If you've been reading financial fare for a while, you've heard it lots of times: Invest relatively small sums regularly, and you can become a millionaire! On some level, your brain may be thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah...I'm sure it can't work like that for me." But your brain is wrong.

The financial press offered up a great example of how someone of relatively modest means can amass millions earlier this year. If you learn more about this person, you might also be able to grow a nest egg of at least a million.

A finger is pointing to the word millionaire, against a backdrop of a city at night, all lit up.

Image source: Getty Images.

Meet Sylvia Bloom

Few people know the name of Sylvia Bloom, but she led a most impressive life. Raised in Brooklyn, she started working at an early age at the Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton law firm, and worked for a total of 67 years. Along the way, while working, she put herself through college and got married.

Even today, few people are taught how to invest, and Sylvia Bloom also likely had little formal training in the stock market. She had a good system, though: When her boss instructed her to have a certain stock bought in his personal account, she would often buy the same stock in her own account -- getting fewer shares, of course. Over time, her portfolio topped $8 million. She gave $6.24 million to the Henry Street Settlement on New York City's East Side, among other bequests.

One of the most powerful contributors to Ms. Bloom's success was time, as her money was able to grow for many decades. To get a sense of just how powerful that can be, check out how much a single $1,000 investment can grow to over various time periods in the table below, if it's growing at an average annual rate of 8%:

Over this period...

$1,000 will grow to:

5 years

$1,469

10 years

$2,159

15 years

$3,172

20 years

$4,661

25 years

$6,848

30 years

$10,063

35 years

$14,785

40 years

$21,724

45 years

$31,920

50 years

$46,902

55 years

$68,914

60 years

$101,257

65 years

$148,780

Data source: Calculations by author.

That table alone should be inspiring -- unless, perhaps, you're already 98 years old. There's even more that can inspire you, though.

There are lots of Sylvia Blooms

One of the great things about the Sylvia Bloom story is that it's not an isolated incident. There are many people like Sylvia Bloom -- ordinary people who amass extraordinary wealth. Oseola McCarty is one terrific example. She was a washer woman who never earned much, yet she was able to make a huge charitable contribution of about $150,000 before she died. (It was noteworthy enough that she appeared on the David Letterman TV show and met President Clinton.)

Here are a bunch of other examples:

  • Gladys Holm. Another secretary, Ms. Holm's salary peaked at $15,000 before she retired. Like Ms. Bloom, she paid attention to what stocks her successful boss was buying and selling and often followed suit. Upon her death, she left $18 million to a children's hospital.
  • Grace Groner. Groner was yet another secretary, whose portfolio was worth some $7 million when she passed away.
  • 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.
  • Genesio Morlacci. This former part-time janitor and dry cleaner left $2.3 million to Montana's University of Great Falls when he died at the age of 102.
  • Ronald Read. Read was also a janitor and a great investor. He was worth some $8 million when he died, in part by buying and holding shares of companies such as Procter & Gamble, JPMorgan Chase, and CVS Health.
  • Gilmore and Golda Reynolds. When this Osgood, Indiana, couple passed away, they surprised their town by leaving it the $22 million they'd accumulated through investments in stocks over many years.
  • Thomas Drey, Jr. This retired teacher spent a lot of time researching companies at the Boston Public Library. Upon his death, he gave the library one of its biggest gifts -- $6.8 million.
  • Jay Jensen. Another retired teacher, Jensen lived frugally, investing steadily in blue-chip stocks for some 40 years. He never earned more than $47,000 per year at his teaching jobs, but he turned that into several million dollars, most of which he gave 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.
  • Leonard Gigowski. Gigowski was a grocer who owned a grocery store as well as a nightclub, a dance studio, and some residential properties. No one knew how financially successful he was until he left $13 million for scholarships.
  • Donald and Mildred Othmer. The Othmers were members of a smart group of people who bought shares of Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, 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.
Four canvas money sacks, with dollar signs on them, against a green background. One has fallen open, with bundles of cash falling out.

Image source: Getty Images.

What we can learn from all the Sylvia Blooms

Looking for things that the folks above have in common can be instructive, guiding us to habits and perspectives useful for building wealth. Here are a few:

  • Invest in stocks: They didn't all invest exclusively in stocks, but most of them made great use of the stock market. Some of them may not have even appreciated how stocks have greatly outperformed most alternatives over long periods. This doesn't mean you need to learn all about the ins and outs of stock investing. You can simply opt for a low-fee broad-market index fund, such as one based on the S&P 500 index of 500 of America's biggest and best companies. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) is a solid option, and it will distribute your assets across 80% of the U.S. stock market. The table below features data from Wharton Business School professor Jeremy Siegel, who calculated the average returns for stocks, bonds, bills, gold, and the dollar between 1802 and 2012:

Asset Class

Annualized Nominal Return

Stocks

8.1%

Bonds

5.1%

Bills

4.2%

Gold

2.1%

U.S. dollar

1.4%

Data source: Stocks for the Long Run.

  • Play the long game: Next, be a long-term investor. You may not be able to invest for 50 or 60 years, but you can amass a lot of money just over 15 or 20 years if you're able to sock away significant sums. 

    Becoming a multi-millionaire isn't out of the question if you can start early and/or if you can invest large sums -- and, even better, if your portfolio grows at an annual average rate of, say, 10%. Note, too, that many of these millionaires weren't trading in and out of stocks frequently. They often just held on to their shares, buying more over time. Those shares would grow in value, and many would pay regular dividends, too, sometimes even splitting into more shares. The table below shows how much you could amass if your nest grows by an annual average of 8% annually. 

Growing at 8% for

$5,000 invested annually

$10,000 invested annually

$15,000 invested annually

5 years

$31,680

$63,359

$95,039

10 years

$78,227

$156,455

$234,682

15 years

$146,621

$293,243

$439,864

20 years

$247,115

$494,229

$741,344

25 years

$394,772

$789,544

$1.2 million

30 years

$611,729

$1.2 million

$1.8 million

Calculations by author.

  • Live below your means: Many of the millionaires above were rather frugal. They had to be in order to plow much of their income into long-term stock investments. Sylvia Bloom, for example, rode the subway most places instead of taking taxis, even though she could clearly afford plenty of taxi rides. Ronald Read drove a used Toyota Yaris and held his coat together with safety pins. Oseola McCarty didn't own a color television.

    All of us, whether we're aiming to amass millions or simply build a necessary retirement war chest of several hundred thousand dollars, need to live below our means, lest we end up in debt or with insufficient funds for our futures.

  • Enjoy life, too: While it's important to live below our means, and useful to be very frugal if we want to build great wealth, it's also important to enjoy our lives, as we each get only one. You don't have to spend a lot to enjoy life, either. Sylvia Bloom eventually moved to a retirement community so she could play bridge more regularly. Grace Groner traveled extensively in her retirement. Leonard Gigowski owned several tuxedos and liked to go dancing.

Take these many examples to heart and know that no matter what your financial situation is right now, it can be markedly better if you take some action now and keep going. You may even become a millionaire!

Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), JPMorgan Chase, and Procter & Gamble. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool recommends CVS Health. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.