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Frugal or Miserly?

Marjorie Kondrack

MANY OF THE WEALTHY people I’ve studied were extremely frugal—to the point of eccentricity. Why is it that when rich folks are tightfisted, people call them eccentric, but—if you aren’t rich—people tag you as cheap?

New Jersey Bell Telephone Co., now called Verizon, used to have small inserts with its bills that highlighted persons of note who had a connection to the state, whether they were natives or had resided there at some point, such as Thomas Edison. One of the inserts told of Henrietta “Hetty” Green, better known as “The Witch of Wall Street.”

Green was a familiar figure on Wall Street, with her all-black garb, including dress, cape, bonnet and well-worn black satchel, which was how she earned that epithet. She was America’s first female tycoon, although today not many people have heard of her. Green was a successful financial speculator, quite unusual for a woman at the turn of the 20th century. She stood alone against the titans of industry.

A woman with a brilliant mind, her fortune was made by shrewd investments in real estate, railroads and government bonds. She was the richest woman in America during the Gilded Age, but frugal to the extreme. They say she wore the same black dress until it turned green.

Green lived a life of mean miserliness, to the extent of causing permanent injury to her son because of her reluctance to spend money on his health care. She was so obsessed with money that, it is said, she spent an entire night looking for a two-cent stamp she’d misplaced.

If there’s a term for those who are beyond miserly, it might be miserly madness. Nevertheless, the story of how Green amassed great wealth is fascinating. She turned an inheritance into a fortune.

Another woman who achieved great wealth through investing was Anne Scheiber, an auditor for the IRS. She retired in 1944 at age 51. After poring over numerous income tax returns, she’d decided that the way to wealth in America was achieved by owning stocks, so she started investing.

She, too, was an inveterate miser, often going to shareholder meetings with a capacious bag. She would fill it with enough food, available at the meeting, to last her for days. Her broker said that at the time you could get a hot dog lunch for 15 cents at Nedick’s, a chain of fast-food restaurants. But thanks to shareholder meetings, Scheiber had found a cheaper place.

She accumulated a $5,000 nest egg and then turned it into a $22 million fortune, even though she never made more than $4,000 a year and, in retirement, received a yearly pension of $3,150. She lived a reclusive life in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and would walk miles just to save on bus fares.

Like Green, Scheiber never bought new clothing or furniture. Everything she owned was in various stages of disrepair or decrepitude.

My purpose in touching on the lives of these two women is to point out that they never enjoyed spending their wealth. Scheiber’s only pleasure was trips to the vault at Merrill Lynch near Wall Street to visit her stock certificates. Green’s enjoyment was besting other investors with her business acumen—and the rapacious accumulation of money.

Many people get ahead in life by living beneath their means. But by the time they achieve financial stability, the frugal habits of a lifetime are hard to temper. On top of that, the point of reference we have for the price of everything is usually rooted in our younger years, making current prices seem excessive. We recoil from what we perceive to be a shocking increase, forgetting how quickly time passes.

There is a fine line between being frugal and being miserly. Scheiber and Green were certainly extreme. When we reach a certain point where “enough is enough,” loosening the purse strings just makes sense.

We all have to find that balance in our own way, and lead our lives the way we see fit. While we may not wish to spend money on ourselves—buying things we don’t really need or indulging in luxury vacations or flashy cars—generosity to those less fortunate can be a meaningful way to give purpose to our lives. Some call it giving back.

I’ve heard of people being buried in their cars. I’m sure we’ve all read similar bizarre stories. But as far as worldly possessions go, there’s no U-Haul to heaven.

Marjorie Kondrack loves music, dancing and the arts, and is a former amateur ice dancer accredited by the United States Figure Skating Association. In retirement, she worked for eight years as a tax preparer for the IRS’s VITA and TCE programs. Check out Marjorie’s earlier articles.

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