The Value of Being Thrifty | Success, Money & Generosity

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Now on to our reading, which was edited and adapted from “On the Threshold” by Theodore Thornton Munger, published in 1908.

There was a time when Americans were considered a thrifty people. However, that time has long since passed — which seems entirely natural, as thrift is more apt to be a phase than a characteristic of the life of a nation — a habit more than a principle. Thrift pertains to details. It is both our glory and our fault that today we are impatient of details. Our courage prompts to risks; our large-mindedness invites to great undertakings — both somewhat adverse to thrift, because great undertakings are for the few, while thrift is for all.

Large enterprises make the few rich, but the majority prosper only through the carefulness and detail of thrift. I begin by insisting on the importance of having money. Speculate and preach about it as we will, the main factor in civilized society is money. As the universe of planets needs some common force like gravitation to hold them to their place, so society requires some dominating passion or purpose to hold its members in mutual alliance. Money supplies this end.

Without some such general moving force, society would be chaotic; people could not work together, could achieve no common results, could have no common standards of virtue and achievement. The famous English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton once said: “Never treat money affairs with levity; money is character.” And indeed character for the most part is determined by one’s relationship to money.

Find out how one gets, saves, spends, gives, lends, borrows, and bequeaths money, and you have the character of the person in full outline. “If one does all these wisely,” said Henry Taylor, “it would almost argue a perfect individual.”

Nearly all the virtues play about the use of money: honesty, justice, generosity, charity, frugality, forethought, self-sacrifice. The poor person is called to certain great and strenuous virtues, but they have not the full field of conduct open to them as it is to the man or woman of wealth. The poor may undergo a deep and valuable discipline, but they will not get the full training that a rich person may.

If poverty is our lot, we must bear it bravely, and contend against its chilling and stifling influences; but we are not to think of it as good, nor in any way except as something to be avoided or gotten rid of (if honor and honesty permit it). I wish I could fill every person who listens to my words with a fear of poverty. I wish I could make you so feel its constraint and bitterness, that you would make vows against it. You would then listen patiently to what I have to say about thrift.

You may already have a sufficiently ill opinion of poverty, but you may not understand that you are already poverty-stricken if your habits are not thrifty. Every day I see young people well-dressed (with full luxuries and something of an inheritance awaiting them), as plainly foredoomed to poverty as if its rags hung about them.

The secret of thrift is forethought. Its process is saving for use; it involves also prudent spending. The thrifty person saves; savings require investments in stable and remunerative forms — hence that order and condition of things that we call civilization, which does not exist until one generation passes on the results of its labors and savings to the next.