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.
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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