When you think of the wealthy, you may think of yachts and private jets, of mink coats, Jaguars, and mansions on a hill. Think again, though. As the eye-opening book The Millionaire Next Door revealed, there are many millionaires who walk among us unnoticed. (Learn more about the book from Whitney Tilson.) They're common folks like us -- with a few quirks, such as wearing inexpensive suits and staying in the same house for many years. Oh, and having a lot of patience.

Every now and then I run across a story in the news that reminds me of how many financially smart ordinary people there are. It usually happens when one of them dies and surprises the world by giving away a lot of money. It happened just a few months ago, in Montana, when Genesio Morlacci, a 102-year-old former part-time janitor and dry cleaner, left $2.3 million to the University of Great Falls.

According to an AP story about Mr. Morlacci, "He was a fellow who felt that if you didn't need it, you shouldn't buy it.'' He valued education highly because he never received a formal education. "On the rare occasions he and his wife, Lucille, dined out, they chose budget restaurants.. Their one luxury was a couple of trips to Italy.."

You can build wealth like Genesio Morlacci
We often view these stories as inspiring, but we don't let them actually inspire us to take action. Take action! Spend just a few hours per month tending to your financial big picture, and take some steps to ensure a happier retirement for yourself. We can help, in our Retirement area and via our new Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which you can sample for free.

Oseola McCarty
Another similar story is that of Oseola McCarty, a washerwoman. In the summer of 1995, she made headlines in newspapers across the country by giving most of her life's savings, $150,000, to the University of Southern Mississippi.

Around 1908, Ms. McCarty was born in Mississippi -- the pre-Civil-Rights-Movement South. Not only were her means limited but also, quite likely, her dreams. From an early age, Oseola learned the value of a hard-earned dollar. As soon as she could work, she did, ironing clothes, for example. When her aunt fell ill and needed her help, Oseola's formal education was halted after sixth grade.

Oseola never married, and she lived for three-quarters of a century in a small, simple house, washing clothes for a living. Not owning a car, she walked everywhere, pushing a shopping cart a mile each way to and from the grocery store. Over the years, she continued to put aside whatever money she could and plunked her savings into local banks.

Her bankers, when they noticed how sizable her savings had grown, stepped in to help her invest it so that she would earn more than savings account interest. They moved her money into the likes of CDs and conservative mutual funds. Did they do her a favor? You bet. (They also looked after her in non-financial ways, convincing her to buy an air conditioner, for example.)

The power of time
But could the bankers have done more? Perhaps. I don't know when her savings caught their notice, but had it been, say, 30 years earlier, her gift would have ended up a lot bigger. It appears that she had accumulated about a quarter of a million dollars by 1995. Let's say that she had only $50,000 in 1965, 30 years earlier. Had the bankers invested her in an S&P 500 index fund, earning, let's say, 10.5% per year, her money would have grown to not $250,000 but $999,628 -- virtually a million dollars. Four times as much.

The lesson here is that in an effort to become your family's most beloved ancestor or a charitable cause's most beloved stranger, you should strive not only to save, but also to invest as Foolishly as possible. If Oseola had bought just a few shares of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) or General Electric (NYSE:GE) years ago, they would have boosted her bottom line considerably.

Indeed, when Ms. McCarty died, one of her bankers wrote me, saying: "I have often tried to explain to folks that Miss McCarty's most remarkable feat was living as long as she did. She also found a way to save a little bit of money every week. Time was able to turn even the modest returns of her early investments into hundreds of thousands of dollars. If we had been able to introduce her to equities earlier, she would have left millions instead of thousands."

Unexpected results
The aftermath of Ms. McCarty's gift was amazing. She had not craved attention when she donated her money. In fact, she had to be persuaded to abandon anonymity. And what happened next?

Well, the woman who had left Mississippi only once went to Washington, D.C. and New York City many times. She went to the White House, met the Clintons, and set the Times Square New Year's Eve ball in motion. She received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, was sung to by Roberta Flack, appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman," and carried the Olympic torch. ("I have arthritis in my foot and hands. But I just did the best I could.") She was on the front page of The New York Times and was featured on TV as one of "The 10 Most Fascinating People of 1995" by Barbara Walters.

Give it up for giving
I confess that all this makes me shake my head a bit. Has the spirit of giving become so rare in our society that a generous gift makes headlines across the country? While we Fools learn how to best invest our money, we should also give thought to sharing our wealth, both now and later. We should share not only our money, but also our time and our new-found Foolish knowledge. When magnanimity such as Oseola's becomes a commonplace event, the world will be a better place.

There's still time for you to help The Motley Fool make the world a better place, through our annual Foolanthropy drive. Click in and meet five fascinating organizations we're supporting. We've raised more than $90,000 together this year and hope for much more. In the past, we've raised more than $2 million to better the world.

Still not convinced?
Here are a few more examples of how ordinary people can amass significant wealth in their lives:

  • Monsignor James McSweeney. Earning a sub-poverty-level income for decades as a Catholic priest, he focused on his investments in his free time and was worth nearly $1 million when he died.

  • Gilmore and Golda Reynolds. They seemed like ordinary next-door neighbors in Osgood, Ind. But when they passed away, they surprised the town by leaving it $22 million that they'd accumulated by investing in stocks over many years.

  • Thomas Drey, Jr. A retired teacher, Mr. Drey spent a lot of time researching companies at the Boston Public Library. Upon his death, he shocked the library by leaving it $6.8 million.

  • Jay Jensen. A retired high school teacher, Jensen has lived frugally, investing steadily in blue-chip stocks for some 40 years. He never earned more than $46,000 per year, but he turned that into several million dollars, most of which he's giving away.

  • Florence Ballenger. Ballenger was another teacher who lived frugally, but well (often traveling around the world). Through investing, she and her husband accumulated more than $6 million.

  • Gladys Holm. She was a Chicago secretary whose salary peaked at $15,000 before she retired. Her secret was paying attention to what stocks her successful boss was buying and selling and often following suit, to a smaller degree. Upon her death, she left $18 million to a children's hospital. (If you don't have a savvy boss, you might find reliable recommendations in our newsletters, among other places.)

  • Donald and Mildred Othmer. The Othmers were members of a smart group of people -- those who bought shares of Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa, BRKb), and held on for decades. They invested about $50,000 in the 1960s and upon their deaths in the 1990s, their estate was worth an amazing $800 million.

Oseola's lessons
I'll end with a great lesson that Oseola taught us. In her own words, from her own website: "A smart person plans for the future. You never know what kind of emergency will come up... You have to take responsibility for yourself." "It wasn't hard. I didn't buy things I didn't need... The Lord helped me, and he'll help you, too... It's an honor to be blessed like that."

Learn how to plan for emergencies in our Savings Center, which also offers some special interest rates. Then pop over to our discussion board for this column and share any impressions or stories that come to mind -- or just see what others are saying.

Selena Maranjian's favorite discussion boards include Book Club , The Eclectic Library, and Card & Board Games. She owns shares of Wal-Mart and Berkshire Hathaway. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.