A friend asks you out to a nice dinner. The evening’s been swell, then the check comes. Your friend whistles an idle tune, stares blankly into the distance, does anything other than reach for the check. Finally, you give in and pay for the meal. Just like last time. This is especially infuriating because your friend used to be the king of England. My name’s…
Saving money is of piqued importance these days, but even a good thing, taken too far, can be bad. Have you seen the show Extreme Cheapskates? I can’t say I endorse the idea of making a bed out of packing peanuts or sharing a single q-tip with your spouse to save money. But some of the most extreme cheapskates of all time didn’t need to worry about regular savings, let alone ‘eating exclusively from restaurant dumpsters by choice’ levels of savings. These serious skinflints, these marvelous misers were all fabulously wealthy.
Take for instance one man thought to be the inspiration for literature’s most iconic money-grubbers, Ebeneezer Scrooge. John Elwes’ was born into prosperity in Britain in 1714, living on a large country estate with the equivalent of *millions in the bank, but he managed to turn all that around. In fairness, he had help. His mother, perhaps wanting to ensure her late husband’s fortune lasted as long as possible, would die of starvation rather than spend money on food. Despite this, Elwes’ early life was one of creature comforts, the best school, society functions, and vacations to the Continent.
All of that changed when John Elwes met his maternal uncle, Harvey. Harvey Elwes was a notorious miser who prided himself on spending a mere £110 a year on his lifestyle, which I can tell you equates to $138, but it’s hard to adjust for inflation when you’re talking nearly 300 years ago. Suffice it to say, that’s not a lot of money to spend across an entire year. John began to play up his own stinginess to impress Harvey. The two would spend evenings complaining about other people’s spending, while sharing a single glass of wine. When Harvey died, John inherited his fortune… and his miserly nature. Elwes was now richer *and more cheap.
Though he would become the member of Parliament for wealthy Berkshire county, Elwes only became more eccentrically penny-pinching. He rode an old horse to London, taking a long and circuitous route to avoid tolls. He lived in uninhabited homes like a squatter, refusing to put any money into the upkeep of the buildings. To save on candles, Elwes went to bed precisely at sundown. His wig, a must for gentleman of the day, he found in a hedge. Elwes would wear the same suit for months at a time, during the day and to bed at night. His clothes would be worn to absolute tatters; people passing him on the street assumed he was a beggar and gave him change. An actual down-on-his-luck, living-rough person might spend that money on food, but not Elwes. He ate meat so maggoty “that it walked about his plate” and once even robbed a rat of a dead duck it had found in the river. Again, this was a member of Parliament, comparable to a US Senator. In the end, it was his cost-saving eating habits that did him in, leaving him sick and malnourished. The doctor who attended his deathbed said he would have lived at least another 20 years if he had spent a little money taking care of himself. His net worth at the time of his death? The modern equivalent of nearly 1 billion GBP, which went to two illegitimate sons.
18th century Britain must have been a good scene for misers, because it generated a fair few. Over in Harrow, north-west, Daniel Dancer inherited his family fortune in 1736, which could easily have provided 20 year old Dancer and his sister with a very comfortable life indeed. Instead, they chose to live like peasants, and not in a good “staying humble and not losing touch with the common man” sort of way. I’ll speak mostly to Daniel’s habits, but you can assume they apply to his sister, too. A sister whose name I could not find, even in books that still used curvy F’s instead of S’s. Even they don’t both listing the fifter’s name.
These days, Harrow is part of Greater London and sits only a few miles from Wembley Stadium, but back then, the area was all farms, which is how the Dancer family had built their wealth. Until Daniel, who left the field unplowed to save on the expense of men and equipment to actually, you know, farm. The lack of agriculture can’t be blamed for their diet, however. One a week, the sister would cook them a meal of hard dumplings and cooked bones or meat. Where did they get the meat? I’m glad you ask, though you might not be in a second. Wherever Daniel found it, be it the carcass of a sheep that had died at the edge of the property some days prior or a bone already being gnawed on by a dog. That protein and the dumplings would them be parceled out to be eaten once daily for the next six days, only to repeat the process again next week.
Soap was too precious a commodity for the Dancers, so Daniel would bathe in a nearby creek, scrubbing himself with wet sand and drying in the sun. He would the adorn his reasonably-clean-considering body with the most shameful raggedy, befouled excuse for clothing. Daniel wore each item of clothing for weeks or months at a time, until it wore clean through. Then he’d put another piece of clothing or loose scrap of fabric haphazardly over the hole. Did he sew these patches on? No. He tied them on to himself. And he didn’t even use twine or yarn, because those things cost money, too. He would tie his layers on with handfuls of hay that was still growing on the property, though I can’t pretend to understand how.
To the surprise of no one, the Dancers were recluses, not that people were falling over themselves to visit. They really only had two visitors, their neighbors, Lady Tempest and her brother, Captain Holmes. They brought food to the sister when she was gravely ill and tried to persuade Daniel to send for a doctor. Whether he thought his sister would get better on her own or he consciously valued the doctor’s fee more than her life, we can’t say for sure, but the outcome was the same. She died and Daniel, inheriting her portion of the family estate, was now even richer. The only creature Dancer showed any affection for was his old dog. Until a neighbor complained about the dog chasing his sheep. To avoid being taken to court or having to pay to replace sheep, Dancer had a blacksmith remove the dog’s teeth.
On his once a year outing to buy a new shirt, the only clothing purchase he’d make, he tried to haggle the owner of a second-hand shop down on the price of a shirt from three shillings to two shillings and sixpence. Here is as much as I know about the old British money system: pence is plural for penny and there are 12 pence to the shilling. Let’s scale it up to be a little easier to understand. If the shirt was priced at $3, he only wanted to pay $2.50. Dancer and the shop owner argued and settled in the middle on two shillings and nine pence. When Daniel paid the three shillings, the shop owner refused to give him any change. Furious at being cheated out of three pennies, Dancer took her where, to his horror, she won, and Dancer was order to cover the expenses involved, which came to five shillings. One can’t help but think he probably felt that loss more keenly than the loss of his sister.
Lady Tempest continued to visit Dancer and try to sway him on the merits of spending money on food or someone to keep up the house. She did manage to convince him to spend one shilling on a hat, to replace the one he’d worn for 14 years straight, but the next time Lady Tempest saw Dancer, he was back in his old hat, having sold the new hat. Still, Dancer must have thought highly of Lady Tempest, because it was to her that he left his fortune when he died at the staggering age of 78. Maybe eating roadkill and not bathing is good for your immune system or something. When Lady Tempest died the following year, everything went to her brother, Captain Holmes. When Holmes had the Dancer house cleaned up,the servants found money hidden everywhere, coins and banknotes tucked into nooks and crannies, even hidden in the tea pot. Dancer is yet another candidate held up as the real life inspiration for Scrooge and I’d say you could make a good case.
Decades later and an ocean away, you might have caught a glimpse of an old woman with a grim face, walking down a city street in a faded, tattered dress, carrying her lunch of bread crusts in an old bag. Don’t pity her. That’s Hetty Green, “the witch of Wall Street,” and at that moment, she is literally the richest woman in the world.
Henrietta Robinson was born into a wealthy Massachusetts Quaker family in 1834. Her mother’s health was often poor, so Hetty’s father and grandfather picked up the slack in her upbringing, teaching her to read stock reports when other children were being read fairy tales. By the time she was 13, Green had taken over accounting for the family business. But this was the early Victorian era, so when Hetty was 20, her father bought her “a wardrobe full of the finest dresses of the season… in order to attract a wealthy suitor.” Hetty immediately sold the new dresses and invested the proceeds in government bonds. Having a family was not in Hetty Green’s priorities.
You couldn’t put a numerical figure to love, so Green had little need of it as she built her fortune. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during the downfall of others; buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Green was a brilliant financial strategist…or a mob kingpin-style loan shark, depending on who you ask. Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Central Pacific Railroad, said she was “nothing more than a glorified pawnbroker.” Sounds a little jealous, if you ask me. Green was the money-making peer of the likes of Carnegie and Rockafeller, but where they were industrialists, turning money into things that turn into more money, Green simply turned money into more different money. Her name didn’t end up on factories and businesses, so she never had the same acclaim. That is not to say she didn’t leave her mark. Green was an innovator in the field of value investing, which has made billionaires out of people such as Warren Buffett. (Buffett is not on today’s list because even though he lives in the house be bought for $30k decades ago and uses coupons for fast food, he gives prolifically to charity.)
Green’s name would also not appear on any endowments or charities. She wasn’t about to give money she had earned away. In fact, when her aunt Sylvia died and left million to charity, Green was not having it. She challenged the will in court, claiming she had Sylvia’s *real will, which left everything to Hetty, naturally, and contained an unusual clause that specifically invalidated any subsequent versions of the will. In a rare defeat for Green, the judge declared that Aunt Sylvia’s signature and the clause were forgeries and Green’s case was thrown out.
At age 33, Green finally conceded to marry, once she found a suitor that had a fortune of his own. She married Edward Green, with whom she had two children, Ned and Sylvia. Edward had money, but he wasn’t as good with it as Hetty was with hers. Hetty did what she could to keep their finances separate, but this was forty-plus years before women got the vote, so the banks kept treating her money as if it were her husband’s. When Hetty finally put a stop to that, Edward moved out. On his own, his finances shortly began to decline, as did his health. Hetty, perhaps not the villain the male movers and shakers made her out to be, did tend her husband in his final months and wore mourning clothes for years after his death. “Aw, she’s got a heart of gold for her family.”
Yeah, no. Ned and Sylvia were at the full mercy of Greens tight purse-strings. The family moved frequently as Green found increasingly cheap accommodations for them, often sleeping on cots in unheated apartments. When Ned, whom Green was grooming to be her successor, had one leg badly injured after being struck by a passing cart, Green took him to a free clinic. The doctors recognized Green and demanded payment, since they knew she had more than enough money to pay for her son to have to best care medical science could offer. Green instead went to plan B, fixing the leg herself at home, with treatment of “oil of squills” and “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” Ned’s leg eventually had to be amputated, which was only done by a doctor because this happened while Hetty and Edward were estranged and Edward paid the doctor himself. Hetty wasn’t about to waste money on a doctor for herself either. After suffering from a hernia for 20 years, which she’d been dealing with by poking her protruding intestine back through her abdominal wall with a stick, she finally went to a doctor. When he told the woman with the equivalent of millions of dollars in the bank that she would need surgery that cost $150, she picked up her gut-poking stick from the floor and yelled “You’re all alike! A bunch of robbers!” as she stormed out.
Green died in 1916 at age 81, “with an estimated $100 million in liquid assets, and much more in land and investments that her name didn’t necessarily appear on,” writes Investopedia. The family fortune she started with is the equivalent of about $6 million/£4.5million and through financial moves both prudent and cut-throat, Green’s wealth swelled to nearly $2 billion/£1.6billion. That makes it all the more bizarre that she never rented an office for his business affairs, heated leftovers on the radiator when visiting someone else’s office near lunch time, instructed her laundress to only wash the dirtiest parts of her dresses to save on soap, and allegedly spending the better part of a night scouring her carriage for a two-cent stamp she’d dropped.
You know how they say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Well, Green’s little apples rolled their way right out of the orchard. Ned went hog wild. He married his first lover, a prostitute his mother had hated, and together they spent his inheritance lavishly. They built mansions, bought a private island, maintained an entourage, even had an enormous yacht built, which never got used because Ned got seasick. Ned didn’t spend himself into poverty, though. He invested in the new-fangled radio technology and had enough of a fortune left at his death to leave to Sylvia. Sylvia defied her mother’s spirit by leaving 99% of her own fortune to charity, in modern dollars, $440 million/£352 million.
I look forward to each episode. Moxie is great at providing unique information and keeping it interesting. She also seems to genuinely care about her listener’s thoughts, opinions and perspectives. A fact that I greatly appreciate. By Architeuth
, Reviews4Good, trivia, Mystery Monday,
There’s nothing new under the sun, and parsimonious penny-pinchers aren’t just Dickensian characters. We’ve brought them with us until the modern world. To give you a stunning example, please welcome a special guest, Brian from the podcast I Have So Many Questions. [Getty]
On a street in Ladera Heights, south of Beverly Hills, sits a single story home with its roof about to cave in. The blue and black tarps have been on the roof for years, much to the annoyance of neighbors. They’ve written letters, researched contractors, and even found potential buyers to take the home off the owners hands. The city sued the owner, citing building inspections from at least three years prior, documenting the rotting roof, which had become home to a beehive. All anyone gets is the occasional view of the home’s owner, up on the roof in his bathrobe and slippers, putting the tarps back when the wind blows them around to rearrange them. This whole situation is especially infuriating because the neighbors know the man who refuses to fix his roof is worth over $150/£120 million.
The successful financier moving tarps in his bathrobe is, or at least until earlier this year was, Ed Wedbush. Frugality was a very necessary part of Wedbush’s early life. Born in 1933, his family was doing their best to survive the Great Depression. Being careful with what little money you had could literally be the difference between life and death. And carrying *some of those principles through to his adult life would have been advantageous, but Wedbush seems to have brought them *all. Frugal things like bringing lunch to work and driving an old car are all well and good, but Wedbush took saving to extremes.
Wedbush and a high school friend founded the mutual fund brokerage Wedbush & Company in 1955. It was named for Wedbush because neither man wanted his name on the business if it failed and Wedbush lost the coin toss. The firm later branched into investment banking, helping small companies go public, and got in on the ground floor of processing computerized stock trades for hedge funds and other aggressive traders.
The firm was making stacks, but Wedbush was obsessed with controlling costs. Not just limiting costs, controlling them. No company credit cards were ever given to employees. All checks for expense-reimbursement had to be signed by him personally, to remind everyone that he was watching every dime they spent for travel or entertaining clients. Wedbush, the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, could be seen gathering up loose paper clips after a board meeting at the exclusive, posh, and, since there are no prices on their website I’m going to assume, obscenely expensive California Club.
The firms’ former CFO of 15 years, Peter Allman-Ward said of Wedbush’s saving, “That’s his consuming passion. He probably gets more fun controlling costs than anything.” The same could not be said for the employees. While the outside of the corporate headquarters is immaculate and sharp in black and gray, the inside tells the real story of Wedbush’s scrimping. The carpets are worn through by years of foot traffic and dotted with coffee stains. The floor in the trading room is in such bad shape, women wearing heels find themselves stuck in holes. Wedbush’s solution: duct tape. He slapped some duct tape over the holes and went about his day.
No expense was safe from Wedbush’s monetary machete. The monthly pizza lunch to keep up morale during the 2018 financial crisis, gone (even though the firm was doing just fine). For the annual holiday party, Wedbush declared he would “pay for the meat” and nothing else. He ended up in court after doing things like taking back an employees company stock and docking stockbrokers pay to cover the cost of arbitration that company might find itself in, even if the arbitration hadn’t happened yet. Wedbush argued that his thrift translates into greater job security. “If I was real popular on the carpet and the pizzas and all these other things, and the company was on the threshold of closing down, they’d want to shoot me at dawn because they want their jobs,” Wedbush said. See also: false dichotomy.
And that’s…King Edward VIII famously gave up the British throne to marry his twice-divorced American girlfriend, but he didn’t give up much else. Even as Duke of Windsor, his personal fortune was between $100-$200 in modern dollars, depending on who’s counting. Even so, he’d sit at a restaurant table and simply out-last his companions, who’d give in and pay if they wanted to get on with the rest of their lives. The Duke and Duchess travelled the world, but were able to book a three-room suite—one room for the duke, one for the duchess, and one for their pugs—at a huge discount by holding a shipboard press conference at the end of the voyage and maybe showing up to Bingo. Remember…Thanks… And if you learned nothing else from today, it’s that trickle-down economics is a bullshit theory.