Monday, April 4, 2011

The Gift of Thrift

It’s said that everything old becomes new again.  This seems to be the case with the old American virtue of thrift.  Since many younger readers may not even know what this word means, here’s a rough definition.  Thrift is, “a quality prompting one to economize or save in order to be prosperous.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it arises from the same root as “to thrive.”  For an earlier generation of Americans, thrift was seen—quite literally—as a requirement in order to thrive in life.  It was one of the principle qualities sought after in a potential spouse, and was taught to children in the famous proverb: Waste not, want not.

My own family has a long and deep tradition of thrift that has served us well over the years.  My grandfather was orphaned at the age of thirteen.  Eventually, he was taken in as a foster child by a woman my father came to know as “Aunt Gert.” 

Aunt Gert was a paragon of early 20th century American womanhood. She had a front-row seat to both the Great Arkansas Flood of 1927, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.  A widowed mother of six—one of whom was a boy with cerebral palsy—Gert would, as my grandfather later said, “outwork any man I ever saw.”  Following her husband’s death, she sold the family farm and used the proceeds to build a boarding house.  Aunt Gert ran that house with all the vim and vigor of a great American industrialist.  She cooked ALL the meals EVERY day for EVERYONE, in addition to cleaning THE ENTIRE boarding house.  In return for his room and board, my grandfather took care of making any needed repairs to the house.  In her role as surrogate mother, Gert would frequently lecture my grandfather:  “Don’t spend all yer time learnin’ to make a livin’.  Spend some time learnin’ how to live on what ya make.”

Years later, when my grandfather returned to visit Gert, and she was asking after his well-being and that of his young family.  At one point, Aunt Gert abruptly got up from the kitchen table and told my grandfather to follow her into the back bedroom.  She pulled a cigar box from under the bed and counted out $3,000 in cash and gave it to him to purchase the farm.  To put things in perspective, that would be the equivalent today of someone handing over about $47,000 in cash!

The possibility of anyone aside from Warren Buffett or Bill Gates being able to exercise spontaneous generosity of such extent today seems unbelievable.  Yet if we are so constrained, it is not because we have struggled against greater odds or must subsist on lesser abilities.  It is simply that the profligacy of our spending—both as a culture and individually—has put such actions out of our reach.

If there is anything good coming out of our current anemic economy, it is the Americans who are finally returning to their classical roots—not merely in terms of their politics and voting patterns, but their personal virtues as well.

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