Benjamin Franklin, the original personal finance blogger

I just finished reading “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” which is actually just a collection of letters and papers from Franklin. The edition I read was out of print but you can find a similar version at amazon (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Second Edition) or free online at this site.

I only knew the basics about Franklin - the electricity experiments with the kite, creating the public library system in the US, and so on. But Franklin had a deeply fascinating life. He created the first volunteer fire department in America. He was an entrepreneur – at the age of 24 he started his own printing company, and his success with that business, including publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, gave him financial freedom by the time he was in his early 40s. He was an author, a diplomat, a publisher, an inventor, a postmaster-general and even a self-help guru with his 13 virtues and Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Franklin was an open source development proponent 200 years before the advent of the Internet. His inventions included the lightning rod, bifocals and even the flexible urinary catheter. He didn’t believe in patents, and never sought one for any of his inventions, feeling that he benefited so much from the inventions of others that he should not ask anything in return. I am sure he would have used Open Office or Google Docs for his writing!

Franklin was a master of compound interest. He left 1000 pounds (about $5000 in today’s money) to both Boston (his native city) and Philadelphia (where he lived most of his life) in his will. The condition? It could not be touched for 200 years. Those trusts grew to $2 million and $5 million for Philadelphia and Boston, respectively (big difference in investment portfolios, apparently). The trusts were used in Philadelphia for mortgage loans and scholarships and for the establishment of the Franklin Institute in Boston, a technical school. So a small amount saved today becomes a huge amount tomorrow. Sound familiar?

If Franklin had one serious flaw, it was his infidelity. His attention to his public life and his multi-year stays in Europe on diplomatic and commercial business resulted in very poor relations with his wife, Deborah Read. He had many long-lasting affairs and even had a sort of ‘second family’ in England. He even fathered an illegitimate son who became the last loyalist (pro-British) governor of New Jersey. I guess a man who had so many interests in life couldn’t force himself to focus on his family. It’s a serious character flaw, and probably the best reason for not considering him a role model.

As you can tell, I find Franklin’s writings to be fascinating, particularly his ideas on health, wealth and life. Regardless of his private life, his public life was staggeringly successful. On top of everything else, he may have been the original American personal finance blogger. Read this list and tell me if this isn’t very similar to the advice you read every day about personal finance. Tell me you couldn’t make each of these points the lead-in sentence for a blog post!

  • I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.
  • If you desire many things, many things will seem few.
  • If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone [a legendary stone that turns items into gold].
  • If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
  • Buy what thou hast no need of and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessities.
  • Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure.
  • Gain may be temporary and uncertain; but ever while you live, expense is constant and certain: and it is easier to build two chimneys than to keep one in fuel.
  • He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.
  • Human felicity [happiness or fortune] is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.
  • If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some.
  • It is only when the rich are sick that they fully feel the impotence of wealth.
  • It is the eye of other people that ruin us. If I were blind I would want, neither fine clothes, fine houses or fine furniture.
  • Many a man thinks he is buying pleasure, when he is really selling himself to it.
  • Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.
  • Our necessities never equal our wants.
  • Remember that credit is money.
  • Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.
  • So much for industry, my friends, and attention to one’s own business; but to these we must add frugality if we would make our industry more certainly successful. A man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his nose all his life to the grindstone, and die not worth a grout [dollar] at last.

And finally, his best quote, that has absolutely nothing to do with personal finance: Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.