Friday, August 19, 2011

Taking an 19th Century Approach Toward Modern Day Personal Finance -- Part I

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau grew up learning the value of economizing and living modestly. Born the third of four children, Thoreau’s family experienced more than their fair share of challenges when it came to business and the world of personal finance (his father owned a grocery store that failed, a stint teaching school, and eventually took over the family pencil-making business, at which point the family took in boarders to help make ends meet), Thoreau’s upbringing may largely have contributed to his jack-of-all-trades work mentality and desire to acquire a love for life without much in the way of need for material possessions.

Thoreau continued to practice and proclaim the values of simple living and economy throughout his adult life, experimenting with them extensively during his time spent living largely off the land on the shores of Walden Pond outside of Concord. In the section of Walden entitled “Economy,” Thoreau expresses, explores, and experiments with many of these view and values, and discusses them in detail.

It is not my intent here to expound upon Thoreau’s views, as I feel they speak plainly enough on their own. I simply wish to point out and comment upon some of what I feel are his more valuable words regarding personal finances, self-sufficiency, and economizing, as well as to consider how we might learn from and apply these thoughts to the current economic environment.

The views of this economizing, and at times, self-sustaining man, may be far more insightful and ahead of their time than most of us realize. We often tend to consider the state of our economy and personal finances as a modern issue, built from greed, bonus-based careers, and swiftly bursting bubbles that leave the average investor scratching his head and wondering where his money has disappeared to. While such factors have certainly contributed to the recent economic crisis, the real issues, the ones that belie the fa├žade of big business blame or ignorant government regulators, might be more fundamental, ones that lie within human nature itself and date back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

In Thoreau’s analysis of thrift, needs versus wants, home ownership, clothing, and fashion, you might be surprised to find that the economic problems facing the average person of a century and a half ago, and the attitudes toward the handling of those issues, were in many ways not far different from those of today.

The following are several quotes from Thoreau’s Walden that I have found particularly relevant to the current handling of our personal finances. Under each, I have added my own thoughts in what I consider a modern day compliment to Thoreau’s observations.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

For all the objects we accumulate, the huge homes we live in, the fancy cars we drive, and designer clothes we wear, are we truly happy with our lives, or are these things just a way of masking our own despair?

I think the vast majority of us shove our true intentions, dreams, and aspirations down to places so far within ourselves, and for so long a time, that even if we did have the possibility, either financial or otherwise, to explore these goals, we would no longer know how to do so. Many of us hide behind the security of our stable jobs and safety nets of sure things and steady paychecks. And because we waste our money on consumer goods to keep us content while the days of our lives are slowly whittled away, we diminish the ability to provide ourselves, by way of financial stability and security, the opportunity to explore our dreams and possibly to achieve our true goals.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Just recently, I was out raking the leaves from my front lawn, not because their looks particularly bothered me, but because they tend to clog the street gutters when left unattended.

Looking up and down the block, I saw my neighbors out, attempting similar activities, however not with rakes but with catch-bag lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and other instruments of mechanical terror. After a quarter of an hour, I had finished my work; invigorated, heart pumping, lungs full of fresh Autumnal air. I again looked around me, up and down the street, surveying my neighbors. I watched as they puttered and sputtered back and forth, blowing leaves to one spot and then to another, eventually into a pile, only then to have to stop and rake them up or having to stop every five minutes to empty their mower bag.

It must have been at least another thirty or forty minutes before any of them, using much more technologically advanced devices than my lowly rake, were finished with their jobs. How silly and how wasteful I thought, especially when I see many of those same neighbors jogging up and down the streets in snazzy workout shorts and fancy running shoes to get their daily exercise.


Walden and Civil Disobedience. Henry David Thoreau. Barnes and Noble Books. New York, 2003.

Walden and Civil Disobedience. Introduction, Notes, and For Further Reading Copyright 2003, Jonathan Levin.

Walden and Civil Disobedience. Note on Henry David Thoreau; The World of Henry David Thoreau, Walden and “Civil Disobedience”; Inspired by Walden; and Comments & Questions. Copyright 2003 by Barnes & Noble, Inc.

The author is not a licensed financial professional. The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice. Any action taken by the reader due to the information provided in this article is solely at the reader’s discretion.

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