Investing

The 4 Habits of Janitors, Secretaries and Teachers Who Became Millionaires

Molly Triffin

With the right habits, anyone can become a millionaire, not just hotshot bankers, corporate CEOs and tech geniuses. There are plenty of unassuming people who, despite working regular jobs—think: janitors, secretaries and teachers—have amassed serious wealth over their lifetimes. And you’d never know it by the way they lived.

Take Genevieve Via Cava. When the New Jersey special needs teacher first told her school superintendent that she intended to donate enough money to the district to fund the post-high-school education for special needs students, he laughed. "I thought it was a joke," he told NorthJersey.com.

He and other friends and former colleagues were shocked when they learned this spring that Via Cava, who died at age 89, had quietly built a small fortune over her 45-year career as a teacher and left $1 million of it to fund those scholarships. 

How did Via Cava and other unassuming millionaires climb to the top? We discovered four simple habits they have in common. Follow their lead and start building your own fortune, too.

1. Live (well) below your means.

Low-key millionaires couldn’t care less about keeping up with the Joneses. “They are not attached to having the newest, the biggest or the most expensive anything,” says Certified Financial Planner Kimberly Foss, founder of Empyrion Wealth Management.

Case in point: Ronald Read, a janitor and gas station attendant in Vermont who bequeathed $8 million to his local library and hospital, had a second-hand Toyota and used safety pins to hold his tattered coat together. Grace Groner lived in a one-bedroom in Chicago and shopped at thrift stores and rummage sales, even though she’d accumulated more than $7 million. Russ Gremel, another Chicagoan, prefered oats and stew to fancy meals, drove a 25-year-old Dodge—and recently donated $2 million to the Audubon Society. Via Cava lived in a modest home once owned by her parents, kept expenses to a minimum and consistently socked away some of her income.

While the general rule of thumb is to save 10 to 20 percent of your income, secret millionaires put away much more—a friend of Read’s mentioned that if he earned $50, he’d save $40. Certified Financial Planner Cary Carbonaro, managing director at United Capital, suggests aiming for around 30 percent if your goal is seven digits: “The additional compounding interest will make your money grow and grow,” she says.

2. Invest early and often.

Secret millionaires know to hang onto stocks for the long haul instead of selling when the market dips. Gremel purchased $1,000 worth of Walgreens stock and held onto it for 70 years. Groner’s fortune grew out of a $180 investment she made in 1935. And Brooklyn locals Donald Othmer, a professor, and his wife Mildred, a teacher, amassed hundreds of millions, stemming from Berkshire Hathaway stocks they invested in for just $42 back in the ’60s. (Today, one share is worth more than $280,000.)

These millionaires don’t just avoid timing the market; they also reinvest their dividends. When you purchase individual stocks or funds, like exchange-traded funds, through an investment account, you have the option to take your dividend payment in cash or reinvest the proceeds into the purchase of additional shares. Reinvesting allows your money to compound more over time, giving you a greater overall return.

3. Earn more on the side.

In addition to his day job, Donald Othmer netted extra income with his side gig as an inventor and consultant. Leonard Gigowski, a butcher in Milwaukee, earned enough from investing in his grocery store’s stock to eventually purchase a corner store, nightclub, dance studio and residential properties.

“With passive income, like real estate, you don’t have to do any work,” Carbonaro says. “Aside from maintenance and expenses, you just sit back and collect the check.” Airbnb, for example, makes it easy to add a passive income stream by renting out extra space or your entire place when you’re away.

4. Improve your financial IQ.

Read stayed in the know by reading investing news, talking with like-minded friends and seeking counsel from an advisor. Robert Morin, a librarian in New Hampshire with a $4 million estate, befriended a financial advisor who encouraged him to invest, instead of putting all of his earnings into checking and savings accounts. Brooklyn legal secretary Sylvia Bloom, who recently passed away with $8.2 million, noted the stocks her bosses invested in, then purchased the same ones (in more modest amounts) for herself.

Copy these habits by making learning about money a daily ritual: You can follow your favorite financial guru and publications on social media, or commit to reading money blogs and sites (ahem) during lunch or your commute. Then seek out a money mentor or even an accountability partner who’s working toward their own first $1 million.

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