The Virtue Of Economy
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The virtue of economy was well set, forth by Charles Dickens in the words of Micawber: "Annual income, twenty pounds ; annual expenditures, nineteen six. Result, happiness. Annual income, twenty pounds; annual expenditures, twenty pounds, ought six. Re-sul , misery." The experience of this unhappy individual, who always found himself in the latter class, is the experience of thousands in our country. They spend more than their income, and then " wait for something to turn up." They enter into a hopeless struggle to keep up appearances, and make a hundred dollars of cash do the work of one hundred and twenty-five. The practice of simple economy would quickly undo all this unhappiness. If the American people could follow the suggestion of Bulwer Lytton and pitch their expenses one degree lower than their income, society would be infinitely better off than it is at present. There is no reason why the average condition of our people should not be a useful and happy one. No race of people on the broad face of the earth can earn so much money for their labor as Americans, and if it were not for our universal habit of wastefulness, every American laborer might live in plenty and comfort.
I remember once reading of a manufacturer who said that he had made a Iarge fortune out of what other people had wasted. He was a wholesale manufacturer of prepared mustard, and he explained the above statement by saying that most people take three times as much mustard on their plates as they eat. A fortune made of wastefulness in so small a thing as mustard ! And how characteristic this is of American life ! A rigid economy in small things is almost unknown among our people. The waste from the table of an ordinary American family would well nigh feed in comfort a French or German family. The fuel that is wasted in an American kitchen would cook the food and warm the rooms of a French peasant's cottage. The cast-off clothing of a well-to-do family would comfortably clothe another of the same size, if the garments could be renovated and utilized. Even people that are not extravagant in the sense of foolishly spending their money are often very extravagant in allowing this constant waste.
The difficulty at the root of the matter seems to be that Americans have a notion that economy is stingy and mean, and if an American hates anything it is to be called stingy or thought mean. In his anxiety to escape censure upon this imputation he goes to the other extreme of reckless expenditure and perpetual wastefulness. If he does not actually run in debt, he lives constantly up to the end of his means. And, yet, the average American, living in this way, is above all things anxious to become rich. He is daily making the fortunes of others by his own waste and carelessness. He works with terrible energy, burns out his frail and feverish being in a desperate effort to make more money, with never a thought that he might have money, and all the power and comfort which money gives, by simply saving it. I believe the difficulty is a moral one, and needs a moral remedy. People need to learn that it is not mean to save even in small things. They need to learn that fortunes are never made except by frugality and thrift. They need to learn that greatness is always made up of little elements. They need to learn that the day of small things precedes the day of great things. A small seed-sowing will ripen into an abundant harvest ; but not if it be scattered among stones and thorns. No man thinks it mean to save a dollar in a good bargain, and why should any one think that it is mean to get a dollar's worth out of what he has bought, and thereby save another dollar? No man thinks it necessary to pay two prices for what he buys. Why should he think that it is an exhibition of generosity to waste the half of what he buys? If clothing be but half worn out and then thrown away ; if a supply of food be half eaten and half wasted ; . if twice as much money as is needful be lavished upon one's house and its furnishings, then a man virtually pays two prices for what he buys. Many of our business men under-stand well enough the economy of purchasing, and they practice it in their business; but economy in the use of what they buy for themselves and their families is a forgotten virtue.
Some moral writers are always enlarging upon the blessings of poverty. Bacon called riches the "baggage of virtue," and hundreds. of writers since his day have affected to despise wealth. But why should the means of the highest happiness and the securest well-being be despised ? Why should any man wish to be bound continually by the iron fetters of want ? Any man in his senses must know that poverty is not a blessing. He must know that it is exceedingly unfavorable to the exercise of all that is highest and best in human character. Virtue and contentment and peace may sometimes bloom in the sterile soil of want and poverty; but it is impossible for a reasonable man to think that poverty is the natural ground for such virtues. No doubt most of my readers have seen persons in the sunless regions of destitution, who have exhibited unutterable self-denial, tender affection and unwavering trust in Providence ; but where they have seen one such, they must have seen a hundred in insufferable squa!or, misery and unhappiness. It is the worst of all cants to be continually uttering the praises of poverty. No, we believe that money is one of the greatest of blessings. We believe that every man should have a healthful ambition to possess as much as he can, consistent with a useful and honorable life. Industry, honesty and economy are the highest of virtues, and in their full and healthful exercise a man should expect to arrive at competence, and enjoy with heart and soul the good things of this world. It is contemptible trash and folly to claim that a man is not the better for possession of a good degree of wealth. The only condition that we would wish to put upon it is that he shall win it himself and save it through the practice of rigid economy.