Gail World Trade CenterOn Sept. 11, 2001, Gail's husband went to work at the World Trade Center. He never came home again.

During the blur of grief and confusion, Gail, then a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old son, realized that she was now her family's de facto chief financial officer.

"We had just contracted to sell our condo and buy a house from my grandmother's estate," says Gail, now 47. "Jointly owned assets had to be moved into my name. And, of course, my husband's paycheck had been stopped immediately. I was terrified. I didn't know whether I had any income at all. I knew that there was life insurance, but aside from that, as far as I knew, I was broke."

She met with a broker for the first time and remembers thinking, "I can't screw this up."

She didn't. In fact, what started as a tragedy became a lesson in resilience and fiscal fortitude.

First, the Happy Ending

Gail just celebrated her fourth wedding anniversary. "I still can't believe how lucky I've been in love," she says. "Some people don't find it even once; I've had it twice." She is now a black-belt mixed martial arts instructor with her own dojo, and is a freelance writer covering art and museums.

Today, Gail is also a bona fide investor. But getting to this point -- dealing with confusing financial hurdles and establishing an investing style that is best for her -- was a challenge. Below, she describes her journey.

Q: Describe the moment you realized that you needed to take firm control of your own financial future.

Gail: I was closing on the condo sale and the house purchase and something funny happened. It was October 2001, and I was sitting there with two Realtors, two attorneys, a title search guy, you know, a pretty standard crew for a closing. Here were all these suits sitting around asking each other over and over: "How can we make money in this environment?" I raised my head and said, "Buy real estate investment trusts, preferably with a strong presence in Manhattan commercial real estate."

They all turned to look at me as if I had suddenly sprouted a second head.

I explained: A lot of commercial space was gone now. A lot more was closed for the duration. All those companies were going to have to go somewhere, no? There was total silence. And then they started talking to each other again. I doubt they took one word I said seriously -- and these were realty people. You would think they could see it.

It was the synthesis of these two things -- a sudden influx of money, and the near simultaneous realization that most guys in suits are idiots -- that brought me to The Motley Fool.

How did you start investing in the stock market?

Gail:
I didn't invest in stocks directly at first. I started with a portfolio that included a conservative income-producing equities fund, an S&P index fund, a bond index fund, and a couple of Treasury zero-coupon bonds. The blend worked out pretty well, actually. During the recent recession, that original port was never negative, though it lost most of its gains. I was
delighted with that, all things considered.

My approach to investing is to "set it and forget it." I like dividend producers, especially large caps, and I like value stocks when I can find them. I buy those, or funds holding those, reinvest the dividends, and pretend they aren't there.

I try not to buy anything I don't understand. Where I've made exceptions, I've generally come out a loser. I still keep a big chunk in the S&P index. And those zeroes are still just sitting there like an insurance policy: I like their predictability.

In 'Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl', an argument is made that women are better suited temperamentally to be great investors -- they are generally more patient, take less risk, and hold for the long term. Do you think any of that applies to you?

Gail:
Losing my husband made me very risk averse in some ways and adventurous in others. I wasn't at all athletic then, for instance, and yet I have a black belt now. I have said to other people that one thing about having something like 9/11 happen to you is that you can't really say anymore, "Wow, this is just the worst day ever." No matter what else comes up, there's this underlying awareness that you're actually doing OK, comparatively speaking.

I suppose that colors my investments, too. [When I started investing] I invested with an eye toward long-term retention rather than growth. I may have missed some go-go opportunities during the growth years, but I didn't get badly hurt later, and that's really all I was aiming for.

I'm perfectly happy with retention of value. I begrudge my money the amount of attention I would have to give it to get real growth, because the people around me are way more important.

My late husband and I were very concerned with money, especially at the end with that big house purchase right upon us. I regret that now because it meant that we weren't really focused on each other the way we should have been and then one day, he was gone.

That's a terrible thing to have missed -- that opportunity to really express how you feel -- and I work to ensure that it doesn't happen again with the loved ones I have around me now.

Robyn Gearey appreciates your comments.

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18 Comments

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chall73233

How about sharing the entire story, and all of the facts. Tell us more about about the million dollars (plus) received from the govt and the life insurance.
I am sure if most of us were given this same head start, we could do equally as well.

Sorry for her loss, but no kudos for her financial savy.

July 08 2011 at 7:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ethrpp

Excuse me...But the "9-11 survivors" recieved over a million dollars each from the U.S. Treasury (you and I) after the disaster!.. Ask someone who went from rags to riches without a Govt. check for advice on how to make it in this economy!!

July 07 2011 at 10:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bill Diecks

She of course does not mention the huge overpayment, averaging $1,400,000, given to families after 911. This money makes her independent for life and not in need of a job or insurance or a return on her investments! It is is sad that families of ther war dead get just $10K to $15K. The settlement folks for 9/11 went nuts!

July 07 2011 at 6:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Lorenzo

Not to minimize the tragic loss of her husband, but this woman is clearly very very wealthy (at least now, and I suspect even before 9/11, judging from the "grandmother's estate" remark). We're probably talking millions in assets. When my father died of a heart attack, my mother received no life insurance proceeds and could no longer afford the mortgage payments on our house, since my dad had borrowed against everything possible in order to build his small manufacturing business. The creditors got everything. We went from upper-middle class, living in genteel suburbia, to firmly middle class apartment dwellers. Talk about a 'financial journey" as in the title of this article. THIS sort of thing is the reality of family tragedy for many people. (Entrepreneurship is not all it's cracked up to be, by the way. There are many losers in this risky game.) This woman's story of going from 911 tragedy to great wealth is a wonderful bit of Americana, but her story is not helpful to anyone except the few people who were lucky enough to be in similar circumstances when tragedy struck.

July 07 2011 at 11:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Geno

To BAD!

July 07 2011 at 10:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
susiel

i am sorry for her loss and the loss of all life that occurred un necessary attack on that horrid day.
However as folks mentioned some of the folks that lost got something from the gov. We saw 1 picture in time of someone that had the fortitude to move on and do well. I am happy that she found love again and moved on from her horrid loss.
However i also agree with some of the other statements. The ground zero responders, still dealing with illness, loss themselves and those that also died there. I wonder where there stories are? How are the policeman , fire fighter families doing? I would hope this journalist, does some in depth digging on our ground zero first responders. I would imagine
they did not have a brink of a big purchase, a sudden inheritance or much gov stipend help. I want to hear more about there families and how they are doing.
Please tell us more about the first responders families.

July 07 2011 at 8:32 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
pankaj13

Hiiiiiiiii Whats New In Ur Jurney
www.unisif.com

July 07 2011 at 7:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
heimbachmark

And the march continues! These articles continue to amaze me. Stay at home mom because her husband was making big money. Oh my what do I do now."Buy a house from the grandmothers "estate". I knew there was "life insurance". Notice no mention of how many zero's! "I still keep a BIG CHUNK in the S & P". and on and on and on. No mention of the worry about cutting spending in social security because topics of that nature do not concern people like this. Continually ignoring the middle class which is rapidly becoming the sub-middle class. We are the majority of the population of this country with a minority voice. We are being positioned into a voiceless state. What is it going to take to wake us all up?

July 07 2011 at 6:54 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
deuceof19090

This may sound cold hearted but what would she and all those that died that day were killed in a car accident or something, the rhing that piss;s me off the most is they (most of them) feel they are owed for there lost. How about paying the bills the firefighters and cops are paying still from that day.

July 07 2011 at 6:16 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Brenda

It was the synthesis of these two things -- a sudden influx of money!!!!!!!!!!!!! It's there in black and white, you just have to read in between the lines. That is the money she received.

July 07 2011 at 1:16 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply