RICHES — OR JUST A COMPETENCE? (Jun, 1917)
RICHES — OR JUST A COMPETENCE?
By DAVID WALES
THERE is living in a middle size town in Ohio a man who in his community is reputed to be a success. He is shrewd, resourceful, yet conservative. He never has been known to risk a penny unless he was certain to get that penny back, plus a half-mill as interest.
Some who have met both this man and John D. Rockefeller aver that the two resemble each other markedly in appearance, and somewhat in manner. Each has the same sphinx-like smile, the same calculating eye, the same fondness for economy. Here, however, the resemblance ceases. Every dollar that this man possesses, Rockefeller probably can match with twenty thousand dollars. As against the billion dollars of the latter, our Ohio man can set but fifty thousand. Against the fabulous income of the one, the other can show but three thousand dollars annually.
We are not going to raise the cry “opportunity made the difference,” for in all probability had our little capitalist been placed early in life in the oil king’s shoes, he would still have been about where he is today. Nor does difference in ability account for the enormous discrepancy in their fortunes. It is largely a matter of individual temperament. Each stands just where he does today, because he had in his mind’s eye the goal he would like to achieve. Rockefeller doubtless got much farther than he dreamed. The other stands just about where, thirty or forty years ago, he expected that he would.
The Ohio man started out with the idea of acquiring a competency. Any idea beyond that involved risk, speculation, gamble. He chose the safe path of the conservator in preference to the dizzy flights of the financier. Nearly every man on a salary can, if he wishes, follow the safer example. Nearly every man on a salary can have a snug little fortune by the time he has turned definitely over the top of the hill of life. But in order to be reasonably sure of this competency, he must forswear all dreams of great wealth.
Here is the story told by the small Ohio capitalist as to why he chose the course he did. Among other things, the story has the unusual merit of touching upon certain important problems and methods of wealth getting.
“At an early age, I discovered the importance of being rich. I must have been in my seventh year when father made the long journey from Western New York to Central Kansas. From the first, misfortune was with us. The frost was late in getting out of the ground that spring. Then when the crop was planted, little rain fell. The hot winds and grasshoppers which Kansas has no more, but which were the curse of the former generation, arrived simultaneously, and between sunrise and sunset of a day in July the green leaves and even the stalks of the undersized corn wilted. What the heat left the grasshoppers ate.
“I shall never forget the distraught faces that night, as, after our scanty evening meal was over, we sat in the kitchen by the dismal light of a kerosene lamp, a wave of hot air every now and then sending the flame dancing up and down and smoking the thick glass of the chimney. From time to time my mother wrung her hands despairingly; my brother three years older than myself looked up at father fixedly with keenly alert troubled eyes; while father stamped back and forth across the rough floor exclaiming over and over: ‘Gone! All gone!’ “Out of that situation, out of my parents’ distress, grew my longing for riches. It was my brother Frank’s words, though, that furnished the tinder. ‘If we were only rich, Bob, father wouldn’t mind at all. He could start up again in Montana with cattle, if he had the money. That’s what I heard him tell mother today.’ “Thus was I made acquainted in a most practical way with the magic power of riches. It meant fleeing from hot, consuming winds. It meant joy and laughter and green pastures, even though the world I knew was burning up. As a consequence, I believe that I am justified in claiming few people ever have had a more exaggerated idea of riches than I.
“For several years we lived on from hand to mouth. Now and then betwixt burning summers and blizzardy winters we would have a fair crop, but father could never get the better of the game.
No matter how he planned and worked and pinched and struggled, the best he could do was barely to hold his own. And all this time the word ‘money’ was used with such persistent frequency that the golden light in the sky at dawn and sunset meant little more to me than a suggestion of the metal itself.
“Father had sold his farm in New York State with the idea of getting the cheap land in the West and so making a stride forward in the wealth he had always coveted. For even before the days of our misfortune in Kansas, father had had dreams of wealth. It was one of those things that stir up some men’s minds constantly, just as others are stirred by a desire to be inventors, or aldermen, or men of letters. All too infrequently, the wish and the means go hand in hand.
“Finally, though he was of a determined, persevering nature, father admitted he was beaten, let the mortgagor foreclose on the place, and we went thence to Kansas City, where father, who was really a man of versatility, presently secured a fairly well-paid salaried position.
“Now, there is apparently nothing unusual so far in the story of my father’s life. The little tragedy—for to us it was a tragedy—is only one out of tens of thousands of others just like it. I have not yet, however, finished my story. Other chapters are to follow. And when the various parts have been narrated and analyzed, I believe a philosophy of business practice will have been presented of value to nearly every one.
“In those dreary Kansas days, my parents had learned the value of every dollar they chanced to acquire. So the few extra dollars that were left over and above my father’s pay were now carefully hoarded away in the bank. Father, though in some ways an impractical dreamer, was a methodical man. He saved a stipulated amount monthly. And my mother surprised him from time to time by adding to the little hoard money she had saved out of her allowance for household expenses.
“Father was again dreaming—now instead of success as a farmer he was going to become a big business man. At least that is what he planned. It was for this end that all of us economized and stinted, almost to the point of pinching. By this method, at the end of five long years, father had accumulated about a thousand dollars. Then he found an opportunity to go, in a small way, into the business of buying hides and wool. The owner of the concern was in ill health, would sell out for a song, and would wait a long time for the balance of his payments. So with the remarkable optimism that characterized my father up to the day of his death, he made the new venture. He was not well versed in the ways of the hide and wool industry. How- ever, he felt that with his farming and general business knowledge he ought to be able to make a go of it. He had not expected to go into commerce on so small a capital, but the opening had suddenly appeared, and he felt that he could not afford to miss the chance.
“For a time things seemed to prosper. I was still in school, for my father was of a race that believed in education for the children. He did not believe children were brought into the world for the sole purpose of helping support their parents. I knew nothing, therefore, of the actual details of the business. I was hardly twelve then, but was keenly alert to the importance of the success of the enterprise. You see, not for a single moment were we permitted to escape from the shadow of my father’s ambition.
“Let me cite an instance of this. On one occasion, after many weeks of saving, I found myself in possession of exactly one dollar. It so happened that it was springtime and that a ball and bat could be purchased for that amount. It was with the end in view of making just such a purchase that I had been accumulating my pennies. Innocently I told my mother of my wealth and my purpose. Horror-stricken, she exclaimed: ‘Why, child, you mustn’t waste money like that! It should go into father’s business!” And dutifully, though with many a sad qualm for the joys I would miss, I turned the money over to my mother’s secret hoard.
“One day father came home looking downcast. ‘I am afraid,’ he said, ‘I shall find it difficult to make the business a go. Some of my customers want credit and I’ve got to pay cash for most of what I buy. I’ll have to borrow money to tide me over.’ “Right here father felt the need of financial connections. Credit was hard to get. The banks wherever he applied admitted that his business looked good, but there was the original owner’s mortgage upon it, and besides, what did he know about the hide and wool business? He was honest, yes, but he had had no ex- perience in handling money. He scrambled around and got short time loans from unscrupulous money lenders at usurious rates. Such desperate measures, however, were more than the business could stand. Eventually the inevitable came and he was forced to the wall. He was now worse off than ever. For he was not only penniless but, for a poor man, heavily in debt.
“He now turned to stocks—not, however, the kind that net but five or six per cent and are regarded as good investments. He had not the money to purchase these, nor the patience to wait for the slow accumulation of the dividends. He went in for wildcat mining stock, the kind that you can buy for next to nothing a share, and on time. For a couple of years or even longer this form of financial dissipation seemed to partly satisfy his craving for wealth. Whenever he got five dollars he put it into stocks. At night he used to take out his bundles of certificates and, with financial reports in hand, eagerly go over the market situation. Eventually my mother saw the folly of all this and firmly set her will and voice against further sacrifice of my father’s hard-earned dollars.
“But, nevertheless, things went from bad to worse. My father became an habitual bettor. Horse races, lotteries, elections, anything that offered an opportunity for him to wager money was taken advantage of. And seldom was it that he won. “And all this time, unknown to myself, a curious idea was growing in my head. It was that the way to get on in life was, first of all, to work; second, to save, and never to put a dollar where it wasn’t sure to come back. “When sixteen years of age, I entered the world of industry. Money had become to me the chief thing in the world. It was more important than education, than play, than pleasure. In fact, I found my chief pleasure in holding on to every penny I possibly could and putting it into the bank.
“By the time I was twenty-one, I had accumulated about three hundred dollars. I had found myself at the age of twenty an orphan, due to a fire that wiped out, in the early morning hours, the part of the block in which we lived. My brother and I were away from home at the time. From that time I faced the world alone. I worked hard and was very economical. The bitter lesson of frustrated ambition that had embittered the lives of my parents ever presented itself to me. Poverty, I felt, was the most terrible fate that could befall anyone.
“That was the curious thing about my outlook on life. Whereas my father, before misfortune confronted him, was possessed of an inordinate desire for wealth, I, on the other hand, was seized with an unreasoning fear of poverty. The reason for this was, of course, the deep impression the vicissitudes of my father’s checkered career had made upon me. All my life, almost from infancy, I had heard preached the gospel of wealth, but I had never seen the fruits of this gospel realized. Poverty, hardship, even want, had been our portion. At maturity I understood that our misfortunes had been a corollary to my father’s imprudent pursuit of gold. Happiness, I saw, was more likely to come to him who, instead of seeking wealth, endeavored to safeguard himself against poverty.
“I eschewed gambling, speculation, even all that savored of investment. For years, I was afraid to trust even the soundest securities. My faith—and it was not too profound a faith at that— was vested in the savings bank. Year in and year out, I let my money remain there, growing only by the additions I made and the slow accretions of interest. If there had been Postal Savings Banks in those days, I would have been satisfied with the two per cent interest on deposits provided by our generous government, for the feeling of security that I would have gained thereby.
“By and by, as I grew older and learned more of the ways of the commercial world, my antipathy to normal sound investments gradually vanished. I permitted my money to draw five and six per cent on farm mortgages and gilt-edge stocks and bonds. Never, however, would I permit myself to take any sort of risk, and that is a rule from which I have never departed.
“Analyzing my father’s life, I can see that his mistakes were the result of combined optimism and inexperience. He had moved to Kansas without any previous knowledge of the character of the soil or climate except such as he had obtained from nebulous hearsay. Second, he had gone into a business which he did not really understand, and third and worst of all, he had gone into business without a full comprehension of the methods, responsibilities, and pitfalls of economic independence. Lastly, he had permitted himself to be stampeded by failure and, like a gambler, had attempted to retrieve all by taking chances.
“Analyzing life, I realized that the road to wealth was strewed with too many wrecks to be really inviting. If one broke down on the journey, it often meant poverty.
“Therefore, I resolved never to take a chance; that meant never to go into business for myself, for men in business must take chances every now and then. It meant, too, that my investments must be safe, and that meant a low rate of interest, which, in turn, meant a slow accumulation of money. But this method presented decided advantages. With the luck of life breaking half-way even, it meant that I was certain in time to acquire a competence; that in my declining years I would be reasonably sure of a comfortable income.”
So to the young man starting out in life there are apparently two routes, the slow but safe and sure, and the swifter but more uncertain. As a matter of fact, however, there is but one route—the first. For only the man who is able to accumulate money by caution and self-sacrifice will be able, as a rule, to get together the capital to go into business for himself. And once this capital is accumulated, he can then look about him and see if he prefers the uncertainties of wealth or the certainty of a comfortable competency.