With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in February 2012.
Benjamin Franklin rose from 17-year-old runaway to successful printer, newspaperman, author, inventor, diplomat, and statesman. His great success came from living the virtues of frugality and industry, and his life offers us many personal finance lessons that apply to modern men just as much as they did to those living in colonial America. So without further ado, let’s dive right into uncovering some of Ben’s timeless wisdom:
1. Understand the True Value of Things
Benjamin Franklin learned one of his first, and most important, personal finance lessons as a boy. When he was seven, he saw another boy blowing a whistle and was so charmed by its sound that he offered the boy all the money in his pockets for it. The boy eagerly agreed to the deal. Young Franklin was delighted with his new possession and blew the whistle happily all over the house. But his satisfaction was cut short when his brothers and sisters, finding out how much he had paid for it, informed him that he had forked over four times as much money as it was worth. “The reflection gave me more chagrin,” Franklin recalled, “than the whistle gave me pleasure.”
But as Franklin shared in a letter to a friend, he took an invaluable lesson away from his youthful mistake:
This, however, was afterward of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.
As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.
When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.
When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.
If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, said I, you pay too much for your whistle.
When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, Mistaken man, said I, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.
If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, Alas! say I, he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle…
In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.
2. Be Self-Sufficient
Franklin’s father at first wanted him to go into the ministry, but then decided that the boy would follow in his own footsteps and become a candlemaker. But Franklin did not enjoy that trade, and his father, worried he’d go off to sea, took him around to observe other craftsmen at work,