Money and Virtue

Some financial facts about me:

  1. I have been the sole proprietress of my finances since the age of 19, when I first started living on my own.
  2. I was unwise about credit at that time in my life, and until recently, I couldn’t get approved for a credit card anywhere.
  3. I have no credit card debt.
  4. I’ve never had a car payment in my life. My very first car is the car I still drive, and I’ve had it for ten years.
  5. I am bad at saving money, and have no excuse for that other than bouts of low impulse control.
  6. I am meticulous about saving receipts and keeping track of my checking account balance. For that reason, I haven’t overdrafted on an account since I was about 17.
  7. I spend more money on take-out than I would like because I’m not exactly a regular Rachael Ray in the kitchen – not even close.
  8. I’ve never been late on rent due to a lack of funds. I was late once by a day because of a convenience factor, and the late payment was given the okay by my roommate who collects it from me.

I’ve been listening to the audio book of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and have come to learn that one of the foremost statesmen in American history was wise beyond his time when it came to money. Among all the lore about Franklin circulating in classrooms, I wish lesson plans would include the great stories of his frugality.

He probably was thought to be the most boring dude in his social circle; while his colleagues at a London printing house indulged in beer morning, noon, and night, Franklin ate porridge with butter and bread and drank no beer at all. So concerned with fairness and punctuality in all his business dealings, Franklin mentions multiple times over the course of several chapters his enormous worry about neglecting to promptly repay a small debt to a an acquaintance who wasn’t even harping on him to get the money back.

Reading this first-hand retrospect of his life, I find myself more and more enamored with Franklin’s practical wisdom, and I think it would benefit many people, even – or especially – nowadays. I, myself, imagine what he would say about my financial situation. You know that old hypothetical question, “If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be?” I never really knew for sure my answer to that question until I started reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Now I know I would really like to pick his brain for a few hours.

The one thing about Franklin’s ideology to which some may take exception is his theory that increased wealth leads to increased virtue. According to an old-time proverb Franklin likes to repeat and even included in his book, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “An empty sack cannot stand upright.” I conjure the heartwarming scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where impoverished Charlie shares his valuable Wonka bar with his ailing Grandpa Joe, and I think, “That’s a bunch of bologna, Franklin! Broke people can be good people too!” Maybe there was something about colonial America that turned all the not-so-well-off people into hedonistic cads, or maybe Franklin, a man who eventually garnered his own sizable wealth, was just short-sighted and biased. In any event, the girth of Franklin’s practical advice about money is enough  for me to give him a pass on this particular opinion of his.

Observation of the way people in our lives treat money leads us to develop our own values about it. I could have been like my dad, a wiz at Excel and masterful with the household budget. My dad even created spreadsheets for me on a couple of occasions so I could better budget my money. Youthful and impulsive as I can be though, a formal budget didn’t exactly . . . work for me (due to no fault of my father’s). I recognize that I have a lot to learn from people like Benjamin Franklin and my father, but I also feel that I’m not necessarily a bad person because I eagerly anticipate pay day sometimes or order take-out a little more often than I should. All it means is that I have some growing up to do in some regards. If I had nothing to improve upon within myself, then I would be perfect, which means I could just stop learning, and life would become extremely boring.

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