STARTING OUT


Young, Prosperous and Frugal

Erin Burt

What you can learn from millionaires on a budget.



Rik Wehbring, 37, lives on $50,000 a year in San Francisco.

That's quite a feat in itself, considering the Bay Area has one of the highest costs of living in the country. However, that's not what makes his situation so impressive: Wehbring is a millionaire.

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I read about Wehbring in a recent Associated Press article. He's frugal by choice. He doesn't own a TV, drives a gas-thrifty Toyota Prius, and listens to music on his $20 MP3 player. In the AP story, he states matter-of-factly, "I don't need a lot of material possessions."

Modesty rules

Wehbring, a dot-com millionaire who made his wealth working for several Internet startups, isn't alone. In this era of conspicuous consumption, he and others like him are saying "no thanks," opting instead for a more reasonable lifestyle. The Sunday Telegraph of London has given this demographic a name -- YAWNs -- Young and Wealthy but Normal.

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How refreshing! Young adults who don't believe that just because they've got it, they've gotta flaunt it. Think of them as the anti-Paris Hilton.

For public entertainment value, this group elicits, well, yawns. They prefer to live quietly outside the spotlight (Wehbring declined my request for an interview). They use their money for good causes instead of for their own glory. Many are also environmentally conscious. They eschew excess and embrace modesty.

The idea of being wealthy, frugal and socially aware certainly isn't new. Take investing mogul Warren Buffett, for example. The 77-year-old is one of the wealthiest people in the world, with a net worth estimated around $57 billion. Yet this is a man who still lives in the same modest house he bought 50 years ago in Omaha, Neb., for $31,500. He's also giving the bulk of his wealth to charity. Or consider Bill Gates, 52, who dresses like a research student and also gives away most of his money.

Today's crop of young-and-wealthy normals is particularly inspiring, though, because those of us in our twenties and thirties are generally known for being materialistic and irresponsible with money. We're obsessed with wealth, luxury and ourselves. So if these millionaires think they need to be mindful of their money, shouldn't we?

Financial values

We can all learn something from the YAWN philosophy, even if we're missing the "wealthy" part now. In fact, adjusting your money mindset may actually be your ticket to getting that "W." Here are three tenets to live by, no matter your financial status:

1. Live below your means. In other words, don't spend money you don't have. This sounds like a no-brainer, yet many of us have a hard time putting it into practice, no matter how much money we have. (Remember Mike Tyson's infamous multimillion-dollar bankruptcy?)

Be a good steward of your money. Don't rely on credit cards and invest wisely. The wealthy know that it's much better to earn interest for themselves than to pay interest to someone else. That's the key to getting ahead -- and staying there. Creating a budget can help you get your finances on track. It'll allow you see where your money's going and how you can manage your expenses to live within your income.


2. Remember that stuff does not define self worth. It's cliché but true. Money can't buy you love or happiness.

I suspect that YAWNs, like anyone else, find fulfillment in personal relationships and social causes because those are things that last. Why waste time, energy and money trying to impress with designer clothes, fancy cars and palatial mansions? Those are merely distractions. It's the things that money cannot buy that best define your life. (See Lessons I've Learned from Being Broke.)

Ray Sidney, 38, a former software engineer at Google, made bank when the company went public in 2004. Instead of living it up, he quietly retired to Stateline, Nev. He says he probably doesn't qualify as frugal -- he owns two planes to shuttle between home and the Bay Area -- "but I could certainly live a more fancy-pants life than I do."

With his means there's a lot of temptation to buy buy buy. But the habits he learned years ago as a cash-strapped student are well-ingrained. "I only buy things I know I'll use. Why buy something to just sit there and take up space?"


3. Give back. Many young adults aspire to leave the world a better place than they found it. And those with considerable wealth are having an awakening. "You start to realize, what's the point of spending money when you can think of so many better ways to use it?" says Sidney, who has helped fund a high school football field and helped pay for a new local arts center, among other donations. With his latest pet project, he's aiming to do something for Mother Earth -- he's building an affordable, eco-friendly housing development in Nevada.

Feeling generous but strapped for cash? You may not have the bankroll of millionaires, but you have just as much time in a day as they do. Give of yourself, if not of your wallet. (See A Dozen Creative Donations for more no- or low-cash ways you can give to charity.)

Whatever your financial situation, being charitable and socially conscious can be rewarding -- not to mention it's good karma. I like how Knight Kiplinger, editor-in-chief of this Web site, puts it: "Your own financial security depends far more than you may think on the financial, physical and spiritual health of others in your community, our nation, our world. When you share your good fortune by donating your money, time and talent to charity, you help create a stronger economy and a healthier, safer world."




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