1993 Pulitzer nominee American Culture

Americans Save Time by Spending Money

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 2 April 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

One of the most annoying things about the rest of the world suddenly agreeing with us Americans is guilt.

Just about everybody is freely electing presidents and legislators, and writing constitutions, just like we in the West. In economics, supply and demand has caught on, too.

So why do we Yanks give each other furtive glances when we learn yet another country is imitating us? We serve as an example, and look at whom we’ve been electing. Look at this season’s crop. Maybe it’s not that bad.

Capitalism is unnerving under the microscope as well. We still have to acknowledge it is the only economy that works on the long term and overall is the most fair. Yet the free market is different from democracy — they’re two different beasts.

If this is so, then why is our currency inscribed with republic slogans like “One of Many” or “The People Rule”? Shouldn’t our dollars remind us of the U.S. economic motto, “Let the Buyer Beware”?

On second thought, that would be disastrous. If people read and heed that wisdom, fewer coins would be exchanged. Then there’d be a recession.

Wait, we’re having harder times now without that motto jingling in our pockets. Maybe the solution is to combine mottoes, to “The Buyer Rules.”

On third thought, you couldn’t take that to the bank. There, the Benjamin Franklin rule is “A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned.”

That’s what we were taught, back when banks would start up a youth account with a $1 deposit. The personable teller would give a child some board folders with notches in which to stick dimes and quarters. That’s back when saving wasn’t more complicated than a “passbook account” plus the occasional bonus toaster with a $200 deposit. Interest rates, compared to the inflation of the time, were negligible. A gimmicky incentive — like a bonus — was needed.

Later, certificates of deposit and money-market savings increased interest greatly, but then earning also fluctuated widely. The free casserole dishes were stopped.

Franklin’s motto changed to “A Penny Saved Is Two Pennies Earned in 15 Years at Your Bank, or 10 Years at My Bank.”

This line of reasoning may sound cynical, but I’m the innocent sort who’s pleasantly surprised — indeed grateful — for any amount of interest accrued. I’d better be pleased; earning are dropping through the floor these days. Any positive bank statement is welcome in my mailbox.

When the old-timers advised us to “Save for a Rainy Day,” they weren’t advocating mutual funds of NOW (Negotiated Order of Withdrawal) accounts, just that spending is the opposite of saving. If your don’t buy, you have more money. The cookie jar doesn’t bear interest, and it can crack, so the bank keeps your money as a public service.

So here’s a proposed motto for our times: “A Penny Saved is a Penny Not Spent.”

Who am I kidding? You? You know better than that. Me? I ought to have more sense by now.

How about this one, “A Penny Saved Today Is a Penny to Spend Tomorrow.” That’s honest. But time goes by so quickly now, today is tomorrow. If automated teller machines could give advice, that’s what they would say.


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