Nicolas Berggruen – The Richest Minimalist on the Planet

Can wealth and minimalism go together? In this guest post by Michael Fernando, you’ll discover great insights from the life of Nicolas Berggruen, the richest minimalist on the planet!


When I went to listen to Nicholas Berggruen talk at the Oxford Union, I knew of him as a business man, an investor.

I went to learn what it was like to be a billionaire, to be able to buy anything that you had ever wanted. The message that stuck in my mind was not that about his investments or his policy think-tank (although it was interesting). What stuck with me was his reputation as the “homeless billionaire”.

Why, I thought, would anyone with so much money want to live without a home?

Berggruen may not be ‘homeless’ in the traditional sense of the word, but he does not own a house. In fact, his lifestyle is even more distinctive than that suggests. He carries all that he owns around in one paper bag.

Two suits and a phone are the only items that he consistently has with him (alongside a change of underwear, one hopes). He does, indeed, own a private jet, but unlike most he uses it over 90 times a year, flying around the world to try and spread the word of his political think tank, staying in hotels while he travels.

Why does he do this?

He has many explanations, but all of them focus on one main point. His minimal possessions are all that he regularly needs. Who can wear more than two suits a day, after-all?

He also does it for more spiritual, philosophical reasons. He said that “whatever he owns is temporary” and that therefore there is no point owning things he may as well just get them when he needs.

Perhaps most interestingly he once commented on consumerism by stating that other people try and own as many possessions as possible to make them feel “human”. He claims that he was once “owned by possessions”, stating that he finds no appeal in showing others that he is rich.

It is clear to me, both from reading about him and hearing him talk, that he realises and truly believes in the idea that there is more to life than riches.

He claims that as we are, by our very nature, temporary, that it is our actions that last for ever.

It would be normal to be questioning why I think that this man is worth admiring, if not for his success in the financial and intellectual worlds. Why should we value him for his lifestyle, his psyche?

Some may see him as wasteful, spending money on a hotel that then “disappears” rather than making an investment in a house.

The “waste” of a rent or hotel over buying is a fallacy, but even without this argument I feel it can be shown that he does not waste. If he, as a ‘normal’ billionaire, had even one house (more probably he would own many in different cities), he would not occupy it for at least half of the year. The house would lie empty, unused.

By living in hotels he ensures that he never occupies more space than he needs to, leaving the house for someone else. There are only so many resources to go around and he makes sure that he does not take more of them than he feels fair.

  • He buys only the best quality shirts, before wearing them until they break.
  • He often buys artwork by Warhol and Hirst, but then gives them away to museums, realising that this course of action will create more pleasure, happiness, than him owning them will.
  • He also gives extensively to charity and to try and help with political blight.
  • He has signed The Giving Pledge, set up by the Gates foundation to try and convince the rich to give 50% of their wealth to charity.

This, in a sense, is consistent with the principle of not wasting.

He realises that what he has, others can’t and that as he can only use so much at any one time, there is no need to own more. When he needs something specific, he can buy it, before giving it away or selling it when it is clear that he won’t need it on the next day.

This is not so impractical given that items are now so quickly and readily available to buy in the modern day.

So, what can we learn from perhaps the most wealthy minimalist of all?

  • Firstly, please note that I am not suggesting that you necessarily follow his life-style, many, for example, cannot afford to live in hotels. What I do suggest is that you take his philosophy.
  • Being rich does not necessarily mean that you need to own a plethora of different items.
  • Own a few items, use them often and when you no longer need them, get rid of them. Maybe you won’t be trading in Artwork, but I often sell video games, knowing that they will only fall in price so I will be able to buy them back for cheaper if I miss them six months down the line.
  • Perhaps we can also learn that money and possessions are inferior to making a difference. Many rich people buy football clubs or yachts and in the case of Roman Abramovich they do both. Berggruen decided to pursue a nobler pastime, trying to make an impact in the world through positively effecting the political world.


Author Bio:

This article is written by Michael Fernando, who works at Unioncy, a website to help you track the value of what you own and prevent clutter getting in the way of a fulfilling life. Michael currently studies at the University of Oxford (St. Catherine’s College) taking a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Unioncy is committed to reducing the number of items that sit on shelves in homes in the US and UK.


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16 Responses to Nicolas Berggruen – The Richest Minimalist on the Planet

  1. Van July 16, 2013 at 3:15 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this story! I’ve been looking everywhere for a living example of someone who’s financially well-off but chooses to practice minimalist philosophies. I am far from being a billionaire, but I completely understand his lifestyle. I firmly believe that there is no right or wrong template to applying mindful living philosophies, it is the intentionality with which one lives it that matters. I’ve actually written about this in a guest post over at Brooke McAlary’s Slow Your Home where I ask, “Can You Earn a Birkin and Still Be A Minimalist?”

    • Mohamed Tohami July 16, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Yes, his story is very inspiring indeed. I always knew that most rich people are simple, but I have never thought that they are THAT simple!

      • Michael Fernando July 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

        Warren Buffet is also known for being fairly simple, eating at the same steakhouse and living in the same house as when he started out!

        • Van July 17, 2013 at 4:06 am #

          How interesting that Warren Buffet can be thought of as a minimalist as well! Actually I think that anyone who focuses on only the essentials without allowing themselves to give in to excess can be classified as minimalistic. I really love how this blog and it’s contributors are showing us the many faces of simple living. Very informative and inspiring :)

    • Michael Fernando July 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

      Van, very glad you liked the post! I will make sure to check out yours soon.

  2. Nick July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Great article Michael, really enjoyed the overriding message of everything we own being temporary. Not realistic for all, but certainly a thought provoking idea.


    • Michael Fernando July 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      Not realistic for most! But I guess most inspirational stories are there for us to take nuggets from and to accept that we can’t follow the rest.

      Thanks for the kind comments,


  3. MotherLodeBeth BethDeroos July 16, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    Admire Mr Berggruen a great deal. But here is a suggestion someone might pass on to him.

    If he were to buy a small two bedroom place in each of the places he visits the most, and then create a partnership with an frugal minimalist older couple,or frugal minimalist single person, who needed housing but were clean and minimalist minded he could also be helping people not be homeless as well as have a place to stay and take care of.

    A clean minimliast place with room for a vegetable garden so clean healthy non GMO fruits and vegetables were the staple of the diet.

    Then when he was in the area doing business he would have a clean minimalist place to stay with good healthy food to eat and the security of knowing those who shared the home were of his same mindset.

    This would be great for also showing he supports others who have the same minimalist mindset.

    While not pure minimalists the late Steve Jobs as well as Mark Zuckerberg and other young high tech folks here in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco area are also living well below what is considered materialistic. Much smaller homes, simplier food, simple clothes, smaller cars. And in average everyday neighborhoods not gated communities. These are multi billionaires as well.

    • Mohamed Tohami July 17, 2013 at 11:33 am #

      That’s a great idea! I wish he can read your message while googling his name on the internet :)

  4. Van July 17, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    How interesting that Warren Buffet can be thought of as a minimalist as well! Actually I think that anyone who focuses on only the essentials without allowing themselves to give in to excess can be classified as minimalistic. I really love how this blog and it’s contributors are showing us the many faces of simple living. Very informative and inspiring :)

    • Mohamed Tohami July 17, 2013 at 11:34 am #

      That’s the perfect definition of a minimalist Van. You got the core essence of this blog. It’s a hub for the best minds on simple living to share different perspectives.

  5. Kurt September 11, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

    A wealthy minimalist–that’s rare! I’d like to be in a position to choose to be homeless too. That would be a wonderful simplification of life. This guy has the luxury to choose super simplicity–interesting!

  6. Thias @It Pays Dividends September 12, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    Very interesting post! I had never actually known all of this before.

    This is definitely a lifestyle that works for him. If you think about it, it makes sense given what he does. He says that he is always on the road, using the jet many times a year – Why would he need to purchase a home if he would barely be there? Because society says that everyone should own one? People need to live their lives to the lifestyle they want and make choices based on what they value, which he clearly does!


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