The other day, I was browsing through the investing section at my local Barnes & Noble
Franklin? What was he doing there? Then I saw the title -- The Way to Wealth and Other Writings on Finance, edited by Walter Isaacson. Though the title sounds like a get-rich-quick book, it is actually an anthology of proverbs from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and letters he wrote to various people. It ends with the essay which gave its name to the title. That essay, which Franklin used to open the last issue of the almanac, has been published in more than 1,300 editions over the years.
A penny saved is a penny earned
Franklin achieved wealth by working hard, living below his means, and saving and investing the extra. He was an especially great believer in saving money. This was the central economic activity that a person could perform. Saved money offered not only security, but a way to increase wealth through investments. For instance, when he died, he owned property all over the original 13 Colonies and even some in Canada.
In order to save, though, one has to be frugal. "Beware of little Expences; a small Leak will sink a great Ship." In another place, he wrote that if one's income gets cut, one's expenses better take a cut, too, or poverty would soon come calling.
Saving went beyond just putting something aside for a rainy day. He had the difference between needs and wants down cold. "At a great pennyworth, pause awhile" is advice often offered on the Fool's discussionboards, though not in those precise words. Franklin believed that it was too easy to fritter away one's money on fripperies. Better not to buy a new hat just because you think you need it, because then you'll want new gloves, new shoes, and new clothes. "'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follow it."
Creditors have better memories than debtors
Franklin did not encourage getting into debt -- I think he would be appalled at the huge use of credit card debt today made possible by companies like MasterCard
He even poked fun at creditors, of which he was one. "Creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times." While amusing, it does highlight the seriousness of entering into debt.
Doing well by doing good
His advice was not just financial in nature. He encouraged hard work and not wasting time. He also encouraged getting involved with one's neighbors and society. As Isaacson writes in the introduction, Franklin believed "[h]elping others is part of a virtuous cycle: it makes you more valuable to your community, helps you to serve both your neighbors and your Lord, and also rebounds to your personal credit."
The book ends with the preface to the last Almanack. This was a speech given by Father Abraham, a person just as fictitious as Richard Saunders, the writer of the almanac. The good father wove dozens of Poor Richard's sayings into a speech showing how it is within each person's grasp to control their own financial fate, even in worrisome times. A nice touch by Isaacson was including a copy of an early printing of this speech opposite a modern rendering of the same. It takes a moment of thought to realize that when the original reads "Induftry" and " Bufinefs," it would read today as "Industry" and "Business."
Over the 25 years in which Poor Richard's Almanack was published and the 84 years that Franklin lived and wrote, he passed along a wealth of wisdom on how to live well. Hardly any of it was original with him, though. What he did was gather proverbs and sayings together, often putting his own pithy spin on them to make them more memorable. This book represents a lifetime of that wisdom. While it won't give you secrets of the rich and famous so that you can easily become rich, it does give you advice on how you can work to become wealthy. In Franklin's mind, there was a large difference between those two conditions.
Fool contributor Jim Mueller owns fhares of many a fine bufinefs, but not in thofe mentioned. MasterCard is an Inside Value recommendation. Ye Olde Fool's disclosure policy makes for interefting reading.