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By Annie Holmquist*
With inflation, prices, and bank failures all on the rise these days, many of us are looking anxiously toward our pocketbooks and wondering what we’ll do when the financial crisis inevitably hits. Will we have to start over with our retirement fund, or will we be impoverished in a matter of months?
There may not be a surefire way to completely shield ourselves from potential ruin, but there are ways to safeguard against it. One of those ways is tucked away in an obscure corner of American founder Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book. Entitled “Domestic Economy Or, the History of Thrifty and Unthrifty,” Webster (1758-1843) spins the tale of two men, the one a financial wizard, the other a financial failure.
But their financial gains or losses aren’t the result of luck on the stock market or any special genius. No, their financial acumen is more a result of the life choices they made, leaving Webster inferring that the quest for material wealth starts with character.
1. The Early Bird Gets the Worm
One of the first steps toward wealth depends upon one’s relationship with the alarm clock, Webster implies. The Thrifty man is up with the chickens, rising early and getting started with his day. Such an action is only possible, however, because he refuses to burn the candle at both ends, heading to bed at a reasonable hour.
The Unthrifty man, however, is not a morning person, taking a leisurely approach to getting going each day, a fact which eventually leads to great consternation and distress. And although Webster doesn’t mention it, the frantic, always-behind nature of Mr. Unthrifty indicates that bedtime will be far away by the time the clock strikes 10 pm.
2. A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted
When Mr. Unthrifty finally pulls himself out of bed in the morning, getting immediately to his work is not his first order of business. Instead, he hops on over to the bar or walks to the liquor cabinet. But rather than brace him to face the day’s tasks as he likely hopes, Webster explains, the drink dulls his sensibilities and causes him to throw his money away.
By contrast, Webster describes Mr. Thrifty as one who “does not frequent the tavern,” nor does he “drink up all his earnings in liquor that does him no good.”
It’s important to consider that this warning from Webster doesn’t necessarily apply to alcohol alone. The root principle here is that the thrifty man considers where his hard-earned dollars are going and ensures that he is not continually wasting his paycheck on items that have little lasting value, or ones that diminish his ability to compete in the working world.
3. Waste Not, Want Not
When we think of waste, we often think of items that go in the trash can, such as old food. But according to Webster, the Thrifty individual is careful not to waste his most important commodity: time.
This is particularly true as Mr. Thrifty goes about his daily tasks. “When in the field,” Webster writes, “he keeps steadily at work, though not so violently as to fatigue and exhaust the body.” He also does not fritter away his time by constantly being the workplace chatterbox, telling stories and stopping to hear others gab away at the watercooler.
Time is continually getting away from Mr. Unthrifty, however. In fact, the Unthrifty man is continually running behind, but makes a good show of busyness as he tries to catch up. “Now, he is in a great hurry,” Webster writes, “he bustles about to make preparation for work—and what is done in a hurry is ill done—he loses a part of the day in getting ready.”
Sadly, it’s not his time alone that is wasted in such efforts. Webster notes that another ill effect of his lost time is that he also wastes the time of those who work under him, likely leading to more lost profits for his business.
4. No Gains Without Pains
For the Thrifty man, prompt foresight and good management are key to his monetary gains. He accepts the bills that inevitably come, then turns around and promptly pays them. In doing so, he avoids late fees and fines, allowing his nest egg to swell.
He also keeps his possessions in good shape, “examin[ing] the tools to see whether they are all in good order for the workmen,” keeping an eye on “the condition of his house, barn, home-lot and stock.” By doing so, he avoids the panic and lost time that Mr. Unthrifty drifts into, for the latter ends up in one of those nightmare scenarios in which one never gets anywhere:
“When he supposes he is ready to begin the work of the day, he finds he has not the necessary tools, or some of them are out of order—the plow-share is to be sent half a mile to a blacksmith to be mended; a tooth or two in a rake or the handle of a hoe is broke; or a scythe or an ax is to be ground.”
The End Result
Over time each of these small endeavors add up, and Mr. Thrifty becomes a wealthy man, the owner of a profitable estate “with several hundred acres of land, and a hundred head of cattle.” Mr. Unthrifty, however, experiences continual losses because of his poor choices, “dragging out some years of disappointment, misery and poverty.”
The difference between the two, writes Webster, is “that one man spends only the interest of his money, while another spends the principal.”
The question is, which man are you?
I must confess that, while many would likely call me a good manager of money, the portraits of Thrifty and Unthrifty leave me seeing my own reflection all too often in the latter. Which leads me to ask whether we, in this time of potential economic downturn, could be far better off financially than we lead ourselves to believe.
It all comes down to whether we have the character—the diligence, to be precise—to approach life walking in the boots of Mr. Thrifty.
Annie Holmquist is a cultural commentator hailing from America’s heartland who loves classic books, architecture, music, and values. Her writings can be found at Annie’s Attic on Substack.