“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
That old New England proverb, sometimes rendered “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do,” was supposedly a maxim favored by Calvin Coolidge. Benjamin Franklin was another believer in frugality and thrift, coining such sayings as “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.” The Boy Scouts include “Thrifty” as one of their 12 Scout Laws.
How times have changed.
In July 2020, the public debt of the United States was $26.48 trillion, up $4.45 trillion from the previous year.
American credit card debt is nearly $1 trillion, a record high.
Some 43 million adult Americans carry a combined student debt of $1.5 trillion.
And if you ever wondered what a trillion dollars looks like, you’ll find out here.
Where’s Ben Franklin when you need him?
Drowning in Debt
For 20 years, my wife and I struggled with debt. During that time we operated a bed-and-breakfast and a bookstore, worked part-time jobs in the bargain, and still had trouble every month paying our mortgage and our credit card bills. After Kris’s sudden death in 2004, I hung onto the bed-and-breakfast for another year, but keeping the place open became impossible.
When a wealthy neighbor walked over one day and within an hour offered to buy the place, I immediately said yes to his proposal. The money from that sale paid off the mortgage and all my debts, and I cut up the credit cards and began teaching homeschoolers full-time. Because of these circumstances and poor financial planning on my part, like so many Americans I will always need to work.
One additional note: for many of those years, I was plagued by headaches, a few of them severe enough to send me to bed for the day. In the 14 years since selling my business and clearing my debt, I can count on one hand the number of headaches I’ve experienced.
The Other Side of the Coin
Now for a very different story.
A man I know well graduated from college, married, and found lucrative work as a salesman. Both he and his wife, who was also working full-time, lived frugally, saved their money, and bought a run-down three-apartment house. They lived in one of the apartments, rented out the other two, saved their money, and began buying other older homes and small apartment buildings, flipping some and renting some. Today they own 14 such properties and intend to invest in more. They use a service agency to rent out these residences and take care of maintenance and repair. At the end of this year, this man plans to retire from his job in sales and continue his activities in the real estate market.
He’s 32 years old.
“Mary and I live pretty simply,” he told me. “We just have to pay our mortgage and insurance, and put food on the table for the kids. I have no desire for some sort of lavish lifestyle. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.”
We can find all sorts of online blogs celebrating this young man’s idea of thrift. At Choosing Voluntary Simplicity, for instance, there are various articles on frugality and the joys of the simple life: “It’s the Simple Things That Count,” “Our Journey to a Debt Free Life,” “Does Frugality Mean You Shouldn’t Have Nice Things?” and more. Other sites tout similar themes: living in the moment, divesting ourselves of unneeded possessions, taking control of our finances, saving and investing.
Although the current pandemic has brought sadness and hardship to many households—the death of a relative or friend, jobs lost, loneliness and its companion, depression—the quarantine also provided us with the opportunity to look at savings options that might have otherwise eluded us.
Is it possible to work more from home, thereby saving money on travel, clothing, and food? Can our children receive a better and less expensive education at home than in elementary and secondary schools? Do we really need to spend exorbitant sums of money on a university education? Can we eat healthier and less expensively when we don’t frequent restaurants so often? Can we shop in thrift stores for our clothing? Can we tuck away the money we last year spent on sporting events, movies, and other entertainment?
Some of these expenditures may seem insignificant, but as Ben Franklin warned, “Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.”
Reminders Regarding True Thrift
As Franklin knew, the key to this practice of thriftiness is the ability to separate needs from wants. Do we really need a new car? Do we require a five-bedroom home for a family of four? Do we eat steak every week or buy the finest wine?
All too often we also confuse frugality with stinginess or greed. We think of Ebenezer Scrooge in “The Christmas Carol,” who begrudged his employee coal for the fire and who ate cheap meals, taking little or no pleasure in his wealth. Those of us who watch our money and have few wants find that we can then afford to be generous to others. We can give to charity, help a friend through a tough time, or send presents to our children and grandchildren on special occasions.
We can also afford small luxuries. During the months of extreme shutdown here in Virginia, I became desperately in need of a haircut, feeling as if I were wearing a cap on my head. When I mentioned this to my daughter, she told me of a friend, a divorced mother with children still at home, who comes to customers’ homes to cut their hair. My haircut was excellent, the conversation delightful, the extra expense of $5 and a tip trivial. No more trips to the barbershop for me.
The Essence of Joy
As Franklin and so many others have told us, there are three basic ways to grow personal wealth: earn more, spend less, or practice a combination of both. We as individuals have the power to do these things.
To my younger readers, please heed my warning about my mistakes. Start thinking now how you can lead a debt-free life and save money for your old age. Talk to people who have done these things successfully and learn from them.
To my older readers, particularly those past 60 who find themselves with little hope of retirement, let’s take responsibility for who, what, and where we are, and appreciate what we have. In my case, I have little money, but I’ve lived a full life and generally wake every morning delighting in simple pleasures: that first coffee on the porch, writing and reading, the doctor-recommended stroll through the neighborhood, conversations on the phone with family or friends.
Frugality is a defense against indebtedness, simplicity a gift that often brings freedom. Practicing both allows us to take joy wherever we may find it.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.