The Secrets of History's Most Successful Savers

by Anthony Hall on 1 May 2014 0 comments

History divides penny-pinchers into three categories: the frugal, the misers, and the savers. They make for entirely different types of stories.

There is overlap, of course, but the media also loves to find billionaires in blue jeans instead of Armani suits and label them skinflints. The world's richest man, Carlos Slim Helu, has lived in the same six bedroom house for 30 years and still drives himself to work, albeit in a $300,000 Bentley. Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, worth $62 billion, still lives in his hometown in a house he bought in 1955 for $31,000.

But Buffett is hardly a miser. He is a generous philanthropist, who practically begged the government to raise taxes on the rich in response to the last recession.

Here are some of history's most notorious savers for you to ponder.

Hetty Green, "The Witch of Wall Street," (1834 – 1916)

People love to pick on Hetty Green. She was said to begin reading financial news at age six. She then inherited $5 million when her father Edward Robinson died in 1864, having earned a fortune in whaling and trading with China.

Today, Green's inheritance would be worth $77 billion dollars, making her the world's richest person. But that didn't stop her from suing to claim a $2 million estate from an aunt who died the same year as her father. Five years later, she was awarded another $600,00 from that estate.

Green was a Quaker, who rode to work in an old carriage and was famous for wearing the same black dress until it wore out, whereupon she would get another. She was too cheap to rent an office, so she camped out at the Seaboard National Bank, where she worked from a suitcase full of the paperwork she needed. She was rumored to eat oatmeal heated on a radiator and to have never used the hot water in her house. When she married, of course she had her betrothed sign a prenuptial agreement.

She also made a fortune in Civil War bonds and was once seen scrounging around the bottom of her carriage for a two-cent stamp she had lost.

Oseola McCarty (1908 – 1999)

McCarty was a washerwoman who would have won a gold medal in the Olympics if saving was a sport.

She never owned a car, choosing instead to push a supermarket cart to get her errands done. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment, where she held on to her black and white television, which she watched from broadcast channels (which means no dish and no cable). She never subscribed to newspapers, considering them too expensive.

Her saving technique was simple enough. She tucked her money away in various savings accounts at local banks. Then, shortly before she died, the frugal washerwoman surprised everyone by setting up a trust for the University of Southern Mississippi valued at $150,000.

That was a huge sum considering her occupation, but she had money left over, giving $50,000 to her church and $50,000 to three relatives when she died.

Jack McDonald (died 2013)

McDonald is the Seattle version of Oseola McCarty. He is also famous for keeping his wealth a secret during his lifetime and living a very modest lifestyle. He rode public transportation, lived in a modest apartment, and wore "threadbare clothing." He also bought his food with coupons. He swore his family to secrecy about his wealth, which he earned by playing the stock market — and apparently playing it quite well.

Although no one suspected he was rich, he left $187 million to the Seattle Children's Research Institute, the University of Washington School of Law, and the Salvation Army when he died. He was considered a little eccentric, but nothing more.

Ben Franklin (1706 – 1790)

The American inventor, statesman, author, and printer is one of the world's most famous savers, not because of a fortune he made, but because he gave voice to the frugality of the Puritan lifestyle. He was author of "The Poor Man's Almanac," with which he spread the gospel according to thrift. His many quotes on frugality include, "Necessity never made a good bargain," and "Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship."

Apple Corp. (1976 to Present )

It can't be denied that one of the greatest savers in history is a corporation from California known as Apple.

The figures are so large it is scary, but the U.S. Federal Reserve reported in 2013 that American corporations — not including financial firms — had amassed $1.7 trillion in cash, a great deal of that the result of the last recession, which caused a major pullback in corporate investments.

By far, the largest corporate cash hoarder, however, is Apple. While the valuation of the company soared to $621 billion in the summer of 2012, Apple kept to its long-term strategy of not buying companies, leaving that to the more aggressive Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

By 2013, Apple was sitting on a cash hoard of $160 billion, a large enough pile to bring on a lawsuit by investor David Einhorn, who was pushing Apple to increase rewards to shareholders.

How big is $160 billion, exactly? It's about the size of the economy of Vietnam.

The People of China (1980 to Present)

The No. 1 saver of all time also not a person or a corporation. It is the Chinese people.

For comparison, let's start with savings in the United States. Here, the average rate of savings doubled from 3% of disposable income to 6% as a result of the Great Recession. That raised some eyebrows in Washington and maybe provoked some snickering in Beijing.

The Chinese save on average 30% of their disposable income, a figure that has been increasing since the late 1980s.

Suffice it to say, that blows away the competition. In absolute terms, Forbes reports, China, with an economy about half the size of the that of the United States, saved $4.6 trillion, while in the U.S., savings amounted to $2.8 trillion.

One study suggests there are multiple reasons behind China's obsession with savings, including rapid wage growth in a country with underdeveloped insurance options, a sense of political instability, a culture of subsistence consumption, and falling birth rates. Whatever the reason, nobody else has a bigger stash.

Who's your favorite saver from history? Don't be miserly — please share in comments!

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