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Saturday, 25 June 2016

John Wendel and Co., Professional Misers

The Tale of the Family of Misers

I heard the following story:
John G. Wendel and his sisters were some of the most miserly people of all time. Although they had received a huge inheritance from their parents, they spent very little of it and did all they could to keep their wealth for themselves.
John was able to influence five of his six sisters never to marry, and they lived in the same house in New York City for 50 years. When the last sister died in 1931, her estate was valued at more than $100 million. Her only dress was one that she had made herself, and she had worn it for 25 years.
The Wendels had such a compulsion to hold on to their possessions that they lived like paupers. Even worse, they were like the kind of person Jesus referred to "who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:21). Source: Daily Walk, June 2, 1993. 

And I can't help but wonder how miserly they were. They tried everything they could to save money. Could we learn about saving money from their example? Probably yes, because their example was so extreme that many people could borrow a tip or two from their example. But probably, not everybody is able to follow their example in full.

What the New York Times wrote when the last Wendel sibling passed away.

Some Points About Their Story

Maybe, we can borrow a few ideas from John and Co. Here are a few that come to mind:
  1. Not getting married, to prevent unnecessary expenditure. This is a little extreme, and may be watered down to doing things that are possible to avoid unnecessary expenses.
  2. Sharing a house. If you share a house with other people, you can share expenses and there will be savings.

Misery Inc.

But what I really learned from John & Co. is that they probably led miserable lives. Think about it:
  1. Do you feel compelled to live life the way John and his sisters lived theirs? Celibacy and non-marriage solely for the purpose of maintaining your riches -- for whose benefit? Life is meant to be lived. John and his sisters could have considered investing their money in real estate, etc. where it would have multiplied, thus giving them the lifestyle that they wanted.
  2. Do you feel that John had an admirable character? He came across as domineering and hard nosed, the type who liked to take charge of other people's lives. (I want to tell him: John, if you're listening, you did well for your own life, but you've overstepped the border when you took charge of your sisters' lives.)
  3. John's sisters let John take charge of their lives, and so one of them had to live her whole life through with only one dress. While it may be somewhat exaggerated, the story does have the ring of truth to it -- and it shows how in that age and time, ladies -- even those with wealth -- still felt that they had to submit to the opinion of their male siblings. And it probably wasn't the best way to live their lives.
  4. John and his sisters did their best not to waste any of their money. Not one drop. And they succeeded. But they wasted something else far more valuable -- their lives. To have done what they did -- live in near obscurity, in the most frugal of ways, to the extent of punishing yourself -- seems almost wasteful. Life is not meant to be wasted like that. They could have practiced some austerity and yet lived fuller lives. (Yet, who am I to say whether their lives were full? We often seek the advice of wise men who subject themselves to living lives of obscurity. Perhaps wisdom grows when there is misery.)

What John and His Sisters Should Have Done

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see that John and his sisters could have done. 
  1. Invest the bulk of their wealth into diversified investments, while retaining only a small part for their day-to-day use. With enough capital "going to work", there would be profits generated in terms of rental, interest, and profit from joint ventures. Their capital could remain untouched for a good many years while they lived off the interest.
  2. Get married. This would sound logical, and I wonder why they didn't do it. After all, if you maintain your wealth meticulously, and conscientiously avoid spending money, ask yourself: Who's going to get that money in the end? If you had a child, the answer would be clear. 
  3. Do some good with part of the money. This can take the form of scholarships, endowments, sponsorships, etc. The poor will always be with us. The children of the poor need opportunities. Give them a chance.


I learned what happened to the Wendel family's wealth: It went to a seminary called the Drew Theological Seminary.

I read this blog post about how the Wendel siblings lived and died. It was an eye opener. One of the sisters did get married, in her 60's, presumably after John's death. 

And the wealth went to the Drew Theological Seminary, which is today Drew University in New Jersey. 

Another great article about the Wendels can be found at the Drew Magazine website. (It's an article called "The Fabulous Wendels")