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The Way to Wealth

Greg Spears

BEN FRANKLIN WROTE the most popular personal finance text of the 18th century. Originally published in 1758 as an essay in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, it became a perennial bestseller when printed separately under the title The Way to Wealth.

You can read the 1810 version printed in London at no charge, thanks to Project Gutenberg. I assign it to students in my behavioral economics class, and it sparks a discussion about whether thrift and hard work are still the routes to financial security. Franklin’s story begins with a distinctly modern tone.

While waiting for an auction to start, a group of neighbors complains that their taxes are too high and will ruin the country. They ask a wise man, called Father Abraham, to advise them. He climbs up on a tree stump and agrees that taxes are high—and then adds this retort: “We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly.”

Then he’s off and running on a rhyming rap that strings together many of the best-known sayings on thrift, industry and saving in the English language. Interestingly, it doesn’t include the quote most often attributed to Franklin, which I’ll add at the end.

Here are 10 sayings from the story. A couple are still widely known even after two centuries:

  • “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
  • “Never leave that till tomorrow, which you can do today.”
  • “There are no gains without pains.”
  • “What maintains one vice, would bring up two children.”
  • “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy; and he that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night; while laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him.”
  • “Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure; and, since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour.”
  • “When you have bought one fine thing, you must buy 10 more, that your appearance may be all of a piece.”
  • “It is as truly a folly for the poor to ape the rich, as for the frog to swell, in order to equal the ox.”
  • “If you would be wealthy, think of saving, as well as of getting. The Indies have not made Spain rich, because her out-goes are greater than her incomes.”
  • “For age and want save while you may, no morning sun lasts a whole day.”

The rhyming couplets are easy to remember but hard to obey. Mark Twain complained in an 1870 essay that Franklin’s maxims marred his childhood. “The boy is hounded to death and robbed of his natural rest,” Twain wrote, “because Franklin, said once, in one of his inspired flights to malignity: Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

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Even Franklin honored his sayings only intermittently. He caused a sensation when he wore a plain brown coat and no wig when presented to King Louis XVI as the U.S. ambassador to the court of Versailles. Yet he also lived in a nearby mansion, where he kept nine servants, including a coachman, gardener and cook.

Franklin concedes that his good advice will be ignored, as he reveals in the story’s ending: “Thus the old gentleman ended his harangue. The people heard it, and approved the doctrine, and immediately practised the contrary, just as if it had been a common sermon; for the auction opened, and they began to buy extravagantly.”

The oft-quoted saying that doesn’t appear anywhere in The Way to Wealth is, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” According to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the closest Franklin came to penning those words was in his 1737 Poor Richard’s Almanack, in which he wrote, “A penny saved is two pence clear.”

Paradoxically, to honor him, visitors pitch pennies onto the gravestone erected after Franklin’s death in 1790. Christ Church Philadelphia even undertook a Gofundme campaign to, among other things, repair the damage from the penny pelting. I imagine that Franklin would be pleased to be remembered for so long, even if his admirers throw away his best-known advice.

Greg Spears is HumbleDollar’s deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder. Check out his earlier articles.

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SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
5 months ago

Just watched a documentary on Franklin. It was fascinating. Franklin also said, “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” Avoiding extremes might temper the rest of his advice. Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, had a book written with his collected writings titled Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger (a takeoff on Franklin’s Almanack). Greg, I enjoyed your article and am reminded to get back into my Franklin studies again. Still a lot to learn.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
5 months ago

Greg,
Thanks for a terrific article. As a native Philadelphian, I’m a big fan of Franklin, and frequently visited the Franklin Institute. I always recommend it to visitors to Philadelphia. He was a true polymath, and I admired his willingness to solve problems – think his stove and bifocals – as well as societal problems – volunteer fire company and insurance.

Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
5 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thanks for the recommendation of the Franklin Institute, Rick. I’ve never been.

Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
5 months ago

Thanks, Greg. I’m a Franklin fan. He was careful of his public image, but also much concerned for the public good. Early America benefited from his industry and intelligence, as did Boston and Philadelphia centuries after his death.

Chazooo
Chazooo
5 months ago
Reply to  Edmund Marsh

Are you sure about Boston and Philadelphia, or are they more like the Indies in Franklin’s day?

Greg Spears
Greg Spears
5 months ago
Reply to  Chazooo

Franklin left 1,000 pounds apiece in his will to Boston and Philadelphia. It was a fund to be loaned at 5% interest to help small tradesmen set up shop in each city. Because the money was paid back with compound interest, it grew to be worth something like $7 million before it was finally disbursed, as he requested, 200 years after his death.

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