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.

Thrift thus underlies civilization as well as personal prosperity. The moment it ceases to act, society retrogrades towards savagery, the main feature of which is absence of forethought.

A spendthrift or idler is essentially a savage; a generation of them would throw society back into barbarism. Indeed, the chief distinction between civilization and barbarism turns on thrift. Thrift is the builder of society. Thrift redeems us from savagery. What are its methods?

Number 1. The first principle can be named in one word — save. Thrift has no rule so imperative and without exception. If you are earning a salary, it matters not how small, plan to save some part of it. If you make a 100 dollars a day, spend but ninety; you thus save over $2,000 dollars a year — enough to put you into the category of civilization.

Your saving may be small, but it represents a feeling and a purpose, and, small as it is, it divides the elevated character from a spurious one. Life in its last analysis is a struggle. The main question for us all is: which is getting the advantage, the individual or the world? When we are simply holding our own, spending all we earn, and have nothing between ourselves and this “rough world,” we are likely to be worsted in the battle. We will inevitably grow weaker in the course of nature, while the pitiless world will keep to its pitch of heavy demands.

There is a sense of strength and advantage, essential to healthy character, that springs from however slight the gains. Say what we will about (quote) “honest poverty” — and I would say nothing against it, for I well know that God may build barriers of poverty about an individual, not to be passed, yet within which we may nourish a virtuous character — the men and women who escape from poverty into independence possess a nobler bearing than those who simply keep even with the world.

It may be hard for you to look ahead twenty or forty years, and realize the actual stings of poverty, and the sharper stings of thriftless habits; but I think you can discern why it is wiser and nobler to save than to spend.

The painful fact, however, is that the saving habit has not merely lost ground, but is almost evaporating altogether. The reasons are evident: city and country are one. The standards of dress, amusements, and life generally, are set in the richer circles of big city-life, and are observed, at whatever cost, in all other circles.

I can do nothing to offset these influences but to remind you of nobler methods. I can only say that to spend all one earns is a mistake; that to spend, except in a judicious way, weakens character, while economy dignifies and strengthens it.

The habit of saving is itself an education. It fosters every virtue. It teaches self-denial. It cultivates a sense of order. It trains to forethought, and thus broadens the mind. While it has its dangers, the habit of saving even fosters generosity. The great givers have always been great savers.

Number 2. Avoid the self-indulgent spending of money. If you have been careful in early life, you may be careless after. At first let the purse be stout and well tied with stout strings; later there need be no purse, but only an open hand. It seems to be an excess of simplicity, but let me suggest that you should purchase nothing that you do not actually want, nothing because it is cheap; that you should resist the glittering appeals of jewels and designer clothing and delicate surroundings.

Number 3. It is an essential condition of thrift that one should keep to legitimate occupations. There is no thrift in chance; its central idea is order (a series of causes and effects along the line of which forethought can look and make its calculations). Speculation makes the few rich and the many poor. Thrift divides the prizes of life to those who deserve them. If the great fortunes are the result of speculations, the average competencies have their foundation and permanence in thrifty ways.

Number 4. Have a thorough knowledge of your affairs; leave nothing at loose ends; be exact in every business transaction. The chief source of quarrel in the business world is what is termed as (quote) “an understanding,” ending commonly in a misunderstanding. It is not ungenerous nor ignoble to insist always on a full, straight-out bargain; and it falls in with the thrifty habit.

This may be simple matter to name, but I cannot resist saying that the habit of keeping a strict account of personal expenses down to the penny has great educational power. Keep such a book, tabulate its items at the close of the year (so much for necessities, so much for luxuries, so much for worse than luxuries) and listen to what it reports to you.

Number 5. Thrift has a secret foe in debt (as it has public ones in vice and idleness). It may sometimes be wise for you to put yourself under a heavy debt, such as for an education, or for a home; but the debt-habit is the twin brother of poverty.

Number 6. Thrift must have a sufficient motive. No individual is quite respectable in this 21st century who has not a bank account with sufficient funds for a rainy day. True or false, high or low, this is the solid fact, and, for one, I do not quarrel with it.

As most of us are situated in this world, we must win a place and pay its price. The common cry of “a good time while we are young” is not the price nor the way. James Nasmyth, an English inventor who possessed a large fortune made by himself, says: “If I were to compress into one sentence the whole of my experience, and offer it to young people as a rule for success in any station, it would be comprised in these words, “Duty first, pleasure second!”

Indeed, what is called bad fortune or ill luck is (in nine cases out of ten) simply the result of inverting that maxim. Serve a noble disposition, though poor, and the time comes when it will repay you.

We cannot properly leave our subject today until we have referred to spending — for thrift consists in the putting out, as well as the in gathering, of money. It decides how, and to what extent, we shall both save and spend. We must leave ample room for the play of generosity and honor; we must meet the demands of home and community with a wise and liberal hand; we must preserve a keen and governing sense of stewardship — never forgetting the ultimate use of money, and the moral and intellectual realities that underlie life.

This matter of thrifty saving is instrumental (simply to bring us into circumstances where self-respect, a sense of independence and of usefulness, are possible) — or, putting it another way, we save in order to get into the freedom of our nature.

Were the wisdom of the whole subject gathered into one phrase, it would be this: when young, save; when old, spend. But each must have something of the spirit of the other: save generously, spend thriftily.

If I were to name a general principle to cover the entire matter, I would say: spend upward for the higher faculties. Spend for the mind rather than for the body; for culture rather than for amusement. The very secret and essence of thrift consists in getting things into higher values. As the clod of earth turns into a flower, and the flower inspires a poet; as bread becomes vital force, and vital force feeds moral purpose and aspiration; so should all our savings and expenditures have regard for the higher ranges and appetites of our nature.

If you have a hundred, or a thousand, dollars to spend, put it into something above the average of your nature, so that you may be attracted to it. Beyond what is necessary for your bodily wants and well- being, every dollar spent for the body is a depreciation of character. Get the better thing, never the inferior.

The night on the town, the drinks at the bar, the movies and concerts — enough calls of this sort there are, and in no wise modest in their demands, but they issue from below you when indulged in regularly. Go buy a book instead, or a journey abroad, or bestow a gift. I have not urged thrift upon you for its own sake, nor merely that you may be kept from poverty, nor even for the ease it brings, but because it lies near to all the virtues, and antagonizes all the vices.

It makes soil and atmosphere for all healthy growth. It favors a full manhood, a full womanhood. It works against the very faults it seems to invite, and becomes the reason and inspiration of generosity.

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