About a month ago, I went to my first Ben Franklin Circle. We sit and discuss one of the 13 virtues of Ben Franklin (justice, silence, chastity, etc.) and talk about how we want to apply it in our lives. In our most recent circle, we discussed frugality.

We typically associate frugality with our relationship to money, but perhaps there are lessons to frugality that are more expansive than sound financial practices. Maybe it’s about how we spend our money, and our time, and our lives.

Benjamin Franklin describes frugality this way: “Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.” How about this reformulation: “If you intend to do good to yourself or others, you will have to be willing to make the full expense.” Franklin didn’t say to be a tightwad. He didn’t say to never spend. He said to spend carefully, and on those things that “do good to yourself, or to others.”

If you want to do good to yourself, don’t be surprised that there is a cost.

Another way to put it is like this: If you want to enjoy the richness of life, you have to be willing to pay a price. That’s a lesson I learned when I was a new teacher in Baltimore City 8 years ago. The school was W.E.B. DuBois High School. It was a tough school in a tough part of a tough city. The hallways smelled like bathrooms, the bathrooms smelled like a mixture of rancid urine and smoke, the classrooms were always hot and muggy, and I was terrible at my job. My students were used to misbehaving, and having a teacher that was still wet-behind-the-ears wasn’t helping.
My first fistfight happened over Jeopardy–which is a story for another time. In the middle of the fight, I remember seeing a student, head down, taking notes from the board. I found him later, and asked what he was doing. His answer seemed obvious: “I was taking notes.”
In the same room where a fight was going on, Sylvester kept taking notes. He was always doing the right thing. It was how he was.
“Why?” I asked him.
“In my home country, we had to pay for school. This schooling is free, but only because someone had to pay for it for me. It is a gift. I don’t think my friends realize how lucky they are to have a free education. I remember paying the money for my tuition. I remember seeing others turned away because they didn’t. I remember running to school, afraid that I’d be expelled if I was late. You just can’t appreciate a thing until you’ve had to pay the price.”
We live in an incredible time: We have more material wealth than at any point in human history. Our money can buy more gadgets and gizmos (or food and shelter) than ever before, and the prices keep dropping–as quality keeps improving. Frugality is now easier, precisely because our money can go so much further.

And yet, it may be that the most important lesson we have to learn is the true price of things–especially the important things. Some things may be getting cheaper, but the most important things–like personal satisfaction, healthy relationships, and self-improvement–are only available to those who are willing to pay for them.

The abundant life isn’t on sale. For that, you’ll have to pay the full price.


Benjamin Pacini is a father of three and an Assistant Principal in D.C. Public Schools. He is a lover of all things Benjamin Franklin, eats pasta like an Italian, and thinks like an economist.