Meet the uber-rich living a ‘frugal life’ like Warren Buffett

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In the morning Mitzi Perdue gets up, makes herself a cup of tea and cracks on with her work as a writer. If she heads out to see any of her four grandchildren who also live in Maryland, she might wave to her neighbors—variously librarians and doctors—who also live in the building where she rents an apartment. Perdue may even walk past a chicken factory bearing her name because she is in fact an heiress worth billions—both through the Perdue chicken empire and the Sheraton hotel group.

Over in Chicago, Elena Nuñez Cooper catches an Uber to work—she doesn’t own a car—and spends six days a week working from the shared office space in her member’s club, instead of renting costly commercial space.

Down in Florida, tech entrepreneur Brenda Christensen spends her weekends exercising and enjoying the outdoors—avoiding coffee chains, the cinema and meals out as much as possible.

Though not as rich as Purdue, both Nuñez Cooper and Christensen have fortunes that run into the multi-millions—but choose to reign in their finances and live a low-key life.

Oracle of Omaha style

Theirs is a method that legendary investor Warren Buffett has long adopted: living in the same home he purchased in Omaha for $31,500 in 1958 and notoriously driving a 20-year-old car because he felt safe in it.

“I do not think that standard of living equates with cost of living beyond a certain point,” the man reportedly worth $116 billion famously said at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting. “There’s a point, if anything, you start getting inverse correlation.

“My life would not be happier…it’d be worse if I had six or eight houses or a whole bunch of different things I could have. It just doesn’t correlate.”

The data certainly backs up Buffett’s philosophy. In March 2023 the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania sought to answer the question of whether money can truly buy happiness.

Working with two datasets from previous studies, the researchers found that larger incomes do correlate with increasing happiness. However, only to a point: $100,000 to be exact.

So what happens when you go above that threshold, and realize the full extent of what you can do with your wealth?

The heiress who gives her wealth away

For 82-year-old Perdue, a self-professed “low maintenance badass,” her wealth is an institution of which she is a steward as opposed to a keeper.

Her parents taught Perdue early on that a person’s identity was formed through their service, not their spending—a philosophy also followed by the family of her late husband, Frank Purdue.

“We were married for 17 years until his passing,” Perdue told Fortune in a video interview. “During that time, I believe that I had the highest cobbler bill in Maryland, because rather than buy new shoes, we would simply get them repaired.

“He had his name on the paycheck of 20,000 people but we would always fly economy.”

Perdue grew up with a different idea of success, with a childhood where frugality and economy were celebrated.

“I have a phrase that guides me,” Perdue said. “And it’s that success is not measured by what you can get, but what you can give.”

American philanthropist and author Mitzi Perdue on the ground in Kyiv.
American philanthropist Mitzi Perdue doesn’t just want to send aid to war-torn countries like Ukraine (pictured), she rolls up her sleeves and gets involved.

Ruslan Kaniuka—Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Like many billionaire families, the Perdues are keen but quiet philanthropists—among her aid to Ukraine has been the purchase of police vehicles and the donation of a $1.2 million ring, the proceeds of which enabled a women’s shelter to open.

Yet Perdue doesn’t just want to send funds—she rolls up her sleeves and gets involved.

Perdue has visited Ukraine three times—traveling the country through air raids, interviewing sources in bomb shelters, and meeting police bosses in war-torn Kyiv.

Focussing particularly on the issues of human trafficking and land mines, Perdue says she’s “stared evil in the face,” describing her work in Ukraine as “possibly the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

One of many initiatives was to purchase boats for the Ukrainian police, which were named after people who had lost their lives in the conflict. Perdue met with their families, she said, adding: “I think to be remembered and recognized was enormously important. And that I could help a little bit—and I emphasize the word little—in keeping that person’s memory alive and their sacrifice remembered.

“What better use could you really have? I know it’s not a lot. Even a little is just a tip of grief for somebody who’s lost a child.”

‘I avoid Starbucks like the plague’

Mom-of-one Christensen propelled herself to the status of self-made millionaire 10 times over, after moving from journalism to communications in the tech sector.

Having sold her equity in one of the early firms she worked for, GoldMine Software—and enjoying a two-week retirement before boredom set in—Christensen took to flipping property in California.

In 2015, Christensen, now the CEO of a public relations firm, moved her family out of Malibu to Florida—cutting her living expenses by 20% overnight—much to the shock of her peers at the time.

What they didn’t understand was the principle Christensen was raised with: her Danish father, a proponent of living simply and well, taught his children to recognize their privilege.

“My father grew up in Puerto Rico,” Christensen told Fortune. “He made us very aware at an early age how privileged we were. He took us through the slums of Puerto Rico and said: ‘I want you to know that not everybody lives in a suburban area in the United States. This is how most of the world lives.’

“He was just instilling in me that it’s not about stuff, it’s about helping others and being of service.”

Already teaching her 16-year-old daughter the same values she was raised with, Christensen added: “I don’t go to restaurants. I don’t go to movies. I don’t go to concerts. I cut my own hair.

“I was pre-med at university so rarely go to the doctor because I understand how to take care of myself very well—diet, exercise all of that. I don’t go to Starbucks, I avoid it like the plague. It just feels comfortable too because I’ve always been frugal.”

Outgrowing the lavish lifestyle

For Nuñez Cooper, cutting back on her expenditure has meant she can donate sizable aid contributions to international crises whenever she wishes.

The 32-year-old founder of Chicago-based Ascend PR, a firm that also acts as an advisor to family offices, said in her younger years she had enjoyed a “lavish” lifestyle.

But Nuñez Cooper and her husband—who share a wealth of more than $4 million—knew if they lived not just within, but well under, their means they could “give more and do more for people.”

Among the costs cut was private jet use, which was axed for environmental reasons as well, while also bringing down a summer travel budget of six figures to a third of its former cost—predominantly by staying in rooms on offer at her members’ club instead of paying for five-star hotels.

“I don’t know that I was any happier,” Nuñez Cooper said in an interview with Fortune, adding when she made the decision to no longer have a car many peers asked if she was broke.

“I like living a more simply but still living well. My quality of life has not decreased at all.”



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