A recent article in The Wall Street Journal mentioned that a conference of academic economists was taking place in Atlanta. The theme of the article centered around the frugal nature of academic economists. “Some economists may be cheap, . . . . because of their training or a fascination with money and choices that drives them to the field ” (p. A1). While reading Mr. Lahart’s article I began to recall a discussion that I once had with an economics professor, Dr. W, who boasted about being ultra cheap. I would phrase it differently, labeling him pathologically frugal.
Dr. W is just one of countless individuals who have given me testimony to their frugal nature, and I admire most of their behaviors. There is nothing wrong with being frugal as long as you don’t damage the health and welfare of yourself and others. However, some people who have contacted me take pride in telling me how they negotiated price-related deals that were unconscionable. These unscrupulous people actually enjoy bragging about how they identify and exploit people who are very vulnerable. It is one thing to be an exploiter of the weak, but it is quite another level of unscrupulousness to exploit the weak and then brag about it. Such is the case of Dr. W.
Dr. W knew of my keen interest in profiling frugal millionaires and sought me out one day at a conference; he thought his case study should be published. He fervently believed that his method of obtaining “great deals” on certain categories of consumer products would “help the youth of America become more intelligent about economizing.”
He began to tell me his story in an interesting and unusual way. I guess that I should not have been surprised about his ability to profile himself in an interesting manner-he has lectured here and abroad and has consulted for a variety of corporations. Dr. W has written textbooks and published articles, and he holds the rank of full professor of economics.
Dr. W: How much did you pay for that tie you are wearing?
Dr. Stanley: About twenty dollars. It’s a Brooks Brothers [factory outlet] . . . on sale. They never go out of style.
Dr. W: Do you know how much I paid for the tie I have on?
Dr. Stanley: Bet it was less than twenty dollars.
Dr. W: Right! . . . Paid twenty-five cents. . . . I like ties . . . have many, many . . . so many that I could wear a different one each day for months without repeating.
I soon learned that Dr. W paid a lot less than I did for shirts, shoes and suits. In fact, the entire wardrobe he had on that day cost him less than $50! Of course I wanted to know how he was able to pay so little for his clothing. When I asked, he answered, “I call them.”
Dr. Stanley: Call? Whom do you call?
Dr. W: I call them . . . those in need . . . those that have a need to unload.
Dr. Stanley: Define them.
Dr. W: Obits . . . obits . . . . the obituaries. I call and ask, “What do you have . . . what sizes?”
Needless to say, I was shocked by his answer. I asked him again whom he called and he clarified his answer with “widows.” He went on to say that most of the clothing is in good shape; some of the shoes are even broken in!
So what if Dr. W is a multimillionaire? He is wearing the DH brand of clothing, that’s DH for Dead Husband. In spite of his notable achievements, Dr. W’s shopping methods cast a heavy cloud over him. A professor by day, Dr. W is an exploiter of widows by night. Can you imagine the inability of a recently widowed woman in dire straits to negotiate wisely with Dr. W? Of course not all the widows that Dr. W called were accommodating. Some were widows who were financially independent and possessed the psychological strength of a smiling tiger. These women told Dr. W that they hoped his biographical sketch would soon be printed in the obit section of the newspaper; “drop dead immediately!”
Dr. W is a very rare exception among his occupational cohorts; he has taken frugality beyond the limits of decorum and decency. Economists, in general, are more productive than most occupational groups in transforming income into wealth. According to my calculations, it takes the equivalent of 114 economists with high incomes to produce 100 who are millionaires. That is much more productive than for high income producing middle managers, physicians , attorneys . Conversely, economists are less productive than managers of farms , funeral directors , and mining engineers . For a detailed discussion of the economic productivity of a variety of occupational groups, see Stop Acting Rich, pp. 47-56.