Millionaires and Me

Topeka Capital-Journal – 1999

Just looking at me and my possessions, you wouldn’t think I was a millionaire, but it so happens I fit the mold — with one notable exception: I haven’t been close to a million bucks since the last time I shook hands with my doctor. Maybe it could be said I was even closer when he pulled on the rubber glove and gave me the examination guaranteed to cure you of being cross-eyed.

Probably because there were no more groups left to study, such as left-handed piano players or pilots with pacemakers, a Georgia State University professor has been researching the affluent for about 25 years, and his main conclusion is that most millionaires shun the trappings of wealth. Once they’ve yelled “Bingo!” in the bank, they don’t rush out and buy big new deep-breathing cars, a Rolex, diamond rings and furs, and start looking for a 10,000-square-foot house.

Professor Thomas Stanley is retired now, and is a consultant to banks, brokerage houses and real estate firms. What he learned about millionaires would apply to most of us, until it came time to count the money. That’s because most millionaires don’t act like they’re supposed to act.

Only 23.5 percent of them drive new cars. Their favorite make of vehicle is Ford, and three in 10 millionaire Ford drivers prefer the F-150 pickup truck. Half the millionaires never have paid more than $399 for a suit, and 25 percent haven’t paid more than $100 for a watch or more than $99 for a pair of shoes.

These people have a household budget, live below their means, and their neighbors or even their own children have no idea how much money they have. Sounds just like us, right?

But here’s the rub. Most millionaires live on less than 7 percent of their annual income. They call that living frugally, but you and I would have to call it starving to death in the dark and cold without wheels or a phone, and not enough cash to get to the county line. When I told you I fit the mold, I meant I drive a Ford that no longer is new, and my children have no idea how much money I have, if any.

I don’t fit the mold in that I’ve attended a private school, and most millionaires (85 percent) haven’t, although more than half of their children have. Two-thirds of the millionaires are self-employed, and three-fourths of those are in business, rather than in the professions. They do all sorts of things, just like the millionaires we all know and admire — and envy.
Grover Meeker was a farmer and the richest man in Britton, Okla., where I grew up. He probably wasn’t a millionaire, but he might have been, because he had oil wells on his land. He drove a Chevy, and wore overalls and work shoes most of the time. He bought rock candy at my dad’s drug store to put in his moonshine, the only man I ever knew with a rock candy habit.

Robert S. Kerr, owner of an oil company, governor of Oklahoma and U.S. senator, surely was a millionaire, and he always campaigned in a used Chevrolet sedan, or from a flat-bed Chevy truck. He was an outstanding politician, probably because he never had to be concerned with feathering his own nest.

Tony Hillerman, the jillionaire author I knew when we both worked on the newspaper in Borger, Texas, told in an interview about going into a foreign car dealership in New Mexico, ready to spend the big bucks. He was dressed in his usual cowboy garb, and was unrecognized and ignored as he kicked some tires. Finally, he left and went and bought something more his style, probably a Ford or Chevy, and probably a pickup.
My favorite “poor boy” story is about Bud Wilkinson in the summer of 1961, when he went to Washington D.C., as President Kennedy’s consultant on physical fitness and sports. He was still football coach at Oklahoma, and had one of his assistants drive his Volkswagen convertible to Washington.

Bud and his wife were invited to the biggest Kennedy bash of the season, calling for guests to board the presidential yacht for a cruise to Mount Vernon for dinner. As a presidential aide, he was eligible for White House limo service, but he chose to drive. So, in the midst of the black limos arriving at the pier, there was this bright yellow VW convertible, with Bud sticking out of it like the car was two sizes too small.

Some millionaires are frugal, and some are just tight, or practical to the extreme. My favorite is the golfer who lost his dress shoes when we were two days from home, so we stopped at a Wal-Mart and he bought a new pair for $14, just to get him home.

A year later, we were on another golf trip and he was wearing the $14 shoes. “Just can’t wear ’em out,” he said.

Professor Stanley has met a lot of men like my friend. Once he was hired by a New York bank to interview some multimillionaires, so he rented a penthouse and invited them up. The first one was a Brooklyn businessman wearing a frayed coat. When offered a glass of expensive wine, he turned it down and said, “I drink Scotch and two kinds of beer — free and Budweiser.”

If I were a millionaire I’d buy a Ford product, called a Mark VIII, and I’d be frugal, providing there’s a frugal way to earn the right to be called “an aging playboy.” I also would flaunt my money in front of former friends and my children.

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