Monday, April 11, 2011

Want: A Financial Plan

I’ve long believed that you get out of things what you put into them, and Youman’s work is no exception. I bring to the Dictionary a taste for books, for the ghoulish, for real estate, and for the concerns of women. But the Dictionary’s scope is so broad that no matter who you are, no matter what you care about, you will find something in its 557 pages that seems to speak to you alone.

The terrifyingly cruddy economy of late has inspired a new interest for many people: frugality. It’s too soon to say if the Great Recession will have a lasting impact on the way we live in America, but for a while there it changed the way many people looked at the world. Instead of seeming quaint and dated, depression-era strategies for saving money were a hot topic of discussion on the Internet. We visited Wise Bread and Get Rich Slowly for tips on the best interest rates, hoped that Suze Orman would tell us we really could afford something we wanted to buy, and used online calculators to figure out just how much disposable income we actually had.

As I was getting to know Youman and his Dictionary of Every-day Wants, it seemed certain that he would have plenty to say on the topic of living less-than-large. But guess what? Based on a Google search of the Dictionary’s contents, the word frugal—a term in common use since the sixteenth century, according the OED—doesn’t appear once. Neither do thrifty, abstemious, spartan, parsimonious, stingy, or even miserly. And unlike government representatives in 2011, Youman has no use for any form of the word austere.

Maybe this is because America’s future looked pretty rosy in 1872—in the wake of the Civil War, industry was growing, transportation was becoming easier, and Horatio Alger was penning the rags-to-riches fairy tales that would color our national identity for the next hundred years.

But a bit more exploration reveals that Youman did have a lot to say about frugality, but instead of couching it in general terms and abstract discussions, he focused on its real-world application.

(click to enlarge)

Youman’s advice is clearly just as valuable today as it was in 1872, whether you’re furnishing a house, buying a car, or visiting Costco: Buy what you need, not what you want. Instead of spending your every penny, set aside money for the future. Don’t spend more than you make, and don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, because “the truly judicious and respectable” know a person is more than the value of his or her possessions. And having spent last winter without an at-home Internet connection, I can personally attest that truer words than these have never been written: “As riches increase, it is easy and pleasant to increase comforts; but it is always painful and inconvenient to decrease.”

Youman’s tone is usually dispassionate and matter-of-fact, but when his blood is up, as toward the end of the entry, he’s not above swerving into the moralistic. Of living beyond your means, he writes: “The glare there is about this false and wicked parade is deceptive; it does not, in fact, procure a man valuable friends, or extensive influence.”

The Dictionary clearly recommends living with moderation—which is a good thing. Just as people haven’t changed much since Youman’s day, our economy’s tendency toward roller-coaster-of-terror-hood is nothing new. In 1873, one year after the Dictionary’s publication, the economy swooped downward: Banks were failing. Businesses were closing. People were losing jobs, or their pay was being cut. Sounds  eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

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