Thrift as a Duty, 1902

Andrew Carnegie


Subjects: Thrift Collection, Teaching thrift, Curricula, What is thrift?

More by: Andrew Carnegie

The importance of the subject is suggested by the fact that the habit of thrift constitutes one of the greatest differences between the savage and the civilized man. One of the fundamental differences between savage and civilized life is the absence of thrift in the one and the presence of it in the other. When millions of men each save a little of their daily earnings, these petty sums combined make an enormous amount, which is called capital, about which so much is written. If men consumed each day of each week all they earned, as does the savage, of course there would be no capital—that is, no savings laid up for future use.

Now, let us see what capital does in the world. We will consider what the shipbuilders do when they have to build great ships. These enterprising companies offer to build an ocean greyhound for, let us say, £500,000, to be paid only when the ship is delivered after satisfactory trial trips. Where or how do the shipbuilders get this sum of money to pay the workmen, the wood merchant, the steel manufacturer, and all the people who furnish material for the building of the ship? They get it from the savings of civilized men. It is part of the money saved for investment by the millions of industrious people. Each man, by thrift, saves a little, puts the money in a bank, and the bank lends it to the shipbuilders, who pay interest for the use of it. It is the same with the building of a manufactory, a railroad, a canal, or anything costly. We could not have had anything more than the savage had, except for thrift.

Thrift the First Duty

Hence, thrift is mainly at the bottom of all improvement. Without it no railroads, no canals, no ships, no telegraphs, no churches, no universities, no schools, no newspapers, nothing great or costly could we have. Man must exercise thrift and save before he can produce anything material of great value. There was nothing built, no great progress made, as long as man remained a thriftless savage. The civilized man has no clearer duty than from early life to keep steadily in view the necessity of providing for the future of himself and those dependent upon him. There are few rules more salutary than that which has been followed by most wise and good men, namely, “that expenses should always be less than income.” In other words, one should be a civilized man, saving something, and not a savage, consuming every day all that which he has earned.

The great poet, Burns, in his advice to a young man, says:

To catch Dame Fortune’s golden smile,
Assiduous wait upon her:
And gather gear by every wile
That’s justified by honour.
Not for to hide it in a hedge,
Not for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent.

That is sound advice, so far as it goes, and I hope the reader will take it to heart and adopt it. No proud, self-respecting person can ever be happy, or even satisfied, who has to be dependent upon others for his necessary wants. He who is dependent has not reached the full measure of manhood and can be counted among the worthy citizens of the republic. The safety and progress of our country depend not upon the highly educated men, nor the few millionaires, nor upon the greater number of the extreme poor, but upon the mass of sober, intelligent, industrious and saving workers, who are neither very rich nor very poor.

Thrift Duty Has Its Limits

As a rule, you will find the saving man is a temperate man, a good husband and father, a peaceful, law-abiding citizen. Nor need the saving be great. It is surprising how little it takes to provide for the real necessities of life. A little home paid for and a few hundred pounds—a very few—make all the difference. These are more easily acquired by frugal people than you might suppose. Great wealth is quite another and a far less desirable matter. It is not the aim of thrift, nor the duty of men to acquire millions. It is in no respect a virtue to set this before us as an end. Duty to save ends when just money enough has been put aside to provide comfortably for those dependent upon us. Hoarding millions is avarice, not thrift.

Of course, under our industrial conditions, it is inevitable that a few, a very few men, will find money coming to them beyond their wants. The accumulation of millions is usually the result of enterprise and judgment, and some exceptional ability for organization. It does not come from savings in the ordinary sense of that word. Men who in old age strive only to increase their already great hoards are usually slaves of the habit of hoarding formed their youth. At first they own the money they have made and saved. Later in life the money owns them, and they cannot help themselves, so overpowering is the force of habit, either for good or evil. It is the abuse of the civilized saving instinct, and not its use, that produces this class of men.

No one need be afraid of falling a victim to this abuse of the habit if he always bears in mind that whatever surplus wealth may come to him is to be regarded as a sacred trust, which he is bound to administer for the good of his fellows. The man should always be master. He should keep money in the position of a useful servant. He must never let it master and make a miser of him.

A man’s first duty is to make a competence and be independent. But his whole duty does not end here. It is his duty to do something for his needy neighbours who are less favoured than himself. It is his duty to contribute to the general good of the community in he lives. He has been protected by its laws. Because he has been protected his various enterprises he has been able to make money sufficient his needs and those of his family. All beyond this belongs in justice to the protecting power that has fostered him and enabled him to win pecuniary success. To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life. Your surplus wealth should contribute to the development of your own character and place you in the ranks of nature’s noblemen.

It is no less than a duty for you to understand how important it is, and how clear your duty is, to form the habit of thrift. When you begin to earn, always save some part of your earnings, like a civilized man, instead of spending all, like the poor savage.

Text available online at: Source: Carnegie, Andrew, 1901. The Empire of Business. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, & Co.): 95-98.


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