This Uplifting Tale of a Thrifty Woman Who Amassed a Fortune of Millions Is Also Kind of Discouraging
You can mimic her hard work and frugality but good luck finding a guaranteed cheap apartment or a college degree without student debt.
The transition from wage slave to millionaire is pondered by many but successfully made by very few. One who accomplished it is the late Sylvia Bloom. Shortly before her death in 2016 at age 96 she surprised everyone who knew her by revealing a net worth of roughly $9 million, which she left mostly to scholarship funds.
Bloom, the subject of a beautiful New York Times profile prompted by revelation of her $6.24 million bequest to the Henry Street Settlement, amassed her fortune through a combination of hard work, thrift and sensible investing that serves as an example for everyone struggling today for financial security. A little reading between the lines, however, reveals she got some important help along the way which once was available widely but now is not so much.
Bloom was born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn generations before it was cool. She grew up during the Great Depression, so everyone traumatized by the Great Recession can appreciate she had a rough start in life. She attended New York City's public schools, eventually earning her bachelor degree attending New York's public Hunter College at night while eking out a living working days (Bloom bequeathed $1 million for scholarships to Hunter College). In 1947, Bloom was one of the first support staff hired at the newly-founded Wall Street law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where she worked for 67 years as it grew to an international firm of 1,200 lawyers. Its "our practice" page lists 64 categories beginning with "Africa" and concluding with "white-collar defense and investigations."
Bloom's niece, Jane Lockshin, told The New York Times her aunt paid attention to the stocks the Wall Street attorneys she worked for bought. When they bought, she bought (and presumably sold when they sold).
Indisputably, she was thrifty. It seems no one ever saw her take a cab of any sort -- yellow, Uber or Lyft. The day of the 9/11 attacks she was at work until she evacuated on foot (the Twin Towers were located near the offices of Cleary Gottlieb). She walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and took a bus home to the rent-stabilized apartment she shared for decades with her husband, a firefighter who became a public school teacher and part-time pharmacist in retirement. They had no children.
This part of Bloom's life story fits the uplifting narrative of self-determination: work hard, skimp, save, invest. Those are choices everyone can make for themselves. But many of the wise choices she made are more problematic today. A college degree is still a major asset in the job market worth working hard for, as Bloom did, but she probably graduated owing little or nothing. Today, 44.2 million Americans carry an average student loan burden of $37,000. The average monthly student loan payment for borrowers aged 20 to 30 years is $351.
The rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn certainly had to have made it easier for Bloom to find money to invest. The median asking rent in New York City is around $2800 per month now. Like lots of young people today, Bloom went to work for a startup. Unlike lots of young people hustling in the gig economy today, she took a full-time job with an employer who provided benefits and a solid employment guarantee. Her husband was assured a pension when he retired from FDNY, unlike people today struggling to fund their own retirements.
"She was a child of the Depression and she knew what it was like not to have money," her niece said. "She had great empathy for other people who were needy and wanted everybody to have a fair shake."
Sylvia Bloom achieved something remarkable and rare, but you get the sense reading her story that she wasn't smug about it. You get the feeling she would emphasize with the many thrifty people who, instead of slowly building wealthy, are hustling just to stay afloat. Maybe they can put a couple of bucks away for better times, but rent and loan payments come first.
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