This is the first of an irregular series. I love to read, especially the classics. From time-to-time I’ll share nuggets of personal finance advice I find buried in the pages of the past.

This month, our book group is reading Betty Smith’s 1943 classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The book describes what it’s like to live in poverty, and how that mindset affects a person’s choices. I love it.

In the following excerpt, it’s December 1901 in Brooklyn, New York. Katie Nolan has just given birth to her first child, and is asking her mother for advice. Katie wants a better life for her daughter, Francie. “I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard,” she says. “What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

“The secret lies in the reading and the writing,” replies her mother, an Austrian immigrant. “Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child…There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book.” The other is the Protestant Bible.

“And then, what else?” asks Katie.

Before you die, you must own a bit of land — maybe with a house on it that your children may inherit.”

Katie laughed. “Me own land? A house? We’re lucky if we can pay our rent.”

“Even so.” Mary spoke firmly. “Yet you must do that. For thousands of years, our people have been peasants working the land of others. This was in the old country. Here we do better working with our hands in the factory. There is a part of each day that does not belong to the master but which the worker owns himself. That is good. But to own a bit of land is better; a bit if land that we may hand down to our children…that will raise us up on the face of the earth.”

“How can we ever get to own land? Johnny and I work and we earn so little. Sometimes after the rent is paid and the insurance there is hardly enough left for food. How could we save for land?”

“You must take an empty condensed-milk can and wash it well.”

“A can…?”

“Cut off the top neatly. Cut strips down into the can the length of your finger. Let each strip be so wide.” She measured two inches with her fingers. “Bend the strips backward. The can will look like a clumsy star. Make a slit in the top. Then nail the can, a nail in each strip, in the darkest corner of your closet. Each day put five cents in it. In three years there will be a small fortune, fifty dollars. Take the money and buy a lot in the country. Get the papers that say it is yours. Thus you become a landowner. Once one has owned land, there is no going back to being a serf.”

“Five cents a day. It seems a little. But where is to to come from? We haven’t enough now and with another mouth to feed…”

“You must do it thus: You go to the green grocer’s and ask how much are carrots the bunch. The man will say three cents. Then look about until you see another bunch, not so fresh, not so large. You will say: May I have this damaged bunch for two cents? Speak strongly and it shall be yours for two cents. That is a saved penny that you put in the star bank.

“It is winter, say. You bought a bushel of coal for twenty-five cents. It is cold. You would start a fire in the stove. But wait! Wait one hour more. Suffer the cold for an hour. Put a shawl around you. Say, I am cold because I am saving to buy land. That hour will save you three cents’ worth of coal. That is three cents for the bank.

“When you are alone at night, do not light the lamp. Sit in the darkness and dream a while. Reckon out how much oil you saved and put its value in pennies in the bank. The money will grow. Someday there will be fifty dollars and somewhere on this long island is a piece of land that you may buy for that money.”

“Will it work, this saving?”

“I swear by the Holy Mother it will.”

I’m only a quarter of the way through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn right now. It reminds me a lot of Willa Cather. I have high hopes that the rest of the book will be just as good.

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