Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen owns a Gulfstream IV but not much else.
Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen owns a Gulfstream IV but not much else. (Photo: Angélica Martínez)

Offbeat Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

A little over a decade ago, my wife and I had at least some small chance of becoming rich beyond belief. We were among the first investors in a technology startup that had the potential to be as revolutionary and widely adopted as the iPhone or iPad, and with even greater revenue. Unfortunately, the company’s digital-wallet concept was ahead of its time and the founders, despite diligent efforts, lacked the muscle to make it a reality. They ultimately sold their patents for just a few million dollars and, instead of getting rich, my wife and I simply recouped some of our losses.

Before things went downhill, though, we had an opportunity to engage in some serious daydreaming. What exactly would we do if our financial ship came in? Would we start the party the moment it docked, quitting our jobs and buying new cars, more and bigger houses and a ton of toys?

We quickly agreed that we would not do any of that. Conceivably, we’d trade our home for one with more modern plumbing and a few other upgrades; but it would likely be in the same neighborhood and possibly smaller than what we already had. Perhaps we’d spend more evenings at our favorite Thai restaurant. But that would be about it. OK, I confess I thought fleetingly about adding a high-end stereo system to the mix—and maybe even an itsy-bitsy business jet. But most of the time, I agreed with my wife that for us, more possessions wouldn’t really add much to life. We were pretty happy just as we were, thank you very much.

Thinking back recently on our days of imagined wealth made me ponder how others have responded to a big boost in net worth. At Business Jet Traveler, which I edit, we’ve profiled lots of people who’ve come from extremely humble beginnings. Now, of course, all of them are sufficiently well off to fly privately and have opted to do so; most of them—and most other wealthy people—live lavishly on the ground as well.

But not all. Warren Buffett, for example, still resides in the house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. Then there’s billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, who does own a Gulfstream IV but has no home at all (he sleeps in hotels), doesn’t own a car or even a watch and carries his things around in a large paper bag. “I have very few possessions—a few papers, a couple of books and a few shirts, jackets, sweaters,” he told Britain’s Mirror newspaper, apparently while not thinking about the airplane. “Possessing things is not that interesting…It’s what we do and produce, it’s our actions that will last forever.”

Susan and Steve Schutz would undoubtedly agree. The couple, who met in 1969 when both were self-described hippies, came from poor families and were in no rush to improve their finances; instead, they spent their early years together traveling around the country in a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back. To pay for food and gas, they designed silkscreened posters that combined Susan’s poetry with Steve’s artwork and sold them to shops and at trade shows along the way. After a particularly profitable day, they’d sleep in a motel; other nights they’d stay in the truck.

Within a few years, the couple had expanded their offerings to include calendars, stationery and poetry books and had built a profitable business. Then along came the Internet and, in 1996, they decided to shift their focus to e-cards sold via a website created by Steve and his son.

Good move. Three years later, their was attracting more traffic than any other e-commerce site except Amazon and eBay, and the family sold the business for $780 million. That’s right—almost a billion dollars.  

So how did that gargantuan sum change their lives?

It didn’t. The couple, who by this time owned a house, did not move or buy much of anything. In fact, as Steve Schutz recently told the New York Times, the money “didn’t mean anything to me. We gave a lot away. The only way I’m different—you know when you call directory assistance and they say for an extra 50 cents press this button and we’ll connect you? I press the button now.”