for her to make. You don’t have to share everything with everyone. Some people are dreambusters so I suggest that you only share your dreams and aspirations with those who will affirm and support you.

Lesson 4: Forget about the Kardashians, the Joneses and everyone else you’re trying to keep up with

Ms. Bloom was the epitome of the millionaire next door. Despite all her millions, she lived a modest and frugal life. There was no penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. She didn’t own a car, preferring to chauffeured around by the good ol’ MTA, aka the subway. She wasn’t into buying or receiving extravagant gifts. Her idea of an indulgence was consuming “special chocolate in small quantities,” not shopping at the mall, followed by a massage at the spa. Nothing about Ms. Bloom showed that she was a millionaire. She wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone. Ms. Bloom lived way below her means. She lived in a rent-controlled apartment and she didn’t spend her money on outlandish things. One can only imagine her savings rate!

Lesson 5: Make your final wishes known

While Ms. Bloom may not have disclosed her wealth to others, she certainly made sure that people knew of her plan to help needy students. That was no surprise to the people around her. She also took the necessary step of ensuring that her final wishes were carried out upon her death by creating a will and naming an executor. This is something over 50% of Americans have yet to do. Doing so did two additional things for Ms. Bloom – 1. it prevented her relatives from fighting over this unexpected “windfall” and 2. it kept the government from making the final decision on how to distribute her assets. She showed that it’s important to state your wishes to your family before you pass away so that there are no surprises, and any grievances they have can be aired and resolved at the time. It also showed that it’s imperative that you document your plan via a will to guarantee that it’s executed according to your wishes.

Lesson 6: Build people up

As mentioned, Ms. Bloom was a child of the Great Depression. Her experience growing up with little money and having to work to put herself through school gave her much empathy for the plight of others in similar situations. Her college experience and working at the law firm gave her a front row view of the advantages that one can access with a good education. In order to ensure that kids from families just like her’s are given the opportunities they deserve, she bequeathed the majority of her wealth to children from disadvantaged backgrounds through scholarships. $6.2 million went to the Henry Street Settlement’s Expanded Horizon College Success Program and an additional $2 million will be split between Hunter College, the school she attended, and another scholarship fund. Her giving is almost certain to transform the lives of many individuals and change their trajectory for the better.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned and put into action based on someone’s success?  Please share.

To read the full New York Times article on Ms. Sylvia Bloom, click here.

To donate to the Henry Street Settlement, click here.

To donate to Hunter College, click here.

To learn more about millionaires like Ms. Bloom, click here.

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