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Why investment worked for Hetty Green

Whoever said women don't make good investors obviously don't know about Hetty Green. Hetty's frugal investment strategy was simple. Buy low, sell high. Helped by her thrifty eccentricities, Hetty was adept at making money on Wall Street and used these talents to become the richest woman in the world.

When Hetty Green died in 1916 she was 81 years old and had accumulated $100 million ($2 billion at today's value) to make her the richest woman in America. Hetty became legendary because of her thriftiness. She is even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's greatest miser. Her eccentricities became the stuff of legend.

How Hetty Green Got Rich with frugal investments

Hetty was a conservative investor with the small fortune she inherited. But where many women would be content to have a comfortable living, she looked for opportunities in the market and executed on a strategy that is used by Wall Street professionals to this day – look for opportunities and keep a cool head during turmoil.

Bond

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Hetty Green bought Greenbacks. These were the notes printed by the U.S. government following the Civil War and were not seen as reliable at the time. Investors steered clear of them. Hetty Green went for them and made millions from her patriotic play, turning around and investing in railroad bonds which skyrocketed in subsequent years. She also invested in real estate and lent money.

Whenever there was a panic and property values fell, she bought and waited until the price went up to sell. Her reserve of cash allowed her to buy whenever the market was low.

Where Hetty Green Learned about frugal investing

Hetty inherited seven and a half million dollars when she turned 21 in 1855. She married Edward Henry Green in 1867 when she was in her early 30s. Green made his wealth by trading silk in the Orient. After marriage she continued her frugal ways, and was able to keep their bank accounts separate.

When Hetty's aunt Sylvia died in 1865 Hetty produced a will that left Sylvia's money to her instead of charity. The case drug on until after Hetty and Edward married. She lost the case and the will was considered a forgery. The family moved to England to escape forgery charges and their two children, Edward, called Ned, and Hetty Sylvia were born in London.

In 1834 she was the only child born into a wealthy Quaker whaling family. Her Quaker upbringing encouraged her to be thrifty and influenced her style to wear strict black dresses. When she was six Hetty read the financial papers to her father and grandfather, and they discussed the material with her. She saved money and opened a bank account when she was eight years old. She was the family bookkeeper at 13 and went to school in Boston when 15. Hetty wasn't attractive and was known to be eccentric and without friends in school. These patterns followed the rest of her life.

The Witch of Wall Street

The origin of her name, “the witch of wall street,” varies. It's been said children ran across the street when she approached because of black dresses and stern appearance gave the appearance of pictures of witches they had seen in books.

Hetty Green

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

While in Boston she dined at the cheapest places in town for a total of 15 cents a day. She ordered her laundress to only wash the bottom of her dresses to save money, as the bottoms were the only parts that were dirty. She bought broken cookies because they were cheaper. She returned berry boxes to get a nickel back.

She wore black dresses that changed color from black to brown to green as they aged. She wore only black after her husband's death in 1902. It was said she had only the one dress at a time.

She didn't use heat or hot water. She ate cold oatmeal to save the money it cost to cook it. Hetty carried a small can to get the best price on milk for her cat, and a bone for her dog as a bonus for her purchases. Reportedly, she spent two hours looking for a lost 2 cent stamp. Some of these stories stuck to her even though they may not have been true.

One confirmed story concerns her son Ned. Accounts vary as to the cause but Ned severely injured his leg when he was a child. Hetty dressed him and herself in rags and took him to a free clinic. The doctor recognized her and said he knew she could afford to pay and wouldn't treat the boy unless she paid for the services. Gangrene set in and Ned's leg had to be amputated above the knee and fitted with a cork leg. Ned's father may have paid for the operation and false leg.

To be fair, she didn't spend money to treat herself. She saw a doctor for her hernia. The doctor said it would cost 150 dollars to operate, and she said it was too much and lived with the pain for the rest of her life.

Who Got All Her Money?

She invested in cash and properties over the entire country and left the properties and money to her two children – neither was as frugal as Hetty was. Her estate included 6,000 different real estate properties across forty-eight states, including railroads, theatres, graveyards, motels, buildings and the mortgages to nearly six hundred churches. Nonetheless, her two children split her estate and they enjoyed their wealth responsibly, eventually donating liberally to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as more than 64 colleges, churches, hospitals and charities.

Henrietta (Hetty) Howland Robinson Green

Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

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