Although I attended a> prestigious university and worked on the floor of the world s busiest futures exchange, the best investment advice I ever received came from my grandmother, Esther Shlensky, who died earlier this week at the ripe old age of 106.
Born in 1904, just weeks after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and when the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 49, this remarkable woman witnessed the 20th century s entire economy from WWI to Y2K. One dollar invested in the Dow the year she was born would have compounded at an annual rate of 9.09% and grown to $15,800 today.
Dow Jones Industrial Average, Indexed to August 1904
Longtime readers might recall me first mentioning her in this space over eight years ago when discussing the importance of income as part of a portfolio s total return. At the time, beaten-down growth stocks like JDS Uniphase and Corning were still capturing investor attention.
But not Esther s. Having lived through the radio boom and bust in the 1920s, along with the crash of Go-Go names like Xerox and Polaroid in the 1960s and tech stocks in the 1990s, she knew only one type of investment: stable blue chips that paid regular dividends. Decades before Intuit Quicken or advanced portfolio analysis on platforms like E*Trade or Charles Schwab, she kept a careful accounting of quarterly dividends from stocks like AT&T and Commonwealth Edison (now part of Exelon) in a black ledger on her desk.
Not that she neglected fundamental analysis. Having held AT&T for decades before its 1984 breakup, she became increasingly frustrated while trying to keep up with the company s new businesses and endless corporate spinoffs, such as Lucent and NCR in later years. Particularly bewildering to her was Qwest, which she would mistakenly refer to as Q-West, and swore she d never bought but somehow ended up owning anyway. (Qwest merged with Baby Bell US West in 2000).
Considering Esther had grown up using telephone tokens and without modern refrigeration, her bewilderment with new technology was understandable. I recall her fascination with my first Dell notebook computer. Unsure as to what exactly could power such a contraption; she was marveled as to how the manufacturer could have possibly made the gears that small.
Still, if she was somewhat grounded in the world of the physical, she also could not stomach the idea of spending money she did not have. This was a woman who lived her entire life without a credit card and most of her adult years with the same set of furniture steadfastly protected from both stains and the sun. It looks nearly as good today as when it was bought back in the first half of the last century.
The most often-repeated financial advice she gave me was also the simplest: Save your money. Long before Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey made fortunes selling books about living beneath your means, this old lady, like many children of immigrants who survived the Depression, understood the importance of frugality and delayed gratification.
As a child, she d reward me for good behavior with a few coins while asking how much of it I intended to put away. If you get a dollar, save a quarter, she d implore. That discipline stuck with me at an early age.
With the personal savings rate now back down to 5.3%, the lowest level in 13 months, and the average household with a credit card now carrying a $15,788 debt at 14% interest, even now how many millions of Americans could still greatly benefit from this effective but old fashioned advice?
Despite the vast advances of modern markets, including funds that let you bet on everything from consumers shopping in Latin Americavia the Global X Brazil Consumer ETF) to the yield curve flatteningwith the iPath US Treasury Flattener ETN), it s unquestionably the simple steps, like saving and living within your means, which have the biggest impact on our bottom line.
After 106 years, this great lady is finally gone, but the wisdom she left behind will never go out of style.