Saturday, August 27, 2011

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

I continue my sorting of Thoreau’s thoughts on economy with a review of some of his ideas pertaining to employment, the ideas of what others conceive of as “good” and clothing.

Thoreau states:

"Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off, -- that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and by some magic wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture*, but I had not made it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?"
* Here, Thoreau refers to his work as a reporter at a local journal that did not print the majority of his work.

While times have indeed changed, I find the last three sentences of this short, yet poignant tale, particularly interesting. Many times we may limit ourselves to what we assume to be the norm. After college, I myself worked in what would be considered a regular job, with a major hotel corporation, clawing my way up the corporate ladder, and playing office politics.

It was all very exciting at first. It was like a game I hadn’t played before. But all too soon, I found myself bored by the rules, and while traveling regularly around the game board in a seemingly unceasing cycle, the only exciting aspect of my life became passing “Go” and collecting my paycheck. While everyone else around me scurried like frightened animals in the presence of the powers that be and looked for ways to advance through the manipulation and degradation of others, I began to wonder why such a lifestyle was looked upon with respect and admiration by others, and those best at playing such games were the ones considered successful by my peers. And so, rather than looking for ways to continue my advancement in a work environment that held little enticement or satisfaction for me, I began to look for ways to change the rules of the game.

In doing so, I soon realized that I really needed very little income to live a quite normal and respectable life. Therefore, I began stash every spare penny I could. I looked for ways to reduced expenses, studied how much I spent each month and on what, and focused on how much my savings could earn me by way of simple and secure investments like savings bonds, savings accounts, and CDs.

After several years of this, I had enough of a nest egg that I could quit the life that others found so appealing and that I found quite appalling, to write and stay at home with my newborn son. Rather than the selling of “baskets” that I found so distasteful in the business world, I found ways to “avoid the necessity of selling them,” as Thoreau had done. Given, I wasn’t making huge sums of money through my writing, nor was I saving vast amounts for retirement. However, unlike many of those who were scurrying to work each day around me, I also wasn’t in debt, my home wasn’t being foreclosed upon, I was maintaining a normal lifestyle. I was my own boss, living a longtime dream, and was able to raise my son rather than put him in a daycare.

This exuberance at finally being free however; was short lived, as I once again began to realize that writing was yet just another form of basket weaving, just as Thoreau had discovered years ago. While it afforded me the luxury of many freedoms previously unknown to me, I now found myself having to find buyers for my tales of woven “baskets,” being surprised when I found that there were so many out there who did not want them after I had gone to the great trouble of creating them.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad…”

This is an important observation made by Thoreau; one I feel is made clearer by the recent US financial collapse. When we look around us, we see our neighbors setting their goals and the standards by which to live their lives by those of their neighbors, and those neighbors by their neighbors, and so on and so forth. But why is it that we assume that what these people feel is “good” is what we should also feel is good?

The vast majority of people felt investing in homes, taking out large, unsupported loans, and generally overextending themselves financially were acceptable, if not positive actions. We now however see the repercussions of these actions, which were for the large part, quite negative. We watch our neighbors spending on new patio furniture, new vehicles, dinners out, the latest fashions, lawn services, and riding lawn mowers, and immediately feel we are due the same, often without pause to consider whether these trappings are necessary or are even good for us.

We saw the line of cattle herded toward the precipice of the stock market collapse in 2007 and 2008, as the greater part of our neighbors assumed stocks and the stock markets were good, safe investment vehicles for their money. Much the same happened with the housing collapse. It is often these rushes to judgment by the masses that might be the obvious indication that something is askew and that it might be time to refrain and recoil from the lures of what our neighbors call “good” in order to better review the situation from afar before joining the fray.

“As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.”

I won’t go into too much detail with Thoreau’s quote here since its meaning is relatively obvious. More often than not, it’s the label or designer name that is looked for during our clothing purchases as opposed to the true functionality, quality or durability of the clothing. While times have changed since Thoreau’s day, and a much larger portion of us make our livings from work in an office or business rather than upon a farm or as a general laborer, his statement almost rings truer today.

Due to the visibility of our garments in daily life, our need to wear the latest and most fashionable trends often outweighs the comfort and utility of the clothing. Even worse is that in our current economy, many of us still don’t make use of the vast array and quantities of affordable clothing available from thrift and consignment shops, choosing instead to spend ten times as much money or more just to be seen shopping at a local mall and sporting a name rather than a garment upon us.


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.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post. Well written, easy to read and informative. Keep up the good work and thanks!