The Tale of Bad Car Bill

Bill's ride wasn't as nice as this

Bill’s ride wasn’t as nice as this

One of my first real jobs in the world was working as a computer programmer at the fancy headquarters of a big US retailer in the late 90s. I was an employee, but worked with a team of consultants that the company had hired on to help with Y2K code remediation. These consultants, with their old skills were now tripling and quadrupling their pay as the demand to fix the old systems skyrocketed.

The consultants were a fascinating bunch to watch. They had no trouble finding ways to blow all of their new wealth very quickly. They had fancy clothes and shiny new SUVs or sports cars. They would go to restaurants for lunch every day and then go out to expensive clubs after work. I had never seen people spend money like this.

At the time, I thought ‘Wow, these guys are rich.’ I was naive, just out of school and grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood. I was the first one in my family to graduate from college, so had never been around people like this. Later on, the book, Millionaire Next Door opened my eyes to the reality of the situation. These people were not rich and never would be. I was just witnessing extreme cases of lifestyle inflation.

However, there was one consultant who was an exception to the big spenders and his name was Bad Car Bill.

Bad Car Bill was different. He was given the moniker because he drove a hideous clunker. It had a piece of wood tied to the front for a bumper. It was covered with rust, made rude noises when it started and belched smoke. Bill’s car wan’t the only thing that set him apart:

  • The other consultants had new clothes from high-end department stores. Bad Car Bill wore old flannel shirts that barely skirted the company’s dress code. Some of them clearly should have gone to the rag pile a couple of years prior.
  • The other consultants would spend $10/day in the corporate cafeteria or $20/day at a local restaurant for lunch. Bad Car Bill would bring a lunch from home.
  • Bad Car Bill passed on going out after work and spending money at expensive bars. No-one knew where he went, but he probably wasn’t plowing through his paycheck.

The other consultants would needle Bad Car Bill about his different ways. Bad Car Bill would wave them off with a smile, telling them he didn’t need their fancy cars or clothes. The joking was all in good fun, but it was clear that the others thought less of Bad Car Bill.

Willa Wonka is right

Willa Wonka is right

Fast forward a couple years to about 2002. With the Y2K crisis in the rearview mirror, the money fountain quickly dried up and many of these consultants found themselves in hot water. One of them had been making $109/hour (that is $220,000/year) and was now on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.

Now, fast forward to the present day. I recently learned that at the time I worked with him, Bad Car Bill was a millionaire. He didn’t need to be working; he was just doing it because he hadn’t figured out yet what to do with the rest of his life.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in physics to see what was going on here. Bad Car Bill lived the frugal life, saving and investing his money. In the years around Y2K, Bad Car Bill was making more money than he ever had. However, he didn’t change anything; same old clothes, same old car and same old lunch in a paper sack from wherever home was.

This is in sharp contrast to the bad behavior that many succumb to. A 10% raise equals 10% lifestyle inflation. The 2500 square foot home gets an addition or new deck. The Toyota gets traded up for a Lexus. On and on. Dumb and dumber.

Every once in a while, I think back on my days at that job, sitting on the patio at work eating lunch while watching the corporate swans in the man-made lake. Bad Car Bill was the brunt of many jokes resulting from his frugal lifestyle. I like to think he was laughing on the inside at the rest of them.

UPDATE: A commenter wondered what happened to BCB. The truth is that I have no idea. However, I almost prefer not knowing. That way, I can let my imagination run wild. I can picture him traveling through Europe or on an island in a tropical locale or…

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41 Responses to The Tale of Bad Car Bill

  1. Mrs. Herb says:

    Way to go, Bill! Glad he didn’t succumb to the pressure/teasing of colleagues. Smart man!
    Mrs. Herb recently posted…Chicken ParmigianaMy Profile

  2. Allie says:

    I love this post. I took a marketing class in college where we talked about the things we need to live. Somebody said they needed a car to get to work. The professor said no, you don’t NEED a car, you NEED a way to get from A to B. That has always stuck with me. My “beater” has always gotten me from A to B!

    • 1500 says:

      The professor said no, you don’t NEED a car, you NEED a way to get from A to B.

      Wow, that is a really great quote! Thanks for sharing and also for your kind words.

  3. Good stuff! It takes some gumption to go against popular convention, but definitely pays off in the end! I was just having a conversation about the packing of lunches with a coworker of mine and how much money he could be saving by just packing 4-5 days per week. Nothing like watching someone’s eyes light up when you tell them a big dollar “secret!” 🙂

    As an aside, it would be interesting to see where Bad Car Bill is now!
    writing2reality recently posted…Aggressively Pursuing A Dream, the Roundup #11My Profile

    • 1500 says:

      Nothing like watching someone’s eyes light up when you tell them a big dollar “secret!”

      There is some quote like “Common sense isn’t so common.” Maybe we should rewrite it to be “Common cents isn’t so common.”

      I think its all about mindset. Once your mind is in the right place, you look at everything through a different filter. Life changes.

  4. MG says:

    Loved the story about Bill. Reminded me of the big spenders I knew when I used to work in the financial industry. Once you got to a certain level in the company, the guys who got the big bonuses started on their wine collection. They would brag about how many bottles they had and what they bought at all the wine shows. One person had 800 bottles in their wine cellar, another had over 10,000! Surely, they were not going to drink all this wine! At a minimum of $20 per bottle (and probably more like $40 or $50), that is a lot of money just sitting in your basement.

    • 1500 says:

      800 or 10,000 bottles of wine? Holy ****ing cow! What on earth would you do with that? My liver cringes just thinking about it. I’ve heard of some folks collecting wine, but that doesn’t sound like a good idea unless you really, really know what you’re doing.

  5. To be honest, I hear stories about people like “Bill” all the time but I have yet to meet one in real life. Maybe one day I can become “Billina” so I won’t have to meet someone like Bill but I can be him myself! 😀 Thanks for sharing this story Mr. 1500!
    Girl Meets Debt recently posted…Buying a Condo Update #3My Profile

    • 1500 says:

      “Billina!” I love it! Bill was in his early 50s, so you have a long time. If anything, you have a chance of surpassing Bill.

      “I have yet to meet one in real life.”

      Besides Bill, I can only think of one other person like this. They are out there, just the rare exception.

  6. LOVE IT!

    I would like to think I am pretty much Bad Car Bill, minus the car and the million dollar nest egg. But, I do live pretty frugally and moving from an hourly job to a salaried job didn’t cause a dramatic change in my lifestyle. Plus, I rock hand-me-downs like it’s my job. Luckily, my job isn’t in the fashion industry.

    Thanks for sharing this story! It’s such a great lesson for people to learn. Especially the detail about the appearance of wealth not actually translating to money in the bank.
    BrokeMillennial recently posted…Confession: I Avoided the Millennial CurseMy Profile

    • 1500 says:

      I love hand-me-downs too! I like shopping at thrift stores for stuff. Some think that’s gross, but I come up with some pretty snazzy threads at the Goodwill!

      In many ways, I’m a bit jealous of you. You are in your 20 and have your stuff together. I was always pretty good about money, but could have been better. You being in this mindset now is so incredibly important and advantageous!

  7. Bad Car Bill sounds like a good friend of ours, K. Her COBOL skills came in very handily to boost their income right before she and her hubby retired in their late 50s in the early 2000’s. They poured their money into real estate and avoided a lot of the bubble/bust and happily run a variety of small businesses catering to the rich, lazy, and “old”. Which is relative since they’re getting to be in their late 60’s these days and still having a blast. They’re looking to retire (again!) soon and devote even more time to their charitable goals. This pair is definitely high on our list of people we want to be like in many ways. =)
    Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted…Can I Get Rich By Sharing My Stuff?My Profile

    • 1500 says:

      Wow, these folks sound like great role models. Sadly, at least in my life, the bad role models significantly outnumber the good ones.

      COBOL was certainly where it was at. I’ve even heard rates for these programmers are going up now because there are still so many lines of code written in it and schools don’t teach it anymore. So, if K ever wanted to unretire one more time…

  8. Man, I love this story. It completely spells out the entire picture. I, also, have known folks like this over the years. But they are definitely the exception. What a revolution it’d be if the vast majority opted for frugality and a comfy pretirement instead of a lifelong buying cycle.
    Pretired Nick recently posted…How much should you spend on your house?My Profile

    • 1500 says:

      Yeah, these people are definitely the exception. It bothers me that people look up to the spenders and look down on the frugal people.

      At this same job, everyone was always buying new cars and the scene would usually look like this:
      Person 1: “I got a new car!!”
      Others: “Wow, what kind?”
      Person 1: “A BMW 3 Series!”
      Other : “Nice!”

      Contrast that with the looks of disgust I received when I told my boss I had purchased a shirt from a thrift store. She really like it right up until that moment!

  9. Savvy Financial Latina says:

    Great article! A reminder to not follow the Jones’. I know sometimes I want the Audi or really nice Toyota car, but I have to remember cars are a utility. They get you from one place to another. They are not an investment. Same goes for a house. It’s a good place to live, but don’t add a $60,000 pool because you will never recoup the cost. Instead go to a community pool and let your kids play with other kids. It will teach them to share.
    Savvy Financial Latina recently posted…Psych: I decreased our Discover Credit Card BillMy Profile

  10. 1500 says:

    Awesome that you’re thinking about this now. Every time you get a raise, instead of asking yourself, ‘What am I going to buy with the extra money?’ instead ask ‘What am I going to invest in with the extra money?’

  11. I think there’s way too many people that live in the moment, especially in situations like this. The oilfield, where I work, is a prime example. Usually every 7-10 years it goes bust and almost every one is out of a job. It’s going to suck if that happens before I reach FI but I won’t be phased by it because I’ve been saving and investing. There’s several people that I’ve run across that have 4 4-wheelers, get a new truck every year or two and just spend money on other things that they can’t possibly use enough to justify having. One guy made a comment about how I don’t ever go buy anything and I just shrugged it off because I know I’ll be the one that can retire before I’m 40.

    Lifestyle inflation is so easy to succumb to. A 10% raise equals a 10% lifestyle inflation, but what really hurts people is when a 10% raise equals a 15-20% lifestyle inflation just to try and keep up with whichever Jones’ has caught their eye.
    JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit recently posted…Recent SellMy Profile

    • 1500 says:

      I’re read similar stories with gold mines. When gold is way up these mines in Nevada go crazy hiring people and those same people in turn go nuts with spending.

      When I was a kid, we lived in the crap part of town. One day, my neighbor’s dad died and left them some cash. Within a month, dad had a new Corvette and Junior had a new Camaro Z28. People just don’t know how to deal with money.

      My thrill is thinking about how I’m going to invest my additional income.

  12. 1500 says:

    Yeah, people just have to get away from the idea that buying stuff makes them happy. We have a high-end mall near our home and I cringe whenever I drive past it and see a packed parking lot. There is so much more to life…

  13. Mr. 1500, I’ve only started following your blog this past month and I wanted you to know that I really enjoy reading your posts!

    This one brought back a memory from when I was a young girl. I was waiting in the car with my mom while my dad was shopping at the local fish market. We saw a man walk out of the market in shorts and a very worn T-shirt with some holes. He looked like an ordinary guy to me. Then my mom told me, “That’s Mr. So-and-so.” He owned some of the big businesses in town and was a multimillionaire! It was the first time I realized that the truly wealthy often do not flaunt their wealth.
    Mrs. Bookworm recently posted…Betting on the U.S. Housing MarketMy Profile

    • 1500 says:

      Hi Mrs. Bookworm! First of all, thanks for the kind comments! I really do appreciate it.

      Your story is awesome and every kid needs more role models like Mr. So-and-so. When I was growing up, I thought that the people with the big houses and fancy cars were always the rich ones. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Those are just the people with high credit limits and a whole ton of debt.

  14. Awesome story. Cheers to BCB.

  15. Jana @ Daily Money Shot says:

    He reminds me of a guy I worked with in my first job out of grad school (2001, so just a bit past the Y2K panic. But that was fun). He was very frugal, always talking about he and his wife never went out to eat, he brought his lunch every single day, he drove 20 minutes out of his way to save money on his train pass, he had amortization sheets for EVERYTHING (he was a statistician so that kind of wasn’t surprising) and constantly talked about ways to save money. Fast forward to now, he and his wife have 5 kids, she stays home, he has a job making a shit ton of money, and a fairly large house (I guess to accommodate a 7 person family) that I’m sure is almost paid for.

    He’s the one person I wish I listened to that I never did. Because emulating his choices would have made a huge difference.
    Jana @ Daily Money Shot recently posted…A t-shirt, begging, and a lessonMy Profile

  16. I love stories about people like Bad Car Bill. Years ago, when I was in the mortgage biz, as a sales assistant, I was making good money (for me, anyway, 50k for working 20 hrs a week from home), and the rep I was working for and the other reps were making HUGE cash. We blew it all, all of us, and thought for years after the mortgage boom dried up about what dopes we were for thinking the gravy train would never end. I’m glad that at least now I’ve learned my lesson and long to be like BCB instead of the others.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…April 2013 RecapMy Profile

    • 1500 says:

      There was a story in the news the other day about some guy who was selling mortgages in NYC when the boom was going on. He was making 200K/month for a while. Overall, he made $2,000,000 and you know what happened? You guessed it, he blew every cent. They guy was back living with his parents after the good times ended.

  17. Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle says:

    Driving an old clunker and brown bagging it is great but I can imagine that in the corporate world being appropriately dressed could be a job requirement. Not Ralph Lauren suits but presentable attire.

    Bad car Bill sounds like the name of a used car salesman who wears an oversized cowboy hat.
    Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle recently posted…50% Solution And April Financial Update (It’s More Exciting Than It Sounds)My Profile

  18. 1500 says:

    Yeah, I hope BCB is living the good life now.

    I keep in touch with one of the guys who laughed at him. The guy complains about how his life has been on a downward spiral since Y2K ended. He blames various political figures for it. Funny though how he never points the finger at the true culprit, himself.

  19. I drive a older car that is starting to look a lot like Bill’s old car and it will be driven until it no longer works. While we could have a bigger house and newer cars, we are using our money for other investments for the future.

  20. The article reminds me of The Queen of Versailles vs. The Millionaire Next Door. From one extreme of spending to the other, but there’s nothing really that extreme about someone that spends less than they make. BCB just seems like an overall smart dude that was able to keep his head screwed on while others let lifestyle inflation take control of their spending.

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  23. Dennis says:

    That’s a great story, Mr 1500. A good example of resisting the peer pressure to inflate lifestyle. Many sober-minded people succumb to peer pressure and get horrified by their actions at the same time. That leads to more neurosis and less happiness.

    It’s people like Bad Car Bill that make it to their goals. I think everyone should master the skill of the “well good for you but I don’t need that right now”-smile.
    Dennis recently posted…8 Ways You Will Profit From CyclingMy Profile

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  28. Wendy says:

    I loved this article. Reading stories like this always gives me an impulse to try harder. When I was working in a financial institution I too was sucked into the lifestyle-inflation… I bought a lot of clothes, ordered in lunch almost every day, took 3 or 4 holidays, a brand-new car that died after only 6 years…
    Now that we are self-employed and do most of our work from home, we no longer live in that spending-environment. We have now replaced the dead car with a second-hand car, 7 years old. The comfortlevel is the same (my husband sometimes drives up to 1000 km per day -to European standards, this is a lot- so a comfortable car is something he really appreciates), the car has more room in the back and we paid three-times less than for the brand new car. We still like to go out on Friday-night for a drink and a small bite to eat, but we eat at home first, so we don’t end up spending a lot of cash on restaurant-food.
    All in all, we are happier now, and we are happier with having less too. We no longer need to go on exotic vacations (we cancelled our yearly skiing-trip, but will go for a two-day trip instead, and we changed our summer plans from New York to camping in Sweden), buy new clothes all the time, have an extensive shoe-collection (that would be me).
    We still have a subscription to a gym, and we still like to travel, but we do this a lot less than we used to, we just enjoy the possibilities of the place where we live. And that is just fine with us.

    • 1500 says:

      “All in all, we are happier now, and we are happier with having less too.”

      Right on, very cool to hear how you turned it around.

      I have a gym membership too and don’t regret it at all. Life is pointless if we don’t have our health, isn’t it?

      I also suffer from a bad case of wanting to travel all of the time. Like you though, we have tried to find good things to do near us. Not hard in Colorado (look me up if you ever make it here!).

      Thanks for reading and for the kind comments!

  29. LennyBee says:

    I’m the closest thing to Bad Car Bill here, I guess…

    I never had a “wooden bumper” but drove, around that time, an old Honda Accord or Civic (compact in any case). I was in the electronics business and was making piss poor money while everyone around me practically lived paycheck-to-paycheck…

    I brought my own food to work and never went out. Then again, with my old clothes and alienation, I was frequently referred to by many as a “cheap bastard” (mainly because I came from a frugal family and always lived below my means).
    In fact I was frequently put-down, bullied, and was the last guy to get a date (if ever!).

    I always played it Cheap and made use of the freebies and “natural resources” around me. Entertainment was via freeware games, for instance, and stuff from my local library. For all I know I might be the only guy in my state who never bought bottled water! The key was thinking logically rather than emotionally, completely turning my brain off from commercials and all that media programming. I could never stand showoffs and the pretentious pricks who were becoming more and more common, and swore never to become like Them… My money went into the barebones necessities, paying off bills, and I never accumulated credit card debt. Basically I’d buy only when I Needed to buy. That right there was one of the keys…

    Nobody understood me and I was often ribbed for “not living” and being a tight wad, etc. You know the stuff… I’m sure that people who didn’t know me thought I was a bum or close to homeless! I had no desire to “keep up with the times” or follow fads or trends… To this day I’m still probably the only guy you’ll meet who still uses dial-up internet access (under $20 a month) which is secure, doesn’t allow for streaming anything, but is all that I require for my online purposes…

    Yet behind the scenes, thanks to my “survivalist” perspective and lifestyle, the vast majority of my pay was going into bank accounts, CD, mutual funds, etc…where they would stay and accumulate More money… By the time I lost my last job I was around 50 and had enough money saved up to retire comfortably whenever I wanted to.
    As in over 1 million dollars. That’s my networth not my income. I now Own money and true freedom in this country…

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