We’ve all heard of the Millionaire Next Door, those regular folks who amass seven-figure nest eggs while living modest lives. A fascinating subset of that group is The Philanthropist Next Door, people like Sylvia Bloom.
Bloom, who died in 2016 at age 96, left an eye-popping $6.24 million to New York City’s Henry Street Settlement, a social services provider on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The gift was the largest individual donation in Henry Street’s 124-year history.
So, who was Sylvia Bloom? An heiress? A CEO or entrepreneur? Nope. She was a legal secretary from Brooklyn who spent 67 years at the same Wall Street law firm. Her fortune was the result of her deep frugality and commitment to investing, according to friends and family – none of whom knew how much Bloom was worth.
Sylvia Bloom and her husband, who retired from firefighting to become a public school teacher, lived in a rent-controlled apartment. Ms. Bloom controlled the couple’s money and spending. It is possible, according to Bloom’s executor, that not even Bloom’s husband knew how much his wife had saved. Sylvia lived a modest lifestyle, including taking the subway to work every day and never making flashy purchases.
She took her investment guidance from her bosses. As an old-school secretary, Bloom was often charged with handling both personal and professional matters for the firm’s attorneys. When a lawyer would ask her to handle the purchase of a particular stock for his account, Bloom would also buy a few shares of the same stock for herself.
At the time of her death, Bloom had amassed $9 million across three brokerage houses and 11 banks. In addition to the Henry Street bequest, Bloom left $2 million to Hunter College. Bloom’s family and friends shared in the small balance of her estate.
Sylvia Bloom is certainly unusual, but not unique. Similar stories pop up with regularity. A Wisconsin shopkeeper named Leonard Gigowski, for example, lived an outwardly simply life before leaving $13 million to fund college scholarships. Grace Groner of Illinois lived in a one-bedroom house and shopped at thrift stores. She left $7 million to Lake Forest College.
These stories are powerful reminders that it is possible to build serious wealth with an average or even modest income. Committing to a savings plan and sticking to it over the long-haul can produce transformative results.
I don’t typically advocate that people work their entire lives. But I do encourage everyone to do what makes them happy. Clearly, Sylvia Bloom took great joy in both her work and building a financial legacy that will touch countless lives. So, while Sylvia never retired, I’m naming her an honorary Happy Retiree.
Photos from The New York Times