CDAC Spotlight:
What Happens When the Least of These Gives the Most?

June 10, 2016
By  Rita W Green

In 1995, one elderly woman’s act moved her from obscurity to well-deserved distinction. Hers is a story of simple living and great giving of herself to a community she deeply loved.

In July 1995, the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) announced that Oseola McCarty had given them more than half of her life’s savings—$150,000 (of $280,000). This act was born out of a life that reflected satisfaction from work, contentment, financial discipline and a heart for others.

Washing machines, as we know them today, gained household popularity in the 1950s. McCarty was born in 1908. In those days, laundry was done by hand. In her book, Simple Wisdom for Rich Living, McCarty describes her typical day. “I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I would soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub them, wrench them, rub them again, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I would start on the next batch. Well, I would wash all day, and in the evenings, I would iron until 11 o'clock.” McCarty took great pride in her work and noted, “Everyone needs to work hard at something to feel good about themselves. Every job can be done well and every day has its satisfactions.”

McCarty took no shortcuts when it came to doing a quality job with the clothing she laundered. She tried an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but found that “the washing machine didn’t rinse enough, and the dryer turned the whites yellow.”

McCarty’s will to work was only rivaled by consistency at saving her money. To have accumulated $280,000 from washing clothes from age 11 to 86 through a consistent savings habit is no small feat. According to McCarty, “I don’t like to waste. I keep everything until it wears out. Usefulness often outlasts style. My secret was contentment. I was happy with what I had.” McCarty said that “it’s not the ones that make the big money but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You’ve got to leave your investment alone long enough for it to increase.” She shares that she would “go to the bank once a month, hold out just enough to cover my expenses, and put the rest into my savings account.” McCarty charged as little as $1.50 for a bundle of clothes when she began working, up to a maximum of $10 in 1994 when she retired because of arthritis. Like any good steward, McCarty knew her limits but contended that although she couldn’t do everything, she could do something to help people. That heart for others began with her family.

McCarty stopped attending school when was in the sixth grade to help care for her aunt, who also worked as a laundress along with her mother and grandmother. These women were the three biggest influences in her life. By 1967, they had all passed away. But McCarty was determined to do what she could to help other people, which is why she chose to give a large portion of savings to help others go to college. This unselfish act was underscored by the fact that she herself was unable to finish school and that the beneficiary, USM, did not admit African-American students until 1965.

McCarty had a deep sense of community and her gift inspired others to give. Because of her donation, USM did not have to wait until her death to begin distributing scholarships; others, moved by her act of giving, also contributed money, which more than tripled her endowment. Ted Turner responded to McCarty’s gift by giving a billion dollars to charity.

McCarty cared about her community and explained that “building community is not that hard. It just takes ordinary friendliness. The woman who took me to the doctor when my arthritis got bad is a checkout person at my grocery store. When she helped me with my groceries all those years, we spoke and became acquainted.” Because of McCarty’s sense of community, several students have received a college education. She commented, “I am proud that I worked hard and that my money will help young people who worked hard to deserve it. I’m proud that I am leaving something positive in this world. My only regret is that I didn’t have more to give.”

McCarty was in a position to give because she diligently saved a portion of her earnings. Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension encourages savings behavior by spearheading the Mississippi Saves campaign, part of the national America Saves initiative, which is celebrated the last week in February. The America Saves initiative is managed by the Consumer Federation of America, which seeks to motivate, encourage and support low- and moderate-income households to save money, reduce debt and build wealth. Commitment precedes action and Mississippi Saves encourages individuals and families to take the America Saves pledge at as the first step toward a lifestyle of saving money.

Saving money is a big step toward financial health, and financial institutions in Mississippi are doing their part to assist households in this effort. This year, Mississippi celebrates its first Bank On initiative in Hattiesburg, Miss. Bank On Hattiesburg is a partnership of the city of Hattiesburg, United Way, First Bank, MSU Extension and others. After making the savings commitment, being banked is important so consumers can follow through on that commitment and have a safe and secure place for their savings.

Oseola McCarty stands as that shining example of the idea that it’s not the amount you earn but how you spend it that determines your financial outcome. And initiatives like Mississippi Saves and Bank On Hattiesburg can help consumers follow the example that she set. When consumers are able to financially secure their households, they become empowered to help others and improve the well-being of their communities.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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