Financial writers love the arresting investing illustration. When we can show how gum money invested for a few decades turns into buckets of cash, we congratulate ourselves on our illustrative bonsmots (once they clear copyediting, that is) and look for the next eye-popper.
The great thing about these tales of fiscal gymnastics is that they highlight the notion that any of us gum chewers can become a millionaire. But then reality sets in. Who buys stock in a company, holds it for 40 or 50 years through ups and downs, lean paychecks and hearty bonuses, and never parts with one lousy share?
I'll tell you who: Russ MacDonald.
Lessons from an intelligent investor
You haven't heard of Russ MacDonald. He hasn't written a best-selling finance book. He's not a Hilton offspring or a Rockefeller wannabe. He's just a guy who made a slow, quiet killing on Standard Oil stock.
His investing career was hatched in 1957 when his grandfather -- a Standard Oil executive -- gave his 10-year-old grandson 100 shares in the company where he was a CPA. The shares of grandpa's company stock (now ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) ) blossomed, split 2-for-1 five times, and eventually provided Russ an early retirement.
It's difficult to say what was the more valuable gift to his grandson -- the shares or the investing lessons that came with them. Every weekend until his grandfather's death in 1959 they'd sit down for informal investing sessions. He had young Russ read Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor and report on each chapter. They talked about budgeting, managing risk, finding great companies, and investing for the long haul.
Russ still remembers those lessons.
Love and money don't mix: "Don't fall in love with any stock, no matter how good it has been," the elder MacDonald would often say. Despite his lifelong career at Standard Oil, the elder investor told his grandson to spread out his money over several sectors. As long as the fundamentals of a company were solid, he told his grandson to keep the stock and reinvest the dividends until needed for retirement income.
How to get rich: There were no wide-eyed ideas of lottery winnings or get-rich-quick schemes in the MacDonald household. When people find instant wealth, it's the result of luck, not skill. Russ was reminded that every investment entails risk but that managing risk to an appropriate level over a long period of time is the secret to growing an investment.
The right way to budget: Savings always comes first. It should be subtracted first from take-home pay, before any other expenditure is considered. "If you do not have enough money coming in to meet your expenses, then you need to get a second job or cut your expenses. Never take on debt to address this situation," said the lifelong CPA.
Don't borrow to buy most things: The only acceptable debt, according to Grandpa, was a mortgage, and possibly your first car. He warned his young grandson to never finance an appliance or a television, and to never borrow any money unless it is absolutely necessary.
You can't build a nest egg with bonds: Despite having lived through the Great Depression, Russ' grandfather never developed an irrational fear of investing. He believed that the only way to build a sufficiently large portfolio to provide for retirement was through the stock market: "You should own stocks for growth and bonds for safety, and the percentage of each should be tailored to your personal situation."
The sky's the limit
What does 50 years of compounding returns, reinvested dividends, and a solid education about money amount to? For Russ MacDonald, it meant retiring a decade early from his job at Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) and pursuing his lifelong passion -- becoming a flight instructor. His foray into this field of choice brings in some extra income, but he does it simply for the love of flight. "I owe my financial security in retirement entirely to him," Russ says.
Russ's Standard Oil stock has increased at a 13.05% compounded annual rate. (Each dollar invested in the company in 1957 would today be worth $390.) He still holds the original shares, and -- as his grandfather instructed him to do -- has a diversified portfolio that provides a steady income based on his 4% withdrawal rate. (Learn more about calculating your withdrawal rate in this month's Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement issue.)
Not everyone has 50 years to wait for an investment to pay off. But that doesn't mean that Russ' story doesn't have some important lessons for us, too.
His success is not about investing in Exxon. You could drop in other superior business in its place and come up with the same ending. Altria (NYSE: MO ) , Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) , to name a few, have also benefited from recurring consumer demand and wide moats, and have rewarded long-term shareholders over the years. For some proof, take a look at this chart.
Russ' story is also about reinvesting dividends (yes, even 50 basis points over time can make a huge difference in your eventual returns), managing risk, and showing fiscal responsibility in all areas of your life.
The real MacDonald family heirloom, however, is the investing education. Most of us didn't learn even basic money lessons in school, and our children certainly aren't being taught them, either. But you can change all that today.
If you're a grandparent or a parent or a really cool aunt, purchase a share or two of a stock for a young relative and start your own investing club over ice cream. Don't let money be a taboo topic in your household. Share your financial triumphs and setbacks and be honest about your views on finances, and what you wish you had known all along.
Some gifts are worth more than their monetary value. Then again, 100 shares of Standard Oil would be nice, too ...
Want to retire early?
Start your adult education with a free issue of Rule Your Retirement. In this month's issue -- out at 4:00 p.m. EST today -- you can read more about Russ' gift of retirement, how to see if your savings will outlive you, and what to do if you're a latecomer to the saving game. Your first issue is free, and there's no obligation to subscribe thereafter. Click here to learn more.
Dayana Yochim does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.