Because I write a personal finance blog, I read a lot of books about money. I'll be honest: they're usually pretty boring. Sure, they can tell you how to invest in bonds or how to find the latest loophole in the tax code. But most of them lack a certain something: the human element.
Recently I've begun to read a different kind of money book in my spare time. I've discovered the joy of classic biographies and success manuals, especially those written by (or about) wealthy and/or thrifty men. When I read about Benjamin Franklin or Warren Buffett or J.C. Penney, I learn a lot — not just about money, but about how to be a better man.
Here are twelve of the most important lessons that these books, written by and about great men of years gone by, have taught me.
More than any other, one lesson stands out from the books I've read: Never give up. If you have a goal or a dream, pursue it. If there's a cause that you truly believe in, then fight for it. That's not to say that you should doggedly chase greed or gluttony, but that you should do your best to achieve those things that are important to you. Great men struggle through daunting obstacles to reach their destinations. In everything that you do, do your best. And remember: The road to wealth is paved with goals.
Benjamin Franklin famously attempted to codify his quest for self-control. As Brett wrote at The Art of Manliness, Franklin committed himself to thirteen virtues, and he developed a system for tracking how disciplined he was in his daily pursuit of these ideals. There's nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence. But when the indulgence becomes a habit — or worse, a vice — this can affect your life. Even destroy it. If you have habits that prevent you from fulfilling your potential, find a way to boost your self-control. (You might, for example, use Joe's Goals to track your progress, much like Benjamin Franklin did.)
Do the Right Thing
Have a code of honor, and live by it. Your code of honor might come from your faith, or from your education, or from your family. Whatever the source, live by these values. Life is filled with temptations. The more you accomplish, the more people will tempt you with offers for quick gains or passing pleasures. Many men succumb to these, but those who do rarely achieve what they might have if they'd stuck to their principles. The books I've read are filled with stories of men who have resisted the urge to compromise, and who believe that this has been a key to their success. Don't cheat. Be honest. Work hard. And embrace the golden rule.
Embrace the Golden Rule
James Cash Penney — the man behind the J.C. Penney chain of department stores — believed that success could be measured by how a man treated others. In his book, Fifty Years with the Golden Rule, Penney describes his life-long adherence to this maxim: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Other great men believed the same. They believed that their fortunes came not from pursuing money itself, but by producing something of value to others. But this principle also holds true outside of business. In your dealings with your friends, your family, and with strangers, treat others as you would like to be treated. Doing so builds social capital, strengthening the fiber of the community.
Pay Yourself First
Another common thread in most of these books — and in personal-finance classics like The Richest Man in Babylon — is the importance of saving. “Pay yourself first,” the old adage goes, and it's great advice. If you will set aside ten or twenty per cent of all that you earn, your fortune will grow far beyond that of your peers. Some of this money should be invested in a manner that makes you comfortable. (You should learn about the concepts of asset allocation and diversification, if you haven't already.) But some of your money should also be set aside in a high-interest savings account to act as an emergency fund. When you save — when you pay yourself first — you are using the strength of your youth to insure your uncertain tomorrow.
Debt is slavery. When you owe money to another man, you are obligated to work for his benefit, not yours. Many young men struggle with debt — I did so myself. But those who are not able to overcome their spending habits are likely to find themselves always poor. When you pay interest to someone else, you cannot earn interest for yourself. When you're in debt, your options are limited. You cannot choose, for example, to take a month off to travel across the country with a friend. You cannot quit a job you hate. If you did, how would your bills get paid? To be sure, a certain amount of debt is useful in business, but make it a policy in your personal life to never borrow for something that will decrease in value. (And if you're already behind, make it a priority to get out of debt as soon as possible.)
Your health is your greatest asset. If you lack health, you cannot work, and cannot produce an income. Health allows you to engage in productive activities, at work and at play. It allows you to enjoy the company of your friends and family. And it allows you to live with vigor. Guard your health. Do not neglect your body. Eat well. Exercise regularly. If you drink or smoke, do so in moderation. You will not live forever, but with some care and foresight, you may get a little closer!
Do Not Covet
It never pays to compare yourself to others. For one, you can find yourself longing to own the same things they do. Your best friend buys a new Ford Mustang, and suddenly you want one too. The guys from work go out for drinks on Friday evening, but you're broke — the temptation to join in, to have what others have, can be unbearable. Focus only on yourself and how the things you own and do relate to your goals. Don't be jealous of others. (This is one message in the famous essay, “Acres of Diamonds”: Instead of looking elsewhere for wealth, look at your own life.)
This is the flip side to “Do Not Covet”. Just as you should not allow the behavior of your friends to influence your spending decisions, so too be conscious of your influence on them. If you have money, don't flaunt it. And if you don't have money, don't pretend that you do. It's fine (even good) to buy quality products, but don't be flashy. Live simply and well.
Too many men want to “get rich quick.” They're on the lookout for fast money. They also want to lose weight now, to be a great golfer now, to be in management now. This obsession with “now” is a problem. In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is 10,000 hours. That is, those who achieve mastery have patiently practiced their craft for at least 10,000 hours — the equivalent of five years of full-time work. When people ask me why Get Rich Slowly is so successful, one of my responses is that I've worked at it 60+ hours a week for the past four years. Practice may not “make perfect,” but it certainly breeds success.
I wasn't raised in a culture of giving. It's only something I'm beginning to learn in middle age. But as I read about the choices of men who have come before me, it's clear that they have derived satisfaction (and done a lot of good) by giving generously — not just of money, but also of time and knowledge. Do not hoard the things you have. Share them so that others might profit, too.
Learn from the Average Joe
Over the past few months, I've enjoyed reading the real-life stories of how great men became great. But I've also found it enlightening to read about the experiences of the average everyday guy — fellows like you and me.
One book I strongly recommend (especially considering the state of the economy) is Hard Times by Studs Terkel. Hard Times is an oral history of the Great Depression. Terkel interviewed scores of men and women about their experiences during the 1930s. Their stories are amazing, and they offer great insight about how we can live better lives today.
Go forth, my friends, and do great things.
Note: This article originally appeared at The Art of Manliness in a slightly different format. April and I plan to do a follow-up that highlights great lessons from great women. But give us time to research it! (And if you have suggestions about books/pamphlets we should read for this project, let us know.)
Author: J.D. Roth
In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he's managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.