Read LETTER VII - ECONOMY of The Young Lady's Mentor, free online book, by A Lady, on

Perhaps there is no lesson that needs to be more watchfully and continually impressed on the young and generous heart than the difficult one of economy. There is no virtue that in such natures requires more vigilant self-control and self-denial, besides the exercise of a free judgment, uninfluenced by the excitement of feeling.

To you this virtue will be doubly difficult, because you have so long watched its unpleasant manifestations in a distorted form. You are exposed to danger from that which has perverted many notions of right and wrong; you have so long heard things called by false names that you are inclined to turn away in disgust from a noble reality. You have been accustomed to hear the name of economy given to penuriousness and meanness, so that now, the wounded feelings and the refined tastes of your nature having been excited to disgust by this system of falsehood, you will find it difficult to realize in economy a virtue that joins to all the noble instincts of generosity the additional features of strong-minded self-control.

It will therefore be necessary, before I endeavour to impress upon your mind the duty and advantages of economy, that I should previously help you to a clear understanding of the real meaning of the word itself.

The difficulty of forming a true and distinct conception of the virtue thus denominated is much increased by its being equally misrepresented by two entirely opposite parties. The avaricious, those to whom the expenditure of a shilling costs a real pang of regret, claim for their mean vice the honour of a virtue that can have no existence, unless the same pain and the same self-control were exercised in withholding, as with them would be exercised in giving. On the other hand, the extravagant, sometimes wilfully, sometimes unconsciously, fall into the same error of applying to the noble self-denial of economy the degrading misnomers of avarice, penuriousness, &c.

It is indeed possible that the avaricious may become economical, after first becoming generous, which is an absolutely necessary preliminary. That which is impossible with man is possible with God, and who may dare to limit his free grace? This, however, is one of the wonders I have never yet witnessed. It seems indeed that the love of money is so literally the “root of all evil," that there is no room in the heart where it dwells for any other growth, for any thing lovely or excellent. The taint is universal, and while much that is amiable and interesting may originally exist in characters containing the seeds of every other vice, (however in time overshadowed and poisoned by such neighbourhood,) it would seem that “the love of money” always reigns in sovereign desolation, admitting no warm or generous feeling into the heart which it governs. Such, however, you will at once deny to be the case of those from whose penuriousness your early years have suffered; you know that their character is not thus bare of virtues. But do not for this contradict my assertion; theirs was not always innate love of money for its own sake, though at length they may have unfortunately learned to love it thus, which is the true test of avarice. It has, on the contrary, been owing to the faults of others, to their having long experienced the deprivations attendant on a want of money, that they have acquired the habit of thinking the consciousness of its possession quite as enjoyable as the powers and the pleasures its expenditure bestows. They know too well the pain of want of money, but have never learned that the real pleasure of its possession consists in its employment. It is only from habit, only from perverted experience, that they are avaricious, therefore I at once exonerate them from the charges I have brought against those whose very nature it is to love money for its own sake. At the same time the strong expressions I have made use of respecting these latter, may, I hope, serve to obviate the suspicion that I have any indulgence for so despicable a vice, and may induce you to expect an unprejudiced statement of the merits and the duty of economy.

It is carefully to be remembered that the excess of every natural virtue becomes a vice, and that these apparently opposing qualities are only divided from each other by almost insensible boundaries. The habitual exercise of strong self-control can alone preserve even our virtues from degenerating into sin, and a clear-sightedness as to the very first step of declension must be sought for by self-denial on our own part, and by earnest prayer for the assisting graces of the Holy Spirit, to search the depths of our heart, and open our eyes to see.

Thus it is that the free and generous impulses of a warm and benevolent nature, though in themselves among the loveliest manifestations of the merely natural character, will and necessarily must degenerate into extravagance and self-indulgence, unless they are kept vigilantly and constantly under the control of prudence and justice. And this, if you consider the subject impartially, is fully as much the case when these generous impulses are not exercised alone in procuring indulgences for one’s friends or one’s self, but even when they excite you to the relief of real suffering and pitiable distress.

This last is, indeed, one of the severest trials of the duty of economy; but that it is a part of that duty to resist even such temptations, will be easily ascertained if you consider the subject coolly, that is, if you consider it when your feelings are not excited by the sight of a distressed object, whose situation may be readily altered by some of that money which you think, and think justly, is only useful, only enjoyable, in the moment of expenditure.

The trial is, I confess, a difficult one: it is best the decision with respect to it should be made when your feelings are excited on the opposite side, when some useful act of charity to the poor has incapacitated you from meeting the demands of justice.

I am sure your memory, ay, and your present experience too, can furnish you with some cases of this kind. It may be that the act of generosity was a judicious and a useful one, that the suffering would have been great if you had not performed it; but, on the other hand, it has disabled you from paying some bills that you knew at the very time were lawfully due as the reward of honest labour, which had trusted to your honour that this reward should be punctually paid. You have a keen sense of justice as well as a warm glow of generosity; one will serve to temper the other. Let the memory of every past occasion of this kind be deeply impressed, not only on your mind but on your heart, by frequent reflection on the painful thoughts that then forced themselves upon you, the distress of those upon whose daily labour the daily maintenance of their family depends, the collateral distress of the artisans employed by them, whom they cannot pay because you cannot pay, the degradation to your own character, from the experience of your creditors that you have expended that which was in fact not your own, the diminished, perhaps for ever injured, confidence which they and all who become acquainted with the circumstances will place in you, and, finally, the probability that you have deprived some honest, industrious, self-denying tradesman of his hardly-earned dues, to bestow the misnamed generosity upon some object of distress, who, however real the distress may be now, has probably deserved it by a deficiency in all those good qualities which maintain in respectability your defrauded creditor. The very character, too, of your creditor may suffer by your inability to pay him, for he, miscalculating on your honesty and truthfulness, may, on his side, have engaged to make payments which become impossible for him, when you fail in your duty, in which case you can scarcely calculate how far the injury to him may extend; becoming a more permanent and serious evil than his incapacity to answer those daily calls upon him of which I have before spoken. In short, if you will try to bring vividly before you all the painful feelings that passed through your mind, and all the contingencies that were contemplated by you on any one of these occasions, you will scarcely differ from me when I assert my belief that the name of dishonesty would be a far more correct word than that of generosity to apply to such actions as the above: you are, in fact, giving away the money of another person, depriving him of his property, his time, or his goods, under false pretences, and, in addition to this, appropriating to yourself the pleasure of giving, which surely ought to belong by right to those to whom the gift belongs.

I have here considered one of the most trying cases, one in which the withholding of your liberality becomes a really difficult duty, so difficult that the opportunity should be avoided as much as possible; and it is for this very purpose that the science of economy should be diligently studied and practised, that so “you may have to give to him that needeth,” without taking away that which is due to others. Probably in most of the cases to which I have referred your memory, some previous acts of self-denial would have saved you from being tempted to the sin of giving away the property of another. I would not willingly suppose that an act of self-denial at the very time you witnessed the case of distress might have provided you with the means of satisfying both generosity and honesty, for, as I said before, I know you to have a keen sense of justice; and though you have never yet been vigilant enough in the practice of economy, I cannot believe that, with an alternative before you, you would indulge in any personal expenditure, even bearing the appearance of almost necessity, that would involve a failure in the payment of your debts. I speak, then, only of acts of previous self-denial, and I wish you to be persuaded, that unless these are practised habitually and incessantly you can never be truly generous. A readiness to give that which costs you nothing, that which is so truly a superfluity that it involves no sacrifice, is a mere animal instinct, as selfish perhaps, though more refinedly so than any other species of self-indulgence. Generosity is a nobler quality, and one that can have no real existence without economy and self-denial.

I have spoken several times of the study of economy, and of the science of economy; and I used these words advisedly. However natural and comparatively easy it may be to some persons to form an accurate judgment of the general average of their ordinary expenses, and of all the contingencies that are perpetually arising, I do not believe that you possess this power by nature: you only need, however, to force your intellectual faculties into this direction to find that here, as elsewhere, they may be made available for every imaginable purpose. You have sometimes probably envied those among your acquaintance, much less highly gifted perhaps than yourself, who have so little difficulty in practising economy, that without any effort at all, they have always money in hand for any unexpected exigency, as well as to fulfil all regular demands upon their purse. It is an observation made by every one, that among the same number of girls, some will be found to dress better, give away more, and be better provided for sudden emergencies, than their companions. Nor are these ordinarily the more clever girls of one’s acquaintance: I have known some who were decidedly below par as to intellect who yet possessed in a high degree the practical knowledge of economy. Instead of vainly lamenting your natural inferiority on such an important point, you should seek diligently to remove it.

An acquired knowledge of the art of economy is far better than any natural skill therein; for the acquisition will involve the exercise of many intellectual faculties, such as generalization, foresight, calculation, at the same time that the moral faculties are strengthened by the constant exercise of self-control. For, granted that the naturally economical are neither shabbily penurious nor deficient in the duty of almsgiving, it is still evident that it cannot be the same effort to them to deny themselves a tempting act of liberality, or the gratification of elegant and commendable tastes, as it must be to those who are destitute of equally instinctive feelings as to the inadequacy of their funds to meet demands of this nature. It is invariably true that economy must be difficult, and therefore admirable in proportion to the warm-heartedness and the refined tastes of those who practise it. The highly-gifted and the generous meet with a thousand temptations to expenditure beyond their means, of the number and strength of which the less amiable and refined can form no adequate conception. If, however, those above spoken of are exposed to stronger temptations than others, they also carry within themselves the means, if properly employed, of more powerful and skillful defence. There is, as I said before, no right purpose, however contrary to the natural constitution of the mind, for which intellectual powers may not be made available; and if strong feelings render self-denial more difficult, especially in points of charity or generosity, they, on the other hand, serve to impress more deeply and vividly on the mind the painful self-reproach consequent to any act of imprudence and extravagance.

The first effort made by your intellectual powers towards acquiring a practical knowledge of the science of economy should be the important one of generalizing all your expenses, and then performing the same process upon the funds that there is a fair probability of your having at your disposal. The former is difficult, as the expenditure of even a single person, independent of any establishment, involves so many unforeseen contingencies, that, unless by combining the past and the future you generalize a probable average, and then bring this average within your income, you can never experience any of the peace of mind and readiness to meet the calls of charity which economy alone bestows.

No one of strict justice can combine tranquillity with the indulgence of generosity unless she lives within her income. Whether the expenditure be on a large or a small scale, it signifies little; she alone is truly rich who has brought her wants sufficiently within the bounds of her income to have always something to spare for unexpected contingencies. In laying down rules for your expenditure, you will, of course, impose upon yourself a regular dedication of a certain part of your income to charitable purposes. This ought to be considered as entirely set apart, as no longer your own: your opportunities must determine the exact proportion; but the tenth, at least, of the substance which God has given you must be considered as appropriated to his service; nor can you hope for a blessing upon the remainder, if you withhold that which has been distinctly claimed from you. Besides the regular allowance for the wants of the poor, I can readily suppose that it will be a satisfaction to you to deny yourself, from time to time, some innocent gratification, when a greater gratification is within your reach, by laying out your money “to make the widow’s heart to sing for joy; to bring upon yourself the blessing of him that was ready to perish." Here, however, will much watchfulness be required; you must be sure that it is only some self-indulgence you sacrifice, and nothing of that which the claims of justice demand. For when, after systematic, as well as present, self-denial, you still find that you cannot afford to relieve the distress which it pains your heart to witness, be careful to resist the temptation of giving away that which is lawfully due to others. For the purpose of saving suffering in one direction you may cause it in another; and besides, you set yourself as plainly in opposition to that which is the will of God concerning you as if your imprudent expenditure were caused by some temptation less refined and unselfish than the relief of real distress. The gratification that another woman would find in a splendid dress, you derive from more exalted sources; but if you or she purchase your gratification by an act of injustice, by spending money that does not belong to you, you, as well as she, are making an idol of self, in choosing to have that which the providence of God has denied you. “The silver and the gold is mine, saith the Lord;” and it cannot be without a special purpose, relating to the peculiar discipline requisite for such characters, that this silver and gold is so often withheld from those who would make the best and kindest use of it. Murmur not, then, when this hard trial comes upon you, when you see want and sorrow which you cannot in justice to others relieve; and when you see thousands, at the very moment you experience this generous suffering, expended on entirely selfish, perhaps sinful gratifications, neither be tempted to murmur or to act unjustly. “Is it not the Lord;” has not he in his infinite love and infinite wisdom appointed this very trial for you? Bow your head and heart in submission, and dare not to seek an escape from it by one step out of the path of duty. It may be that close examination, a searching of the stores of memory, will bring even this trial under the almost invariable head of needful chastisement; it may be that it is the consequence of some former act of self-indulgence and extravagance, which would have been forgotten, or not deeply enough repented of, unless your sin had in this way been brought to remembrance. Thus even this trial assumes the invariable character of all God’s chastisements: it is the inevitable consequence of sin, as inevitable as the relation of cause and effect. It results from no special interposition of Providence, but is the natural result of those decrees upon which the whole system of the world is founded; secondarily, however, overruled to work together for good to the penitent sinner, by impressing more deeply on his mind the humbling remembrance of past sin, and leading to a more watchful future avoidance of the same.

It is indeed probable, that without many trials of this peculiarly painful kind, the duty of economy could not be deeply enough impressed on a naturally generous and warm heart. The restraints of prudence would be unheeded, unless bitter experience, as it were, burned them in.

I have spoken of two necessary preparations for the practice of economy, the first, a clear general view of our probable expenses; the second, which I am now about to notice, is the calculation of the probable funds that are to meet these expenses. In your case, there is a certain income, with sundry contingencies, very much varying, and altogether uncertain. Such probabilities, then, as the latter, ought to be appropriated to such expenses as are occasional and not inevitable: you must never calculate on them for any of your necessary expenditure, except in the same average manner as you have calculated that expenditure; and you must estimate the average considerably within probabilities, or you will be often thrown into discomfort. It is much better that all indulgences of mere taste, of entirely personal gratification, should be dependent on this uncertain fund; and here again I would warn you to keep in view the more pressing wants that may arise in the future. The gratification in which you are now indulging yourself may be a perfectly innocent one; but are you quite sure that you are not expending more money than you can prudently, or, to speak better, conscientiously afford, on that which offers only a temporary gratification, and involves no improvement or permanent benefit? You certainly are not sufficiently rich to indulge in any merely temporary gratification, except in extreme moderation. With relation to that part of your income which is varying and uncertain, I have observed that it is a very common temptation assailing the generous and thoughtless, (about money matters, often those who are least thoughtless about other things,) that there is always some future prospect of an increase of income, which is to free them from present embarrassments, and enable them to pay for the enjoyment of all those wishes that they are now gratifying. It is a future, however, that never arrives; for every increase of property brings new claims or new wants along with it; and it is found, too late, that, by exceeding present income, we have destroyed both the present and the future, we have created wants which the future income will find a difficulty in supplying, having in addition its own new ones to provide for.

It may indeed in a few, a very few, cases be necessary, in others expedient, to forestall that money which we have every certainty of presently possessing; but unless the expenditure relates to particulars coming under the term of “daily bread,” it appears to me decided dishonesty to lay out an uncertain future income. Even if it should become ours, have we not acted in direct contradiction to the revealed will of God concerning us? The station of life in which God has placed us depends very much on the expenditure within our power; and if we double that, do we not in fact choose wilfully for ourselves a different position from that which he has appointed, and withdraw from under the guiding hand of his providence? Let us not hope that even temporal success will be allowed to result from such acts of disobedience.

What a high value does it stamp on the virtue of economy, when we thus consider it as one of the means towards enabling us to submit ourselves to the will of God!

I cannot close a letter to a woman on the subject of economy without referring to the subject of dress. Though your strongest temptations to extravagance may be those of a generous, warm heart, I have no doubt that you are also, though in an inferior degree, tempted by the desire to improve your personal appearance by the powerful aid of dress. It ought not to be otherwise; you should not be indifferent to a very important means of pleasing. Your natural beauty would be unavailing unless you devoted both time and care to its preservation and adornment. You should be solicitous to win the affection of those around you; and there are many who will be seriously influenced by any neglect of due attention to your personal appearance. Besides the insensible effect produced on the most ignorant and unreasonable spectator, those whom you will most wish to please will look upon it, and with justice, as an index to your mind; and a simple, graceful, and well-ordered exterior will always give the impression that similar qualities exist within. Dressing well is some a natural and easy accomplishment; to others, who may have the very same qualities existing in their minds without the power (which is in a degree mechanical) of displaying the same outward manifestation of them, it will be much more difficult to attain the same object with the same expense. Your study, therefore, of the art of dress must be a double one, must first enable you to bring the smallest details of your apparel into as close conformity as possible to the forms and tastes of your mind, and, secondly, enable you to reconcile this exercise of taste with the duties of economy. If fashion is to be consulted as well as taste, I fear that you will find this impossible; if a gown or a bonnet is to be replaced by a new one, the moment a slight alteration takes place in the fashion of the shape or the colour, you will often be obliged to sacrifice taste as well as duty. Rather make up your mind to appear no richer than you are; if you cannot afford to vary your dress according to the rapidly varying fashions, have the moral courage to confess this in action. Nor will your appearance lose much by the sacrifice. If your dress is in accordance with true taste, the more valuable of your acquaintance will be able to appreciate that, while they would be unconscious of any strict and expensive conformity to the fashions of the month. Of course, I do not speak now of any glaring discrepancy between your dress and the general costume of the time. There could be no display of a simple taste while any singularity in your dress attracted notice; neither could there be much additional expense in a moderate attention to the prevailing forms and colours of the time, for bonnets and gowns do not, alas, last for ever. What I mean to deprecate is the laying aside any one of these, which is suitable in every other respect, lest it should reveal the secret of your having expended nothing upon dress during this season. Remember how many indulgences to your generous nature would be procured by the price of, a fashionable gown or bonnet, and your feelings will provide a strong support to your duty. Another way in which you may successfully practise economy is by taking care of your clothes, having them repaired in proper time, and neither exposing them to sun or rain unnecessarily. A ten-guinea gown may be sacrificed in half an hour, and the indolence of your disposition would lead you to prefer this sacrifice to the trouble of taking any preservatory precautions, or thinking about the matter at all. Is this right? Even if you can procure money to satisfy the demands of mere carelessness, are you acting as a faithful steward by thus expending it? I willingly grant to you that some women are so wealthy, placed in situations requiring so much representation, that it would be degrading to them to take much thought about any thing but the beauty and fashion of their clothes; and that an anxiety on their part about the preservation of, to them, trifles would indicate meanness and parsimoniousness. Their office is to encourage trade by a lavish expenditure, conformable to the rank in life in which God has placed them. Happy are they if this wealth do not become a temptation too hard to be overcome! Happier those from whom such temptations, denounced in the word of God more strongly than any other, are entirely averted!

This is your position; and as much as it is the duty of the very wealthy to expend proportionally upon their dress, so is it yours to be scrupulously economical, and to bring down your aspiring thoughts from the regions of poetry and romance to the homely duties of mending and caretaking. There will be poetry and romance too in the generous and useful employment you may make of the money thus economised. Besides, if you do not yet see that they exist in the smallest and homeliest of every-day cares, it is only because your mind has not been sufficiently developed by experience to find poetry and romance in every act of self-control and self-denial.

There is, I believe, a general idea that genius and intellectual pursuits are inconsistent with the minute observations and cares that I have been recommending; and by nature perhaps they are so. The memoirs of great men are filled with anecdotes of their incompetency for commonplace duties, their want of observation, their indifference to details: you may observe, however, that such men were great in learning alone; they never exhibited that union of action and thought which is essential to constitute a heroic character.

We read that a Charlemagne and a Wallenstein could stoop, in the midst of their vast designs and splendid successes, to the cares of selling the eggs of their poultry-yard, and of writing minute directions for its more skilful management. A proper attention to the repair of the strings of your gowns or the ribbons of your shoes could scarcely be farther, in comparison, beneath your notice.

The story of Sir Isaac Newton’s cat and kitten has often made you smile; but it is no smile of admiration: such absence of mind is simply ridiculous. If, indeed, you should refer to its cause you may by reflection ascertain that the concentration of thought secured by such abstraction, in his particular case, may have been of use to mankind in general; but you must at the same time feel that he, even a Sir Isaac Newton, would have been a greater man had his genius been more universal, had it extended from the realms of thought into those of action.

With women the same case is much stronger; their minds are seldom, if ever, employed on subjects the importance and difficulty of which might make amends for such concentration of thought as would necessarily, except in first-rate minds, produce abstraction and inattention to homely every-day duties.

Even in the case of a genius, one of most rare occurrence, an attention to details, and thoughtfulness respecting them, though certainly more difficult, is proportionally more admirable than in ordinary women.

It was said of the wonderful Elizabeth Smith, that she equally excelled in every department of life, from the translation of the most difficult passages of the Hebrew Bible down to the making of a pudding. You should establish it as a practical truth in your mind, that, with a strong will, the intellectual powers may be turned into every imaginable direction, and lead to excellence in one as surely as in another.

Even where the strong will is wanting, and there may not be the same mechanical facility that belongs to more vigorous organizations, every really useful and necessary duty is still within the reach of all intellectual women. Among these, you can scarcely doubt that the science of economy, and that important part of it which consists in taking care of your clothes, is within the power of every woman who does not look upon it as beneath her notice. This I suppose you do not, as I know you to take a rational and conscientious view of the minor duties of life, and that you are anxious to fulfil those of exactly “that state of life unto which it has pleased God to call you."

I must not close this letter without adverting to an error into which those of your sanguine temperament would be the most likely to fall.

You will, perhaps for it is a common progress run from one extreme to another, and from having expended too large a proportion of your income on personal decoration, you may next withdraw even necessary attention from it. “All must be given to the poor,” will be the decision of your own impulses and of over-strained views of duty.

This, however, is, in an opposite direction, quitting the station of life in which God has placed you, as much as those do who indulge in an expenditure of double their income. Your dressing according to your station in life is as much in accordance with the will of God concerning you, as your living in a drawing-room instead of a kitchen, in a spacious mansion instead of a peasant’s cottage. Besides, as you are situated, there is another consideration with respect to your dress which must not be passed over in silence. The allowance you receive is expressly for the purpose of enabling you to dress properly, suitably, and respectably; and if you do not in the first place fulfil the purpose of the donor, you are surely guilty of a species of dishonesty. You have no right to indulge personal feeling, or gratify a mistaken sense of duty, by an expenditure of money for a different purpose from that for which it was given to you; nor even, were your money exclusively your own, would you have a right to disregard the opinions of your friends by dressing in a different manner from them, or from what they consider suitable for you. If you thus err, they will neither allow you to exercise any influence over them, nor will they be at all prejudiced in favour of the, it may be, stricter religious principles which you profess, when they find them lead to unnecessary singularity, and to disregard of the feelings and wishes of those around you. It is therefore your duty to dress like a lady, and not like a peasant girl, not only because the former is the station in life God himself has chosen for you, but also because you have no right to lay out other people’s money on your own devices; and, lastly, because it is your positive duty, in this as in all other points, to consult and consider the reasonable wishes and opinions of those with whom God has connected you by the ties of blood or friendship.