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What we can learn from the incredible life of Verna Oller

June 14, 2010

Verna Oller at her home in Long Beach, May 2007

May 10, Verna Oller died at age of 98. When she and her husband were married in 1932 they had $2 in cash, $46.75 in the bank, and $20 worth of prepaid coal oil. 

If you look at the resumes of Verna and her husband, Ed, you would see the following jobs: Manual labor for a logging and oyster company, picking cranberries, labeling oyster cans, and doing a variety jobs at a café. Ed died in 1964, and at the time, they had saved up $10,000. Verna continued to work at her hourly jobs until she was 76.

When you read this story, it would be easy to assume that Verna died penniless, reliant on our social security system to take care of her. But, this is not why she is in the news. When Verna passed away, she donated $4.5 million dollars to her community of Long Beach, Wash., for scholarships, grants, and to build a new $3.5 million pool facility. For a town of 1,300 people, this is a huge gift.

How did she do it? First, of all she was very frugal. She never had her hair cut by a hairdresser and she grew her own food. She lived in the same home 73 years – a home she and her husband built in 1934 for $750. After she retired, she sold her car and used public transportation to get around. As a senior citizen, she could ride all month for $10. She purchased all her clothes from thrift shops and even found inventive ways to get more from the items she purchased. For example, once she used a zipper from a coat she could no longer wear for shoestrings.

Second, she invested in stocks. Even though Verna did not make her first investment until 1979, she read the “Wall Street Journal” on a daily basis. She followed companies and studied their fundamentals. She would check out books in the library to get a deeper understanding of markets and companies. As she wanted to spend less time on her investments, she moved more of her assets from individual stocks to mutual funds. This gave her a little more diversity and little more protection.

She had some help along on the way, too. She had the $10,000 her and Ed saved up.  She also received $480 in 1962 from the sale of her mother’s property. In 1964, there was a $3,000 bequest from a childless uncle. In 1995, there was a sizable gift of $600,000 from her sister when she passed away. Even with this amount totaling a little more than $600,000 she was able to turn it into $4.5 million (and that is after it has lost about a half million during the current recession).

What can we learn from this? First, one of the basic keys to financial success is to spend less than you earn. You do not need to be as frugal as Verna was, but a few changes in your lifestyle can start making a big difference.

Second, over the long term, stocks and real estate earn the best return for your money. In any given one- or five-year period, there may be a wide variety of investments that may appear to be the best, but over the long haul, stocks have the greatest growth. Because of Verna’s lifestyle and investment portfolio, time was on her side. While many people worry about outliving their money, the longer Verna lived, the more money she had.

Finally, we need to remember what money means to us. Verna was frugal, but did spend money on a few things. In 1974, Verna’s sister, Jane, moved in with her and they traveled all over the world, including trips to New Zealand, Panama, Guatemala, and throughout the United States. But Verna wanted to leave a legacy. She wanted life to be better for those who came after her. She did not do it for the press, as she did not want to have an obituary, a funeral, or even the knowledge of her giving the gift to get to the public. She saw a need in her community and tried to meet that need.

How we spend our time and money tells a lot about our values. If you are saving to improve the future of your children or community, it can say one thing. If you are spending every dime you earn and then some on what you want now, it says a very different thing. Money will not bring us happiness in itself, but if we stay true to our values with what we do with our money, it sure can.

Your contribution may just be making life a little easier for your children. Or you may change your community. We are fortunate in Sterling to have some very generous individuals who have benefited the town and the area in a variety of ways. I think many times it is tempting to think it is easy for wealthy citizens to contribute to our town, because they have so much money. However, the truth is, it is not always how much you earn, but what you choose to do with it. That is something that is very evident from the life of Verna Oller.

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