Secret Millionaires, Thrift Shopping and Your Brain on Costco

by Katy on March 11, 2010 · 24 comments

Modest home of "The Secret Millionaire"

I spent an hour or so the other day slogging my through the 968 e-mails that were causing my inbox to bulge at the seams. (Is there such thing as an e-mail hoarder) In doing so, I came across a few links to articles sent in by readers that I wanted to share with the Non-Consumer Advocate community.

Secret Millionaire Donates Fortune to Lake Forest College

The subtitle of this article is “Woman who lived frugally donates $7 million to Alma Mater” so you know it holds a special place in my heart. (Seriously, this is my not-so-secret fantasy.)

Grace Groner, A.K.A. the “secret millionaire” recently died at age 100, and lived a long and stripped down life.

“She got her clothes from rummage sales. She walked everywhere rather than buy a car. And her one-bedroom house in Lake Forest held little more than a few plain pieces of furniture, some mismatched dishes and a hulking TV set that appeared left over from the Johnson administration.”

Groner, a Lake Forest college alumn, bought three shares of Abbott stock in 1935 that did, ahem, very well, and seems to have always reinvested her dividends. This appears to be the sole source of her wealth of riches.

One could debate how she lived her life, but essentially she is the poster child for the simple living/ frugal tenet of live beneath your means. (Perhaps Nicolas Cage needs to take a page from her book?)

I have noticed that the “secret millionaires” that crop up in the news from time to time tend to have never married or had children. And I am going to use the excuse of my family to explain away why this story is not about me. Yeah . . . that’s the ticket.

Thrift Shift: Value Village Rebrand as a Chic-Alt Winners

NowToronto ran interesting article about how some thrift stores are shifting away from serving the low income population towards supplying hipsters who buy with an eye for resale, as well as the well to do who scout for designer bargains.

“Retail experts point to a new conscious, ideological frugality that’s made second-hand virtuous. ‘The [market] for this type of retail offering is no longer [coming] from a place of need,’ says Frances Gunn of Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. ‘We’re looking at a customer who is oriented to personal style.’ “

The article also looks at Goodwill, whose philosophy differs from a traditional for-profit retail operation.

“We’re a lot more than a thrift store,” says Brian Kellow, Goodwill’s director of external relations. “We enable people with limited disposable income to participate in consumer culture,” he says, explaining that money from sales in his non-profit stores gets recycled into job creation, training and education.

The whole article makes me want to jump off the couch and participate in a little Goodwill hunting, but my clutter issues say otherwise.

How Costco Primes Us to Spend More Money

Heather Levin’s The Greenest Dollar ran an enlightening piece last July, (see? I really did need to comb through my inbox!) on how the pleasure centers of our brains and the neurotransmitter Dopamine are involved with shopping, specifically at Costco.

Levin explains how all those gleaming flat screen TV’s, diamond rings and designer handbags prime the pleasure centers in our brain the moment we enter the hallowed halls of retail Costco. And even if the high end items are not on our shopping list, we still end up satisfying this now unsatisfied need with a box of these cookies and a set of those books.

“Now, think about how you feel when you find something fabulous in the store. You get excited, right? Your breathing may quicken, your heart starts to pound, and you reach out to just touch it.

When we see something we want to buy, our brain is instantly activated. Know what it does?

Our nucleus accumbens (NAcc), which is the pleasure center of the brain, releases the hormone dopamine, which is the precursor of adrenaline. Dopamine is very, very powerful. Scientists James Olds and Peter Milner discovered that when rats are overstimulated with dopamine release, they’ll literally die of pleasure (pg. 35).

So, the stronger we want something the stronger our NAcc activation, and the more dopamine is released.”

It’s an interesting way of looking at how consumers both consciously and unconsciously are influenced by factors we’re unaware of.

But it certainly cements my policy of having Costco be the errand that my husband is in charge of. At least his only impulse purchases are hot dogs.

Thank you to everyone who shared these interesting articles with me, keep ’em coming!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenn H March 11, 2010 at 11:24 am

If you gotta’ go “dying of pleasure” sure seems like the right way to do it. I’m just saying.


Katy March 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

It’s the best a lab rat can hope for!



Heather@TheGreenestDollar March 11, 2010 at 11:39 am

Hi Katy,

Thanks so much for mentioning my article. I love your blog! Definitely adding you to my ‘roll.

Thanks again!


Katy March 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

Thanks, you’re not too shabby yourself. 😉



WilliamB March 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Well, “Frugal parent leaves $3 million to kids” isn’t exactly a riviting headline.


Lisa Whipple March 11, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I am sure Jessica gloated about our GREATwill bonanza. In fact, I heard her try to phone you and gloat while it was happening….:)


Jessica Wolk-Stanley March 11, 2010 at 1:09 pm

My nucleus accumbens (NAcc) is still abuzz from my fantastic finds (2 pairs of BRAND NEW Børn shoes, A pair of Lucky jeans and a cute dress that I think Lisa wishes she snagged) (oh, and a new pair of genteel European mary janes for my daughter). My husband is getting to hear a lot about how insanely comfortable the shoes are.


Tracy Balazy March 11, 2010 at 6:47 pm

BORN shoes are fantastic! I have one pair, from Value World or the Council for the Blind Thrift Store, and I love them. Two weeks ago, I found a mint-condition pair of black Dansko maryjane-style shoes for $2.40 at my favorite Value World here in metro Detroit! I was surprised at the low price, even for VW. They were $4.20, but I had the half-off coupon they issue periodically.


Melissa March 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

At least now I have “data” to back up my reasons to my husband on why we should let our Costco membership lapse next month. (Yes, the three pounds of coffee for $11 is cheap, but the five books, kids DVD, and giant package of fruit leather that weren’t on the list aren’t.) We’ll save money by paying more for coffee at Whole Foods even.


Katy March 11, 2010 at 3:27 pm

My husband used to come home from Costco with all kinds of irrelevant *stuff*, but I’ve beaten it out of him, and he now knows to stick with the list. He is still allowed a snack when he’s all done though.

I’m not a monster. 😉



Kristen@TheFrugalGirl March 12, 2010 at 2:25 am

My husband usually does our Costco shopping too…I send him with a list, and he rarely does impulse buying.

And it saves ME running an errand with four kids, and for that I am eternally grateful!


Mrs. B March 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm

I can actually go to Costco and pretty much stick to my list. Although..I do buy their brand of jeans for my boys. I don’t have to look all over town and they are a great price. I only do so as needed. I can see myself letting my membership lapse when my boys are no longer living at home. The food packages are just to large for two people.


wendy March 11, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I thought I was the only one! Yesterday when my inbox couldn’t accept anymore emails because I reached 1000, I got down to sorting through them. I am back up to 980, however.


Hiptobeme March 11, 2010 at 10:00 pm

How can you buy used shoes? They are formed to someone else’s feet? I’m just wondering, I guess I am just not there. It’s just one of those things where I draw the line, ya know?


Katy March 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Shoes, like all things used can easily be found is brand new condition. I never buy used shoes that look anything less.



SimplyJo (aka 365girl) March 11, 2010 at 11:46 pm

In reply to your shout out for articles – I received this last night which I thought was interesting – Jo x


Jeanne Grunert March 12, 2010 at 4:47 am

I loved this story too yet the media distortion was unbelievable. One tv reporter scoffed at the idea that anyone could live this frugally and amass that amount of money. “She just got lucky with the stock” was his dismissal. What arrogance. He’s probably $20k in debt and jealous. I say Go Frugality! Go financial freedom!


Molly On Money March 12, 2010 at 6:22 am

I love thrift stores BUT the town I’m in now the Goodwill along with the other thrift stores are incredible overpriced. The other day I was at one of many thrift stores we have and found a pair of rubber boots from Target (which I had bought at Target about 2 weeks prior for $17.99). This thrift store was selling them USED for $19.99!
What is a girl to do!


Karen March 12, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Yeah, it’s something when thrift stores mark prices UP. Our local Savers usually has reasonable prices, but about a quarter of the items there are so ridiculously priced that I think they must be pricing them while drunk or something. A failed art project for 7.99? Headless statuettes for 9.99? Personally, I’d throw both of these away , and always wonder who is buying them.


Kari Dahler March 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

I have to chime in about Costco. Yes, Costco can be a dangerous place if you don’t stick to your list. For those who can, it can really be a great and frugal way to shop. The quality of their meats and produce greatly surpasses that of most grocery stores, but a lot of us can’t get through the large packages before the things go bad. My neighbor friend and I have started splitting groceries, and I have to say it’s been working out great! We get better food at lower prices, ( always better to buy in bulk!), and by sharing nothing gets wasted. 🙂


Susan Lee - FL March 16, 2010 at 5:15 am

I agree. I stick to my list always. I hate to spend money is why. And when I can get chicken breasts for around $2/lb., that’s a deal around here. I walk right by the fancy, shiny things in the entrance area without a glimpse. I’m stuck in the 70’s so I have no interest whatsoever in electronics or jewelry and buying pants or blouses off a table without a fitting room isn’t my bag either. I don’t buy processed or packaged foods, just whole foods. So, I’m pretty safe in the warehouse because I want that great per pound deal on real food. Everyone has their own personal responses to the shiny, pretty things but for me it doesn’t do a thing….. not a shopper. Perhaps I’m a hunter/gatherer?


tammy March 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Can’t do the Costco / Sam’s Club route for two. We do purchase dog chow, canned dog food and chew bones for Mr Kronk at Sam’s Club. Much cheaper than the store. I wanted to pick up mayo and ketchup last time we were there but realized we’d never use it up before the date expired? Now WHERE did I put my 50 gallon drum of cooking oil?


Deb March 12, 2010 at 3:20 pm

After examing about a year’s worth of Costco receipts, we reached the conclusion that we weren’t saving at Costco at all. Impulse purchases were gobbling up any savings we might have realized – we didn’t hesitate to let the Costco membership go. Truthfully, there are good deals there, but it’s difficult to stick exactly to the list. Instead, we buy in bulk at other stores now such as Winco, Bob’s Red Mill, and I’ve found that great deals can be had at discount grocery stores such as Grocery Outlet.

Thrift store prices are definitely up in larger metro areas such as Portland. In the smaller town I moved, which is to 1 hr north, prices are still reasonable. Recently at the local Goodwill I found a virtually NEW, 6 piece set of LeCreuset cookware (yes, the enamel covered cast iron pans w/lids) – for $34 for all. It was all I could do not to get hysterical with joy when I found them.

Good thrift store deals are still out there, but seems they are getting harder to find.


Kris-ND March 14, 2010 at 9:47 am

I have never lived near a Costco(although when I go home to visit my grandma, she always takes me, so I do know what they are 😉 ) but when I lived on the other side of the state where we had a SAMS Club, I had to be very strict about staying with the list, or I could come home with an entire cart of stuff that I don’t even want, let alone

There were some things that we used to buy in bulk that were cheaper than any other place we had access to, and I used to buy alot of my homeschool supplies at SAMS, but once we found out that Tractor Supply sold the exact dog food our Dane(s) ate, we starting weaning ourselves off, and then let it laspe when we were going to move anyway.

I love stories like you posted Katy. Makes you feel all warm and squishy inside. I remember several years ago reading a story about someone who put a valuable gold coin into a Salvation Army Kettle. It always seems like those kinds of things are even more special because they are anonymous and totally unexpected.

We have people here who have become almost overnight millionaires because they sold mineral rights on their property. It really warms your heart to see frugal people, who didn’t change their lifestyle, not only be able to put their grandchildren through college, but spend a big chunk of that money donating it vs updating their kitchen.

I believe you should keep or spend your money as you like, but it does a heart good to see how some people choose to spend that money.


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