The Secretary’s Secret

At the age of 96, Sylvia Bloom headed to work for the last time. Following her decades-long routine, she stepped aboard a New York subway early in the morning to say a final hello and goodbye to friends and colleagues at the law firm where she had worked for 67 years.


Sylvia had been one of the first employees hired at the then-upstart law firm. She was not an attorney. Sylvia was a secretary.


In her role, she handled the affairs of her bosses’ work life. But she often, especially in the early years, managed aspects of their personal lives as well, including their financial affairs from time to time. On occasion, Sylvia was asked to call her boss’s stock broker to buy a promising stock or two. Sylvia dutifully dialed the broker’s number and directed trades on her boss’s behalf.


She sometimes purchased a few shares for herself, too.


Sylvia and her husband were modest. They lived in a rent-controlled apartment. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was fitting for a secretary and a firefighter.


Through the years, Sylvia devoted her time to the law firm. She worked hard and watched the firm grow over the years. She often wished she had earned a law degree, but she was happy being a secretary.


All along, she kept a secret. For more than 60 years, in fact, she kept her secret.


It started small. No one would have cared to know the details. Over time, though – and especially in her last 15 or 20 years at the law firm – the secret grew quite big. Secrets like that are hard to keep. No matter; Sylvia remained steadfast and told no one, perhaps not even her husband, who died in 2002.


When Sylvia died in 2016, her secret finally came out.


Former neighbors couldn’t believe it. Her colleagues at the law firm couldn’t believe it. People she had known for years couldn’t believe it. Even Sylvia’s niece, the executor of her estate, couldn’t believe it.


Sylvia had amassed a fortune.


How her fortune was built is largely unknown. We know she purchased stocks when she placed trades for her bosses over the years. But we don’t know what she bought. We don’t know when she bought. We don’t know if she ever sold.


What we know for sure is Sylvia had a net worth of nearly $9 million dollars the day she died. We also know she directed in her will to give more than $8 million of it to charities.


We hear stories like this periodically. When we do, there are common themes that run through them. These commonalities reveal the simplest path to wealth. Simple, but not easy.


Like Sylvia, secret millionaires almost always live frugally. You would never know their investment accounts require two commas and seven digits before the decimal. Their humble lifestyle allows them to plough money into their investment portfolios.


Like Sylvia, secret millionaires usually work a long time. They typically enjoy what they do. As their net worth would indicate, they could retire at any time. Instead, they choose to work. Those additional years of earnings allow them to invest even more than they otherwise could.


Like Sylvia, secret millionaires often die at an old age. This is a huge advantage. I suspect if Sylvia would have died at age 60, instead of in her late 90s, people would have still been impressed with what she was able to accumulate. But her story would not have made it to the New York Times.


Like Sylvia, secret millionaires purchase stocks. They buy investments that have the potential to appreciate massively in value. You never hear of a secret millionaire that made their money holding bonds or cash. And they hold those investments for a long time. It’s almost as if they view their portfolio as a rare collection to maintain rather than an asset to maximize by buying and selling.


The fact that these commonalities are so consistent among secret millionaires is important. They clearly work. Not everyone wants to live like Sylvia Bloom. That’s fine. But her story and others like it are inspiring.


You don’t have to be the smartest person in the world. You don’t have to have the best job in the world. What you must have is consistent savings, a willingness to endure the ups and downs of the market, and the good fortune to live a long, healthy life.


With that, you too could build a fortune.

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