A reader posed this question about the late William Donald Schaefer: How could a man who worked all his adult life in state and local government die rich?
At the time of his death in April at age 89, the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and comptroller had an estate worth nearly $2.5 million.
Frankly, given Schaefer's long career and modest lifestyle, accumulating millions would be easy. Schaefer had a good salary, generous pensions and worked up until age 85 — a couple of decades longer than most people. He was famously frugal and invested his savings. And he also avoided some of life's big expenses, such as divorce or children.
"I am surprised he only had $2.5 million," says Stephen Shore, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University.
If you're an average worker with a dream of becoming a millionaire — and aren't in too much of a rush — Schaefer's life is an example of how do it.
Granted, as a public servant, Schaefer had perks (such as the opportunity to live eight years in a governor's mansion) that most of us will never have.
But here are some things that contributed to his sizable estate — and a lesson on how to accumulate wealth:
Work, work, work After serving in the Army during World War II, Schaefer returned to Baltimore and set up a title company. The business wasn't wildly successfully, but, Schafer's friends say, the young lawyer was more interested in politics anyway.
Schaefer's salary when he was first elected mayor was $25,000; by the time he finished his fourth term in 1986 he was making $53,000. That same year, at 65 — an age when many people retire — Schaefer was elected to the first of two terms as governor. His starting salary was $85,000. By the time he left office, it was $120,000. Not bad.
He taught and worked with a Baltimore law firm for a few years after the governorship. Then he served two terms as state comptroller, another position that paid six figures.
Schaefer stopped working at age 85, when he lost the 2006 Democratic primary for a third term as comptroller. But all those years of bringing in a paycheck meant he didn't have to dip into savings to live.
Save, save, save Schaefer's friends say he was a huge saver, although it's unclear how much he managed to salt away each year. Assuming he saved 15 percent of pay annually — the amount recommended by retirement experts — and invested the money, it would be easy to rack up millions.
Baltimore investment firm T. Rowe Price crunched the numbers at my request. The projections begin with Schaefer's first year as Baltimore City Council president in 1967, when he earned $15,000 — about $101,000 in today's dollars — and ended with his last year as comptroller, when he earned $116,000.
For the years when salary information wasn't available, Price assumed that his income remained the same as the year before, or — when Schaefer was out of office — that he didn't have earnings. Schaefer's associates say he invested in stocks through a broker but was also a big fan of U.S. savings bonds. For this exercise, Price assumed Schaefer's portfolio was 60 percent stocks, 30 percent bonds and 10 percent cash.
The result: Schaefer could have accumulated $2.6 million over 40 years.
But even workers with more modest salaries can become millionaires if they adopt the same savings rate and portfolio. Price ran the numbers on that, too.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the average salary offer to a member of the Class of 2011 this year has been $50,462 — the equivalent of $8,631 in 1967. Using the 1967 salary as a starting point, Price assumed the worker's salary rose with inflation. After 40 years, Price calculated, the worker would end up with $1.3 million.
Pensions Schaefer enjoyed another huge benefit that many people don't have — pensions from the city, state and military.
According to the most recent figures, Schaefer's city pension ran about $132,170 a year. His governor's pension, half of whatever the current governor earns, was worth $75,000 annually. (The governor's pension was suspended while he was comptroller.) And the comptroller pension amounted to about $13,510 a year.
Also, Schaefer retired in 1979 as a colonel from the U.S. Army Reserves.
Terry Howell, managing editor of benefits for Military.com, provided a ballpark estimate of Schaefer's military pension. According to Howell, Schaefer would have received 71 percent of his base pay as a colonel plus an annual 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment.
Assuming Schaefer started collecting his pension at age 60, Howell says, he would have received retirement pay amounting to $1.13 million over 29 years.
No marriage, no divorce Marriage provides many financial benefits, such as Social Security survivor benefits, certain tax breaks and the ability to share household costs with a spouse.