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9 Tips on Getting Rich From the Greatest Showman of All Time

By John Reeves - Feb 8, 2014 at 9:10AM

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The master showman P.T. Barnum was one of the richest Americans of the 19th century. Fortunately, he has left behind his golden rules for making money. Here are nine of them.

P.T. Barnum knew how to make money. By the middle of the 19th century, the master showman had become America's second millionaire, and his estate was valued at over $10,000,000 prior to his death in 1891.

Fortunately for us, Barnum – who is still remembered today for his "greatest show on earth" -- shared his secrets for getting rich. In the short work "The Art of Money Getting" published in 1880, he laid out his rules for creating wealth. After reading them, I was struck by how applicable they remain today. Here are nine golden rules for making money, according to Barnum.

1. Spend less than you earn. Barnum writes that the key to wealth is quite simple: "it consists simply in spending less than we earn." Despite the simplicity of this maxim, he notes, "more cases of failure arise from mistakes on this point than almost any other."

The problem is that we need to be focused on both our expenditures and our income. Barnum shares an instructive story about a woman who cut her expenses by refusing to burn candles in the evening. She may have saved five or ten dollars by doing so, but she lost out on the knowledge she would have gained by reading during those hours. That benefit would have outweighed "a ton of candles." The bottom line for Barnum is that "true economy consists in always making the income exceed the out-go." 

2. Take care of your health. Good health is the foundation of success in life and is also the basis of happiness, according to Barnum. Without good health, a person is very unlikely to accumulate a fortune – he'll have "no ambition; no incentive; no force." He recommends avoiding alcohol and tobacco, while also making other healthy choices when possible.

Barnum was ahead of his time on this important issue. Health is a key component of personal finance. A University of Michigan health and retirement study in 2002 supports that view: it found that the mean household wealth of married couples reporting excellent health was approximately three times that of married couples reporting poor health (an average of $500,000 compared with $164,000). Living a healthier life is one of the easiest steps we can take on the road to building our wealth.

3. Persevere. To illustrate this rule, Barnum shares a line from Davy Crockett, "This thing remember: when I am dead: Be sure you are right, then go ahead."

Everyone must actively cultivate a sense of "go-aheaditiveness," according to Barnum, and must not become overwhelmed by the "horrors" or "blues." He found during his business career that many men gave up right before they would have reached their goal. Everyone will encounter difficulties and challenges – it's how you respond that determines whether you'll succeed or not.

4. Be cautious and bold. This one appears to be a paradox, but it is not, writes Barnum. He believes "you must exercise caution in laying out your plans, but be bold in carrying them out." A man who is all caution won't take on the risks necessary for success, while a man who is "all boldness, is merely reckless, and must eventually fail."

This rule is particularly relevant for the investing world. The very act of investing in stocks is a risky endeavor, as anyone who lived through the recent financial crisis of 2008-2009 knows all too well. And yet, stocks have delivered great returns for investors over the long term, and have been a tremendous way for ordinary people to create wealth for their families.

5. Use the best tools. Barnum believes that workers must always have the very best tools to do their work. As a businessman, he feels there is no tool he should be, "so particular about as living tools." When looking for employees, therefore, one "should be careful to get the best."

Barnum observes that good employees get more and more valuable each year, and that retaining them should be a priority. Recognizing the importance of your human assets – which Costco (COST -0.49%) and Starbucks (SBUX 1.36%), for example, certainly do in today's marketplace – is an often overlooked strategy for creating long-term value.

6. Be focused. Barnum urges the aspiring entrepreneur to focus on "one kind of business only, and stick to it faithfully until you succeed, or until your experience shows that you should abandon it."

This rule is related to persistence in that sometimes we have to keep at just one thing until we're successful. Barnum warns that "many a fortune has slipped through a man's fingers because he was engaged in too many occupations at a time." As Steve Jobs realized, focus sometimes means "saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are."

7. Advertise your business. Barnum was a remarkable pioneer in the field of advertising. For one of his promotions, he was able to transform a five-year-old dwarf named Charles Sherwood Stratton into "General Tom Thumb, Man in Miniature." Tom Thumb eventually became a gigantic hit in Europe, and was received by Queen Victoria and numerous other crowned heads-of-state.

Barnum with General Tom Thumb

Barnum believed strongly that you had to let the public know if you have something that will please potential customers. Without promotion, you will receive no return, even if the item in question is potentially quite valuable. When it came to advertising, Barnum was always willing to invest heavily upfront whenever he knew he had something people would enjoy. Nowadays, each of us should be willing to invest in ourselves or our business whenever we believe doing so will deliver larger rewards down the road.

8. Be polite and kind to your customers. P.T. Barnum actually never said "there's a sucker born every minute." Instead, he had great respect for his customers. He writes, "the man who gives the greatest amount of goods of a corresponding quality for the least sum (still reserving for himself a profit) will generally succeed in the long run."

He didn't think you could get away with not providing quality and value to customers, saying "people don't like to pay and get kicked also." Instead of thinking his customers were suckers, he thought they were deserving of respect and tolerance, since the customer is the man "who pays, while we receive."

9. Preserve your integrity. Barnum concludes his work by saying to all men and women, "make money honestly." He sincerely believed that the desire for wealth is laudable as long as the "possessor of it accepts its responsibilities, and uses it as a friend to humanity."

This final rule, in relation to Barnum's career, requires some context. In a lot of his promotions, he was known to bend the truth somewhat, so "integrity" might not have been the first word that came to the mind of his contemporaries. For example, he once exhibited an African-American woman who was supposedly 161 years old, and was formerly George Washington's nurse. When challenged about the truth of this promotion, he replied, "the story seemed plausible."

Despite Barnum's occasional "humbug," Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, points out that he had a keen sense of civic duty, and truly wanted to educate and delight his customers. In the end, Barnum believed that "money-getters" were benefactors for mankind. In his particular case, I think he was right.


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