‘The Best Gift I Ever Got’: How a $45 Stock Turned Into $60,000

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 mom, as you can imagine, pretty much fell apart.

My parents divorced when I was 5 or 6, and we were always moving. My mom 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 twenty: 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 ten. 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 mom 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

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!

More from LearnVest:

What’s your investing IQ? Take this quiz to find out.

Another success story: How I Paid Off $25,000 in Debt in Two Years

Here are eight things you think are good for your money … but aren’t.

Need a better grip on your money? This free 10-day bootcamp will help you Take Control

  • Jenna

    Thanks for sharing your story, Victoria!

    For anyone trying to build a financial future $10 at a time, whether investing, saving, or paying down debt, it’s great (and so important) to hear success stories to remind us that all the hard work will eventually pay off!

  • Beee

    That article was really difficult to read because of all the LV asides linking to other articles. Very distracting. I am happy for the author, though, and the success she has found.

  • Melinda_hurley

    Excellent article!

  • Nancy R.

    This is a great story. It really encourages me to do more research about my investing rather than just let my 401k manager handle everything.

    LV – what’s with all the parentheticals? Way too many links to somewhat irrelevant topics. That was distracting.

  • Shana Garr

    this is really inspiring-thank you!

  • N_nicolaisen

    so inspiring! thank you!

  • CarrieSloan

    Hi all, Isn’t Victoria’s story incredible? 

    Nancy and Beee: Because it’s told in her voice, we wanted to provide links where readers could learn more about a given topic on LearnVest if they wanted to, and educate themselves. It was just meant to be helpful. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Sarah

    Wow! Good for her! So inspiring.

  • http://twitter.com/moneychef1 Christine Donnolo

    It’s the drip method, it works all the time!  What would our world be like if everyone followed your system? 

  • Maria Espinosa

    Great story… I’m 66, retired and barely making it on social security and small pension. Is it too late for me to start building my nest?

    • Tajmaurer

      It’s never too late. Start small by investing $10 or $20 at Share Builder and in no time your money will be growing with the right stocks.

  • SC

    Amazing story!

  • Amber

    Thank you so much for sharing, Victoria. I’m 25 and reading financial testimonies like this help me stay on track in my investing / saving. I wish more people followed in your steps.

  • Jhutchnz

    This is a very inspiring story. I wish I had thought about this years ago.
    But for some reason, it still seems out of my reach.. I know the day will come when I am able to invest $10 :)
    Thank you for sharing.. the impossible is starting to look possible :)

  • circafashion

    Thanks for sharing your journey. such an inspiration and great advice

  • Terry Vo

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I want to start investing now! I invested $10,000 that I had saved growing up as a kid only to see it dwindle away these past few years. I’m trying to figure out my next step. Thank you for helping me realize that I don’t need to make one huge lump-sum investment but to put in money monthly. Thank you!

  • Tajmaurer

    Congratulations Victoria. Like you, I also started investing with Share Builder a couple of years ago. I have been investing $200 a month and presently have over $7,500. I started investing when the market was down, so many of my stocks hav e made  money. My Harley Davidson stock, has doubled my investment (my husband and I ride). Like you, I love researching stocks and investing in ones that I believe in. I started out investing $50 a month with only 2 stocks, Harley Davidson for my husband, and Disney for me. Both of those stocks are my best investments. I now have 8 stocks and plan on adding more in the future. I wish all women would read financial periodicals ad take charge of their lives.

  • mhp

    thanks for sharing–so inspiring!

  • Olsen Erica

    i’m happy for you.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/63JYYTJ44NAFVNFAKZ4FEDOBJI Andy

    Thanks for sharing!  This was a great personal story of taking little steps to make a big pile of money.  My only concern was the focus on buying single shares of stocks.  What if that one stock you picked was the great energy trader Enron or the great telecommunication company WorldCom?  Almost all individual investors can’t beat the S&P 500 over the long haul.

  • liatreela

    What a wonderful story. I can only echo what others have said: inspirational for sure!

  • amadumi

    i have to say out of most of the stories i have read on this site and others, this story has made my day and i believe in this. for her to go from where she was from to where she is now, she is a believable story. i hope there are more stories like this. also how she did things. i am very intrigue how she did things that i want to do this. and since i live in rural and reservation south dakota, i do not have access to some of the amenities that i would have down town chicago. i want to do what she did. it seems accessible. it gives hope and it was possible. her story reminds me of me.

  • Victoria

    Wow, I would like to thank everyone for the kind words.  I was a bit apprehensive at first when I checked my inbox and found my own photo staring out at me.  All I can really say is that Employee Purchase Plans, DRIPs and online places like ShareBuilder along with time and discipline really make all the difference. Twenty-five, fifty or one-hundred dollars at a time it does add-up eventually.  
    Again, thanks warm responses.

    • Your Big Mistake

      Glad you are doing well and sorry if I hurt you in the past. I was young and not very smart. Hope all goes well for you

  • Maria

    Victoria, thank you so much sharing your very personal story. I truly believe that when people share “their stories” the way you did, it helps many others. What an inspiration you are! Unfortunately I’ve been so busy these last few days taking care of my father that I didn’t have time to open this LV article but the title really caught me. So I was moved to save it and read it when i knew i would have the time to concentrate. Sooooo glad I did! I plan to read and reference each item and article you mentioned. Thank you again for sharing. I wish you continued success in your life! Blessings to you!

  • Alikonat2

    Big kudos to you, Victoria! And thank you for sharing your advice and story. Very, very inspiring! I wish you all the best and am rooting for your club!!! I believe wholeheartedly that you will continue to be successful and happy. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/brandy.n.oliver Brandy Oliver

    Wow! Congratulations!
    I’m a little envious of your confidence with your financial pursuits. I always feel like investment related things are completely beyond me, and always wind up feeling too stupid to handle it, which is a major downer for someone like me that likes to be in control of things.
    Thank you for being sharing your story and being an inspiration.

  • Julia

    I soooo enjoyed reading this!  What a story, and solid tips to boot.  May be my favorite thing that I’ve read on this site.  :-)   Sounds like you’ve lived quite a life already.  It’s awesome how God can turn a small thing like meeting a distant relative into a lasting blessing.  That’s what I believe anyway.  :-)   Congratulations on your success and thank you for sharing!!!

  • Taz

    This is wonderful! I feel motivated by this article.

  • http://www.livelovemanja.com/ LIVE.LOVE.MANJA

    Gasp! Truly love and adore this transparent, raw, and authentic article the author shares here and the rich advice (life experience) she shares. Her sharing makes this article & the art of investing (building a portfolio) relatable and less intimidating. Thank you for giving us the tools and encouragement so many young women need and middle aged are looking for. You have both encouraged and empowered us. Manja!

    @livelovemanja
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    http://www.livelovemanja.com