BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Tuesday, 25 May 2010 17:11 UK

High living, high spending

Sarah Ferguson in Los Angeles on Sunday
Sarah Ferguson at a charity dinner in Los Angeles

By Peter Jackson
BBC News Magazine

A tabloid sting has highlighted the Duchess of York's difficulty with funding a lavish lifestyle on low earnings. Is it worse to have had money and lost it than never to have had it at all?

With her penchant for first-class air travel and lavish gifts, not to mention failed business ventures, Sarah Ferguson is by her own admission almost penniless.

As she was filmed offering a reporter access to her ex-husband, the Duke of York, for cash, she revealed as much in blunt language.

The duchess blamed her divorce settlement, which grants her £15,000 a year. However, that's a sum many people of more modest tastes manage to live on.

Others point to her unbridled outgoings. Indeed, the duchess herself once referred to her "overspending disease".

Hedy Lamarr in 1946
Glamour girl Hedy Lamarr frittered away millions on her lavish lifestyle

Even as the royal household sought to limit the damage from the News of the World scandal at the weekend, the 50-year-old jetted off to Cannes for model Naomi Campbell's 40th birthday. It's not the sort of occasion that would be synonymous with a low-cost lifestyle.

Low income and poverty are the normal triggers for debt, but for those who had money then lost it, it can be reckless spending caused by pride or low self esteem.

The Duchess of York's royal credentials make her situation rare, but she's not the first high-profile figure to live beyond their means.

Despite a sizeable income, the extravagant lifestyle of the 17th Century Lord Chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon, landed him in a debtors' prison in the Tower of London.


Hedy Lamarr made millions as a glamorous Hollywood actress in the 1940s, but lavish spending on the best homes, finest furnishings and travel left her spectacularly broke by the mid 1960s.

More recently, boxing champ Mike Tyson famously amassed a $300m (£207m) fortune, only to file for bankruptcy due to out-of-control spending and bad financial advice.

Sue Stone
I'd go out and buy whatever I wanted, I really didn't have to think about it
Sue Stone

Businesswoman turned personal coach Sue Stone knows what it's like to have had it all and lost it.

As a child growing up in an exclusive part of Dorset she wanted for nothing. Her father, a successful lawyer, had a private plane, a yacht and horses and she enjoyed a "very privileged upbringing".

That life continued when she amassed a small fortune in business with her husband, manufacturing licensed products for children.

"We made so much money we were drinking champagne all the time, going on skiing holidays, holidays abroad and going out for dinner," the 49-year-old recalls.

"I'd go out and buy whatever I wanted, I really didn't have to think about it.

"We spent it when we shouldn't have done, spending rather than putting it aside for a rainy day."

Sue Stone with her father on her wedding day
For richer for poorer: Sue Stone on a carriage at her grand wedding

By the late 1990s the business was growing too fast, they failed to sustain the turnover needed to break even and the debts piled up.

"To begin with you think it's just a short blip, we had easy access to credit cards and we didn't think it would go on. For a while I continued to spend," she says.

But then the lines of credit dried up, her marriage broke down, and she was left with debts of £250,000, a home about to be repossessed, and three young children to support.

"I remember thinking 'what am I going to do'? I had £10 left in my purse, it was terrifying," she says.

"I put £5 of petrol in the car, bought the children some sausages and potatoes and a cheap bottle of wine for me to numb the pain. I couldn't believe how life had come to this."

At that point, despite the "humiliation", Sue says she had no choice but to put pride aside, stop spending and accept her predicament.

She went on to turn her life around, writing a book - Love Life, Live Life - about her experiences and now works as a personal coach, business mentor and motivational speaker.

The Duchess of York launches a collectino of children's books
Settled three outstanding bills in September after creditors cited unpaid accounts worth £21,539
US company Hartmoor - in which she had 51% stake - folded last year with $1m (£630,000) debts
Faces High Court battle with law firm Davenport Lyons, which is seeking £200,000 in unpaid bills

Psychotherapist Benjamin Fry, who co-presents BBC Three's Spendaholics programme, says giving up a lavish lifestyle can make for a very traumatic sense of loss.

"It's the change in circumstances that's difficult… Fergie [The Duchess of York] was caught in between failing her own moral code and adapting her own external ego," he says.

"She could have accepted she was poor but wouldn't know who she was. The alternative was to do something I'm sure she didn't really want to do.

He says people can become attached to money like a drug, with the most insecure needing the most.

"If you were to force an addict to stop taking drugs, it can be very difficult. The way to cope is to try really hard to invest in non-material sources of wealth - family, relationships, community or self care."

He adds: "People do overspend because they've got a low sense of self worth. If you feel very small on the inside and present yourself as very big on the outside, it's compensation."

Clare Francis, editor of price comparison website Moneysupermarket, says people who splurge money like water have to know when to turn the tap off.

"Some can have a big splurge then come back down to earth and still be sensible, others will just carry on spending," she says.

When the money dries up, it can leave some "very vulnerable", as they rack up debts on credit cards and build up problems for later, she adds.

The Duchess of York has suffered repeated financial troubles ever since she and the Duke parted in 1992 and divorced four years later.

As she prepares to meet her ex-husband to discuss the latest twist, she may well wonder whether it's better to have enjoyed and lost great riches or never to have had them at all.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I am not in the same class as the Duchess, but I have experienced what it is like to be well-off then poor. Fortunately I was able to climb back from the depths and make lots of money again, and now am able to look at the whole situation philosophically. Because of ill-health I have not worked for a year but we got by with careful management of what money we had. Now I am about to go back into the market and earn good money again but I now know that it can go as easily as it comes, so I pack as much as I can into my pension fund. We live well but not extravagantly. I drive a 5 year-old car and we shop at supermarkets, but we allow ourselves some treats. Life would be dull without them.
Roy Brookes, Hamburg, Germany

I've taken a voluntary cut in income to spend more time with my family and my allotment. It was scary, but incredibly empowering. And we have enough money for the things that really matter, like an ice-cream for the kids after a walk by the river.
Oscar Franklin, London, UK

I don't see how the Duchess of York can say she is poor. She gets £15k a year regardless of what she does. I understand that when she chooses to do some public speaking she is paid more per event than I earn in a year as a criminal defence solicitor. If she really has no money it is because she chooses not to work.
Nick, London, UK

There is another twist - those who spend a lifetime on modest means and become rich. It can lead to financial bulimia. Best follow Robinson Crusoe's father's advice - have enough to pay your bills and put enough aside for a rainy day. What more do you need?
John McCormick, Northampton

Print Sponsor

Duchess in the headlines again
24 May 10 |  UK

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Mail Online UK The tangled love life of top schools boss - 18 hrs ago Prince Andrew forgives Sarah Ferguson over cash scandal - exclusive - 19 hrs ago

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific