Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. Dozens of political and military books have been written about him and his strategic and oratory genius. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a recently published book that chronicled Mr. Churchill’s life from a personal finance perspective.
David Lough’s superb book, “No More Champagne: Churchill & His Money,” gets its title from something that Mr. Churchill once said regarding the need to cut back on excessive spending, especially alcohol-related spending. For example, in a widely quoted statistic, Mr. Lough reported that Churchill spent approximately in today’s currency $158,688 per year (or 127,213 current British Pounds) on wine. There is a great deal that can be learned about Churchill’s success and failure with his personal finances from Mr. Lough’s biography.
We live in an age of consumerism that strongly encourages spending instead of thrift. The life of Winston Churchill was in many ways a life of spending, and not just spending on wine. Mr. Churchill enjoyed gambling, trading stocks, overspending on home improvements, etc. Indeed, his leisure-based spending was so excessive that he had to go, and remain, deeply into debt to fund it.
To try to control his spending, Churchill prepared numerous personal budgets. However, he frequently overestimated his sources of income and underestimated his costs. He also did not exercise discipline to follow his budgets. Needless to say, budgets only “work” when they are as accurate as possible and when they are followed.
Churchill’s excessive spending and heavy debt-loads eventually generated financial distress. In fact, his financial position was so precarious on two separate occasions that he had to be privately bailed out to prevent bankruptcy. Celebrity and political success are no substitute for frugality and being fiscally conservative.
Churchill also occasionally sought “gifts” to mitigate his financial situation — behavior which frankly is not ethical. People under financial distress sometimes do things they would not otherwise do, often to their demise. If you find yourself under financial pressure, sacrifice your spending not your ethics.
Like many people, Winston Churchill gambled. To the extent that gambling is approached as entertainment and budgeted for it could have a place in a personal budget. In 1922, for instance, he lost more than the equivalent of £90,000. His excuse: “It excited me so much to play – foolish moth.” Too many people delude themselves into believing that gambling is a source of income, instead of a cost. The science of statistics is very clear that only “the house” profits from gambling over time.
Churchill also traded stocks based on “tips” that he received from a variety of people, including preeminent traders such as Bernard Baruch. No one can trade successfully over time on tips: Churchill couldn’t, and we can’t either.
The one area of personal finance where Mr. Churchill clearly excelled was tax management. Churchill worked incredibly hard to minimize his tax liability over time. Today, many people are not knowledgable of even the most basic aspects of tax management such as the mechanics of filing a tax return, a basic understanding of tax terms and definitions, deductions, etc. and therefore can’t benefit from minimizing any of their tax liabilities. We live in an era of ever increasing amounts of government intervention and activity so we should all have at least a basic understanding on how our governments—local, state and federal—fund their activities, and how that funding impacts us via the tax code.
There are lessons to be learned from one of our most successful politicians who “ran up huge personal debts, gambled heavily, lost large amounts on the stock exchange, avoided tax with great success and paid his bills late”. Churchill may have been a great leader, but in the area of personal finance, one would do well not to follow his lead.
Joseph Calandro, Jr.