Making It

Warren Buffett at the Nebraska Regional Bridge Tournament, Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 5, 2006

If he were not the second-richest person in the world, Warren Buffett’s other well-known attributes—an Omaha address, a five-bedroom house where he’s lived for fifty-two years, an annual $100,000 salary, and a phone he answers himself—would be unremarkable. But we have certain expectations for the fabulously wealthy, encouraged in no small measure by the fabulously (and former fabulously) wealthy themselves: the 66,000-square-foot house with six kitchens (Bill Gates) or the house with twenty-six bathrooms (Prince Bandar); the Mercedes, Lexus, Range Rover, and Cadillac fleet (Bernard Madoff); the Gulfstream V jet (Mark Cuban); the $50,000 bespoke vicuña suits (the King of Morocco). Though he is not without his indulgences—as one of the owners of NetJets, which sells fractional shares of private planes, he uses his company’s services—Buffett’s frugality is part of what marketers would call his brand identity. His apparent personal disregard for the money he so excessively accumulates reinforces his credibility: he’s not greedy, he’s just good at what he does.

According to Alice Schroeder, his devoted biographer, Buffett’s career in wealth accumulation began early, around the age of six, when he started buying packs of gum and selling them to the neighbors for a few pennies’ profit. He then switched to Coke, which he peddled door-to-door in the summer; then “pre-owned” golf balls. The Buffetts weren’t poor—his father, who eventually went on to represent Omaha for four terms in Congress before being considered too right-wing for even conservative Nebraskans—started out as an insurance salesman and switched to selling stocks during the boom right before the 1929 bust. By the time Warren was born in 1930, stocks were a hard sell and money was tight.

Buffett first visited Wall Street at the age of ten, where he was given an audience with Sidney Weinberg, the head of Goldman Sachs. (That may help explain Buffett’s long-standing attachment to the firm.) It was around that time, too, that he purchased his first stocks, three shares each for himself and his sister Doris, which he bought at $35 and sold at $40, which was good, except that not long after that the stock was trading at $200. At eleven he read a book that suggested a hundred ways to make a thousand dollars, which gave him a goal: to make a million dollars by the age of thirty-five. Twenty-four years later Warren Buffett was a millionaire five times over.

Buffett, it is safe to say, has a different relationship to money than you and me. For us it’s a means to an end. For him, it’s a vocation. He is called to it. If it’s for anything, it’s for getting more of. The man is a collector. He just happens to collect dollars.

Getting money interests Buffett more than having money or spending money. It’s an…

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