From Victoria O’Hara as told to Carrie Sloan.For most of my life, I’ve felt like I would never have enough money.
Growing up, there wasn’t enough, and my childhood was chaotic: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1970s, and my dad worked on the oil pipeline that was being built, so he was away a lot.
Then two freak accidents changed my life forever: When my sister was 5 and I was 2 1/2, she was killed by a falling tree. Two years later, our house burned down. The combo, I think, is probably what drove my family apart.
My mum, as you can imagine, pretty much fell apart.
My parents divorced when I was 5 or 6, and we were always moving. My mum always seemed to be blaming it on my dad. He had a good skill set when it came to money, but she didn’t: She didn’t know to—or know how to—apply for things like food stamps, so I literally never knew if there would be food on the table.
I certainly didn’t learn anything about how to manage money. I only knew I didn’t want the life I grew up with.
At the same time, the economy in Alaska changed completely. Because the oil companies were moving in—and willing to pay whatever housing costs were necessary for their workers—prices shot up: A one-bedroom apartment that had been $400 was now going for $1,000 or $2,000 a month.
Making My Big Move
I got married a few days after I turned 20: That way, I figured, nobody could say I was “just a teenager.” And, anyway, I wanted out.
About eight months after I got married, we moved to Tennessee. That’s when it quickly became apparent that the marriage was a mistake. He really wasn’t working; I was paying all of our bills. I finally filed for divorce when I was 23—about three years too late.
But now I had to move out on my own, and come up with all that money on my own—and there was no money to speak of. I also found out he’d been “dating” while we were married. It was a lot to go through emotionally. And I just wanted to be out of it so badly, I took all of the debt that we had.
Around that time, I was talking to my grandmother, who had fallen ill, and she mentioned that I had family—cousins of hers—in Tennessee. I looked them up in the phone book, called them, and couldn’t believe the reception I got: They were thrilled to have a long-lost relative call out of the blue. “We would love to meet you,” they said. “Come meet us at this restaurant!”
The Day My Fate Changed
Richard and his wife Carol, who were in their 60s, turned out to be the warmest people I’d ever met. They accepted me unconditionally. In fact, I had never felt so accepted and loved before.
Richard was a psychologist, and he quickly became my surrogate everything. He was kind of like a father, grandfather and mentor all rolled into one. His appearance was a total blessing in my life.
He also began giving me the financial education I’d never had. He and Carol were really into investing, so I began reading Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg … anything I could get my hands on. They also introduced me to the National Association of Investment Clubs. Never mind that I was a club of one, my interest was piqued.
Then, just when everything seemed to be looking up, Richard was diagnosed with cancer. He died shortly before my 26th birthday.
A Bittersweet Birthday
It’s funny how life works: I was utterly devastated. Then, within a month of him dying, right around my birthday, I finally landed the steady job I’d always wanted.
The United States Postal Service, where I’d been working part-time—one of my two jobs—hired me full-time as a distribution clerk sorting mail for the carriers. I took it not because it was a challenging job, but because it was a stable job, and that’s what I needed.
It paid me an annual salary of $27,000. It also meant getting to work at 2 a.m., but I didn’t mind. (Find out the salary that leads to true happiness.)
A couple of months after Richard’s death, Carol said to me: “Victoria, this is what he wanted to give you for your birthday. He wanted you to have a bright future, to build a nest egg.”
Richard’s final gift to me was one single stock of my choice, that I’d research and he—now Carol—would buy for me. It may be the best gift I was ever given.
An Investor Is Born
I picked out a stock based on the NAIC magazines that Carol let me borrow, and I decided on Quaker Oats, because everybody knows Quaker Oats: Everybody eats it every day! So she bought me one share, then worth $45.
I missed Richard every day, and I kept on investing as often as I could. I would send in another $10 to buy more Quaker every other month—it was all I could afford—and I kept on reading like a fiend. I’d started reading companies’ annual reports and quarterly reports, but I didn’t really get into price-to-earning ratios. I would simply ask myself: Do I believe in this company? Do I completely understand what they sell? If I didn’t understand what they do/make/sell, I wouldn’t buy their stock.
About six months in, I began buying Wendy’s, too. And as those stocks grew, I bought others—until I had about 10. Around 1999, I heard about ShareBuilder, an online brokerage through ING, and after thoroughly researching, I opened an account with $102—a lot of money to me at the time.
Life Pays Dividends
Magically, the money in my account was growing. I started a spreadsheet—one I’ve now had for twelve years—to keep track of everything. Soon, I began to learn about the power of dividends: Eventually Quaker Oats was bought by Pepsi, and they gave me more shares when that happened. I bought Volvo—I believe in their cars—and they were bought by Ford. That was a five to one split, something I’d never heard of before.
Besides believing in my picks, I’d started living and breathing investing. At night I’d have a hard time turning off CNBC: Watching the numbers go by was like a drug for me. (Read why women can make the best investors.)
But I was also patient: I would watch a stock for a while—sometimes as long as a year before buying. I would also watch a company’s 52-week average to see how the price changed over time.
And I paid attention: For example, I started buying Netflix a long time ago. I work at the post office, and all of a sudden I saw all these red envelopes going by, and I said, What is this? I have to investigate. I bought the stock when it was $16. All in all, I bought $250 worth, and it’s now worth $4,000. Real world experience is better than a hot tip from a friend any day.
Of course some of my stocks are only breaking even. Some are losses. And I’ve come close to making my share of big mistakes.
But now I’m 41, and sometimes I think I must be dreaming: I invested less than $10,000 and turned it into almost $60,000?
How I Did This as a ‘Regular Person’
I’ve also done all this on a real-person’s salary: I still have the same job today—16 years later, but now I’m back in Alaska. I make around $68,000 a year, which is pretty good for someone without a college degree.
I have a mortgage, and I’m trying to contribute the maximum to my retirement, too.
Maybe it’s my childhood, but I still always feel behind—like I’ll never have enough to retire, or stop working overtime. Probably because today my mum only has Social Security to live on, and I see people my age with a million dollars, but I’m only me.
Still, the thing I think I’m the most proud of is building this little club of me. I may be the only one present, but I know I have lots of people with me in spirit.
Victoria’s Tips: My Advice for Would-Be Investors
Get a Financial Plan. Your investments should be just part of your big picture. I’ve always managed my own portfolio, but when it came to my finances, I consulted a Certified Financial Planner® I found at LearnVest. Knowing I have a plan helps me sleep better at night. (In honour of Mother’s Day, you can get two financial plans for the price of one until May 30th. Click here to learn more.)
A Little Goes a Long Way: Make regular investments—monthly works for most people. And stay the course: You’re investing for the long-term, so do not panic when the markets fluctuate. I built my portfolio $10 or $15 at a time.
Put Your Future Self First: Your biggest financial priority should be saving for retirement, and you have to start now because most places don’t offer a pension. I tell my coworkers all the time: Put your paycheck in your retirement fund, and they say, “Oh, we’re gonna go on a nice cruise!” (Worried you’re behind? Read Retirement 101: Everything You Need to Know)
Do What Works for You: For most people, individual stocks may not be the way to go. They take patience and lots of research. I read all available company info, and I research the products and/or services before buying. I also watch the stock for about one year before I buy.
Buy What You Believe In: If I believe in the company and I use their products or services, then I decide whether to purchase the stock. This isn’t just about making money for me, I am a conscientious investor. I have no Exxon-Mobil in my portfolio, because of the Exxon-Valdez spill. I won’t buy Wal-Mart because they don’t pay their workers enough to live. I won’t buy stock in any company where I don’t spend my money. (Here’s how you can learn to be a socially conscious investor.)
Invest for the Long Haul: I was really broke after 9/11 because my portfolio plummeted, and my first big investment after that was like a leap of faith. But I just let the money sit and shrink, and it grew back up on its own. The first time it went back up to over $15,000, I thought it was a mistake!