The Decline and Rise of Thrift

Andrew Kline, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/17/2012

Sadly, thrift has narrow–minded, coldhearted connotations for many these days. But for much of our history, it provided a way forward for ambitious Americans of every station and description. The idea of thrift pointed the way to financial security for new immigrants, African Americans, and working women.

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Subject: Thrift

More by: Andrew Kline

This year, both Tax Day and Financial Literacy Day fall on this date. Perhaps we should connect the dots.

Many of us are painfully mired in debt and struggling to make ends meet. As of the end of last year, the average U.S. household with credit card debt owed nearly $16,000.

Meanwhile, we have failed to make practical financial education a priority. According the Council for Economic Education, only 13 states required students to learn about personal finance as a high school graduation requirement in 2011. Although two-thirds of the states have passed legislation highlighting the importance of financial literacy, most of them need to do more to make it part of the standard curriculum.

It's time for fresh thought and vision on our economy and personal finances. It's time to rediscover thrift.

Thrift is the ethic of wise use. The words thrift and thrive are related for a good reason: Using what one has wisely helps one thrive.

Thrift is a complex idea, bringing together the public and private spheres as well as three principles:

Industry: working hard and honestly.

Frugality: using resources sparingly and thinking about the future.

Stewardship: generous sharing of what one has with others.

Sadly, thrift has narrow-minded, coldhearted connotations for many these days. But for much of our history, it provided a way forward for ambitious Americans of every station and description. The idea of thrift pointed the way to financial security for new immigrants, African Americans, and working women.

Thrift meant conserving, repurposing, saving, being good stewards of small sums, and protecting our natural environment. It built fortunes and inspired reformers and philanthropists. It occupied chapters in textbooks and shaped the character and habits of generations of schoolchildren. It led to the creation of cooperative institutions that helped millions of Americans achieve wealth and independence.

For many years, thrift was a core value for those who wanted a wiser citizenry and a more broadly shared prosperity. It can be again. In a new, global context, Americans must resolve to work not only harder, but smarter. We can relearn the habits of saving and use old and new tools to get permanently free of debt.

Today, greater environmental awareness has led to historic increases in rates of recycling and repurposing. The thrift store is alive and well. Yet a broader thrift ethic would push us to work and save more to increase our charitable giving, which as a percentage of income has not budged for more than 50 years.

There are signs that thrift is catching on in a bigger way, though. Libraries, civic and professional associations, and houses of worship are opening their doors to thrift education. Schools are implementing new financial literacy standards. Gov. Corbett recently declared April "Financial Education Month" in Pennsylvania. And The Inquirer recently highlighted Investing in Ourselves, a West Philadelphia program teaching personal financial and other skills.

People facing serious challenges are often most open to embracing the virtues and disciplines of thrift. Wonderful resources exist to enable this, including the websites of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy and the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity; "Franklin's Thrift," a course for high school teachers sponsored by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and publications such as the Institute for American Values' Why Thrift Matters.

We can make today the day when we not only get our houses in order to pay our fair share in taxes for one more year, but also secure our future economic well-being by educating ourselves and our children about the virtues and practices of thrift.

This article originally appeared here.

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