Misers, Penny-Pinchers, Skinflints, Tightwads, and Cheapskates
Some wealthy people are extraordinarily generous with their money – think Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Larry Ellison. Others are so cheap they take off their glasses when they’re not looking at anything, or they’re so miserly they won’t pay attention, or whatever lame joke you can think up. With some it’s an obsession that reaches the point where they deny themselves normal comforts such as warmth and proper food in order to save money.
The Real Scrooge
The model for Dickens’ skinflint character.
The Daily Mail notes that the 18th-century politician John Elwes lived “almost like a tramp, squatting in uninhabited homes and eating rotten food rather than see it go to waste.
“… he would ride to London from his constituency on an old nag, sustaining himself with little more than a boiled egg, and bedding down under hedgerows.”
In 1888, Martha V. Olney wrote in The Sunday Express about how tight John Elwes was with his money. So tight, in fact, that his fixation on not spending anything cost him his life: he “died from neglect because he refused to incur the expense of physicians and nurses though worth not less than $4,000,000.” (That would be close to $100 million in today’s money.)
He came by his frugality honestly; his mother, although worth a fortune, starved to death rather than spend frivolously on food. It’s thought that Elwes was the inspiration for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge character, although he seems to have died without ever having the epiphany that turned Scrooge into a generous man.
The Unwashed Daniel Dancer
He dipped into a legacy from his sister only to buy a second-hand pair of black stockings to wear at her funeral.
John Elwes is said by The People’s Almanac (David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace) to be a rank amateur in parsimony compared to the redoubtable Daniel Dancer.
Born in 1716, Daniel Dancer also learned the art of clinging to his money from a pinchpenny grandfather and tightwad father. His sister and two brothers were also misers.
Wallechinsky and Wallace write that “No expenditure was too slight to be avoided.” That included soap: “he did not bathe, wash his clothes (which he wore until they disintegrated), or allow his house to be cleaned.”
Living with his sister, Dancer passed his time building the small fortune he inherited into a big one. In 1850, a biography noted that “Most could observe from the dress and manners indications of the presence of that sordid passion to which they devoted their entire lives, and to which they sacrificed every source of comfort and enjoyment.”
Wallechinsky and Wallace describe how Dancer “found a partly decomposed sheep, which his sister transformed into a two-week supply of meat pies.” They suggest that neither would have been able to detect the rancid smell of the food above the overpowering fragrance of the unwashed Dancer himself.
The Witch of Wall Street
Miserly behaviour crosses the gender barrier.
Hetty Green lived from 1834 to 1916 and became the richest women in the world through shrewd investing, but she also acquired the unflattering title of the “Witch of Wall Street.”
The National Parks Service says of her, “Although Hetty was brilliant in her investing skills, she is most remembered for her excessive ‘Yankee’ frugality.”
There are many stories, of varying reliability, about her penny-pinching nature. However, most agree that to save on soap she only had the hem of her dress (she only owned one such garment at a time) laundered and that she worked out of a bank lobby to avoid paying rent on an office.
But, her stinginess cost her 14-year-old son a limb. He had dislocated his knee and Hetty refused to pay doctors 50 cents to attend to it. When gangrene set in the boy’s leg had to be amputated.
The National Parks Service says her fortune when she died was $17 billion in today’s money. It “was divided equally between her two children, Ned and Sylvia, who gave or willed every cent to friends and charity.”
Modern Day Tightwads
People with deep pockets and short arms are not in short supply.
“I think money has dominated my life. I have these awful impulses. If I won the Lottery tomorrow … I wouldn’t be able to take a taxi. I wouldn’t be able to go on the train first class. I’m absolutely obsessed still with saving money.” This is British millionaire Malcolm Stacey talking about his meanness in Tightwads a 2006 documentary about cheapskates.
Stacey wants to pass on his stingy ways to others so he wrote the book Super Scrooge; a manual for ultra-savers. But, there could be a marketing problem with a book like this; the only people interested in reading it will be too cheap to buy it.
Stacey has a sneaky tip on how to avoid buying a round of drinks in a bar, although the downside of that might be a dwindling circle of friends. He has plenty of other ideas about how to sponge off other people and doesn’t seem concerned about the negative impact this has on those around him.
One of the characters in the Tightwads film, Crissi, is a complete contrast. She scrounges for money in scores of creative ways and then gives it all to charity.
What comes through in the profiles of the movie’s misers is a strong element of obsessive/compulsive behaviour.
What Makes a Miser?
Sigmund Freud offers the view that miserly behaviour is tied to parents being too strict with toilet training and turning their offspring into anal-retentive adults.
In his 2000 book Foundations of Psychology Nick Hayes explains Freud’s thinking: “The infant seeking to hold onto its feces would eventually become the adult seeking to hold onto its possessions, and it would develop into a miser, or perhaps an obsessional collector.”
Whether or not the cause of hoarding cash is triggered by trauma over potties, it may not be good for the health. Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia carried out an experiment with subjects who were given the chance to be stingy or generous.
Reporting on this study for The Pacific Standard (May 2010) Tom Jacobs writes that the result suggests “ ‘stingy economic behaviour can produce a feeling of shame, which in turn drives secretion of the stress hormone cortisol,’ Dunn and her colleagues conclude. ‘Over time, such behaviour may have compounding consequences for health.’ ”
Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, has an estimated net worth of $23 billion. He buys his clothes second-hand at flea markets and drives second-hand cars. He flies coach and waits until he’s in a developing country to get his hair cut because it’s cheaper there.
J. Paul Getty was 83 when he died in 1976; at the time he was the richest man in the world. When his grandson was kidnapped in 1973 he refused to pay a ransom until the abductors cut off one of the youth’s ears. He still refused the meet the demand for $17 million and made the kidnappers settle for $2.2 million, which was the maximum allowable tax deduction.
No story about misers is complete without mention of Leona Helmsley, known as the Queen of Mean. She was quite happy to splash her money about on luxuries, but when it came to the people who worked for she treated them miserably, yelling obscenities at them and firing them for the slightest error. Contractors who worked on her hotel properties went unpaid, something that has a familiar ring to it. She famously said “We don’t pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.” But her Maltese dog enjoyed the millionaire’s largesse; when Helmsley died in 2007 she set up a $12 million trust fund for the pooch.
Teller Performs the Miser's Dream Illusion
- “Famous Old Misers.” Martha V. Olney, Sunday Express, April 27, 1888.
- “The Real Scrooge.” Glenys Roberts. Mail OnLine, November 16, 2009.
- “The People’s Almanac.” David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace, Doubleday, November 1975.
- “Lives and Anecdotes of Misers.” F. Somner Merryweather, Simpkin, Marshall and Co. 1850.
- “Hetty Green ‘the Witch of Wall Street.’ ” U.S. National Parks Service, undated.
- “Foundations of Psychology.” Nick Hayes, Thomson Learning, 2000.
- “The Poisonous Proceeds of Penny-Pinching.” Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, May 19, 2010.