The thrifty billionaires

A recent survey of 439 high-net-worth families by wealth-research firm Prince & Associates found 59 per cent are cutting back their spending.
Billionaire Warren Buffet is a legendary penny-pincher. ((
Warren Buffet bought his Omaha, Neb., home in 1958 for $31,500 US. Today, Buffett is about $50 billion richer, but he still lives in the same place.

The penny-pinching nature of America's second-wealthiest man is legendary. He drives a Cadillac. He prefers burgers and Cherry Cokes to a pricey steak. When a waiter once tried to pour him some rare vintage wine, Buffett covered his glass and said "No thanks, I'll take the cash."

He isn't the only frugal billionaire. While big spenders like Oracle's Larry Ellison grab headlines for antics like buying the longest yacht in world, the thrifty rich lie low — and spend little in comparison. Expect converts: A recent survey of 439 high-net-worth families by wealth-research firm Prince & Associates found 59 per cent are cutting back their spending.

Yet such reductions might actually be hard for John Caudwell, whom we valued at $2.3 billion US this March. He cuts his own hair and buys his clothes off the rack.

"I don't need Saville Row suits," he told a Forbes reporter last year. "I don't need to spend money to bolster my own esteem."

Same goes for India's Azim Premji, who turned his dad's cooking-oil business into technology giant Wipro. Worth some $12.7 billion, he still drove a Ford Escort for eight years before trading it in for a new Toyota Corolla. He usually walks to work from his nearby home. Premji often stays at budget hotels when traveling in India and reportedly wears non-branded suits and flies economy. Paper plates were used at a luncheon in honor of his son Rishad's wedding a few years ago.

Ingvar Kamprad is the seventh-wealthiest man in the world, but you wouldn't know it if you met him. The Ikea founder, worth an estimated $31 billion, usually wears denim shirts and decorates his home with his company's low-cost furnishings. He drives a 1993 Volvo.

"How the hell can I ask people who work for me to travel cheaply if I am traveling in luxury?" says Kamprad. "Best to stay in touch with the real world."

This kind of toned-down spending may grow more pronounced among many of the world's billionaires. While they have plenty of money on paper, their net worth is often tied up in investments. To make even bigger bets, they might leverage their assets. During times of market turmoil like these, their liquidity can dry up very quickly.

Aubrey McClendon was forced to sell a gigantic stake in his company Chesapeake Energy because of margin calls. Fellow American billionaire Sumner Redstone recently sold $400 million in Viacom and CBS shares to keep his creditors at bay.

Russian billionaires, who gained a reputation for unbridled extravagance in recent years, have been even harder hit. Oleg Deripaska, Alisher Usmanov and Suleiman Kerimov all recently faced margin calls — and sharp hits to their wealth.

While these billionaires scramble to raise cash, Buffett is sitting on a pile of it. In the past couple months, his Berkshire Hathaway put $3 billion into General Electric and $5 billion into Goldman Sachs. Buffett received sweetheart terms in both deals because he's one of the few people with billions to invest in this tough market. Good advice for anyone, billionaire or not: Count your pennies and buy on sale.