Benjamin Franklin must be cosmically guiding the timing of this blog post.
Somewhere he sits with a glass of Madeira in hand, watching as I try to provide advice on frugality during the week in which my daughter graduates from high school. There is, undoubtedly, a smile on his face.
Before getting to that, let me give you context. I am not good with money. I was once. As a boy I bought some of my own hockey gear with accumulated savings and later my dad and I split the cost of an old pickup truck. The $200 it cost me was a princely sum for a twelve-year-old but it was a rite of passage in the form of a rusted step side, three speed, bench seat jalopy. What’s more, we fixed it up (a little) and sold it for a profit. I have never sold an automobile for a profit since. I guess I plateaued financially at twelve.
Back to my daughter. I am terribly proud of her. She is the middle of three girls but is the first to graduate from high school as her oldest sister has profound special needs. She has grown from the little girl with the backpack waiting for the bus on the first day of kindergarten to the elegant young woman who looked like a movie star on her way to the prom. She is off next year to college in a city four hours away and I miss her already.
I tell you this because I have a lot invested in her (and her sisters) in an emotional sense. I am a doting, over protective, clinging parent who took the whole week off on her first and last weeks of school.
My emotional investment has also produced a significant (and occasionally dubious) financial investment. Let’s tally up just last week. Two proms, a graduation, and a party equals two prom dresses, new shoes, a graduation dress, graduations gifts, party supplies, landscaping supplies to beautify the yard, plus deposits for college tuition and residence costs. The list goes on and my bank balance goes down. This, during the week I am to write on frugality, was decidedly not frugal. And thus Franklin smiles.
You could be forgiven for asking why I lack frugality having followed (for at least a week) Ben’s virtue on the topic. Did my efforts at Franklin’s week of Frugality improve me? Not, perhaps, in the way Franklin intended.
Part of the problem was my approach to the virtue which was influenced by some historical reproach that frugality was not Franklin at his best. Critics, who have bemoaned some aspects of the virtues as odd and not heroic, have suggested frugality is self-centered and morally ambiguous. I think I used this criticism as a crutch to avoid confronting my money demons. Despite some initial attempts at simply spending less, I eventually decided that while Franklin was most concerned about the dangers of personal debt when he espoused frugality, I would choose another path.
Let me be clear. I was being disingenuous. This was a do-nothing dodge, a frugality fake and a virtue fail.
I think, however, that despite myself I was on to something. Is giving money away not an expense that benefits others? Are charity and frugality not inextricably linked? I think Franklin’s critics sell him short. Thus, my advice to you is to consider the virtue of frugality holistically. It cannot be simply about spending less money (though in a society awash in consumer debt this is not a bad thing).
As with all of Franklin’s virtues it must be community minded. Therefore I propose thinking of frugality and charity in concert. Here are some concrete actions that can help:
1) Make a budget for the week. You may already be a budgeter and, if so, great but for this week get right down to the minutiae. Try to think of every penny you’ll spend during the week. It will take some time but in concert with number two, it may provide real insight into how you spend your money. Remember to set aside a little for charitable acts;
2) Track your spending to the penny. Note every cup of coffee, every stop at the convenience store, and anything else that parts you with your hard earned dollars. At the end of the week, make two charts. The first is a simple comparison between budget and expenditures. Consider how well you did at the budgeting exercise. The second chart, you can call your Franklin frugality tracker. Draw three columns. One for the expenditures, one marked good and one marked waste. Then go through all the expenditures and, keeping in mind Ben’s precept – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing – , note which were good and which were waste. The exercise will likely be illuminating;
3) Practice random acts of generosity. When I followed Franklin my contemporary ethical guide suggested the idea. As an example, he proposed that at some point I buy a coffee for the next person in line at a coffee shop. It was a good suggestion and brought some simple joy to me and others. A word of caution, however. One woman appeared to think that my coffee purchase was the first act of a romantic advance. Extricating myself from that misunderstanding required an entirely different virtue.
Cameron Gunn is an author and prosecutor living in Canada. His attempt to live Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, was chronicled in BEN & ME: From Temperance to Humility – Stumbling Through Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, One Unvirtuous Day at a Time, released by Perigee Press in September 2010. He is a frequent public speaker having been a longtime faculty member of Canada’s largest continuing legal education seminar on criminal law topics, The National Criminal Law Program and a frequent lecturer for the National Judicial Institute of Canada.