A December Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans now think their children’s lives will be worse than their own. But as much as we may enjoy finger-pointing, put aside the question of what the president or the Republicans should or shouldn’t do and ask yourself this question: What can I, as an educator, do to help put America on the right track?
Here’s an idea: Celebrate National Thrift Week with your students next week.
I’m serious. While it wouldn’t obliterate our federal budget deficits or cut the unemployment rate next month, it would be a modest step toward recovering the forgotten virtue of thrift—a virtue that an older generation of Americans recognized as essential to a shared and sustainable prosperity.
National Thrift Week had a 50-year run in our history before being dispensed with in the 1960s. It began on Jan. 17, 1916—the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the “American Apostle of Thrift”—and soon spread to more than 300 communities. Everyone from the YMCA to the Jewish Welfare Board to the National Education Association sponsored the event. Indeed, educators, partnering with financial institutions and businesses, played a key role in promoting thrift during the week.
A 1926 report from thrift leaders in Meriden, Conn., was typical: “A high school essay contest brought 600 contestants. … [And] 760 children made tours of local banks. Bankers and city officials made speeches before assembly gatherings: 2,845 children heard these talks.” Thrift leaders in California reported that Colton National Bank sponsored a thrift poster contest. “The first-prize poster features a cake, in colors, and bears the legend, ‘You can’t eat your cake and have it.’ ” As a prize, the bank gave the top three winners $1 each to start a savings deposit.
National Thrift Week was part of a broader thrift movement that peaked during the Roaring ’20s. As part of that movement, in at least 500 communities, educators partnered with local banks to sponsor more than 7,000 school savings banks. By 1928, 46 of 48 states had school savings banks, with net savings of more than $9.5 million. Educators were so adamant about teaching thrift that a 1921 joint report by the National Education Association and the U.S. Treasury Department recommended a standardized thrift curriculum.
But how could anyone become so excited about a mundane idea like thrift? Doesn’t thrift mean pinching pennies? Thrift leaders of that era were quick to point out that thrift is not synonymous with miserliness. They believed it was just the opposite. After all, they pointed out, the root of the word “thrift” is “thrive.” How is the thrifty person the thriving person? Here’s what the thrift leaders of the 1920s had to say:
Thrift builds good character. Thrift is thriving because the person who delays instant gratification today learns self-control and responsibility. In a National Thrift Week address to children, a civic activist of the day, Anna Wiley, suggested: “The most important thing about thrift is the formation of character. Thrift means self-denial of a present pleasure to secure a future blessing.” Olive Jones, then the president of the NEA, implored fellow thrift educators “to place your emphasis not on saving money for the purpose of getting or having money, but on wise spending from the point of view of character development.”
To illustrate, Jones gave the example of a student who wanted to buy an expensive autoharp. The student’s teacher suggested that, instead of buying it right away, he put the money into the school savings bank, and see if he still wanted the autoharp at the end of the term. The boy yielded, the end of the term came around, and he decided it would be better to buy a new pair of shoes (which he needed). Jones approvingly notes that the boy thus acquired the habit “of waiting to give temporary desires the acid test of time.”
Thrift encourages generosity. Thrift is thriving because, in the end, the thrifty person will have more resources than the spendthrift—which thrift leaders believed was important not only for one’s personal flourishing, but for societal flourishing as well. Organizers of National Thrift Week were so clear on this point that the theme for one of the days was “Share with others.” To hit home the point, they drew up a poster with three pie charts: “Mr. Tightwad’s Dollar,” “Mr. Spendthrift’s Dollar,” and “Mr. Thrifty’s Dollar.” Whereas Mr. Tightwad and Mr. Spendthrift only allotted 1 percent to giving, Mr. Thrifty allotted 10 percent.
Thrift leaders often pointed to Benjamin Franklin as the exemplar of thrift and generosity—and for good reason. As the historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead notes in Franklin’s Thrift, Franklin worked hard and lived simply in the first half of his life, working his way from apprentice to wealthy businessman. But he didn’t just stuff his wealth into a mattress. In the second half of his life, he gave generously to friends and family, paid for public projects, and created an endowment for young married, fledgling businessmen. As the Chicago investment banker and thrift leader S.W. Straus said in an address to the NEA, “The Greater Thrift … is the thrift that is the basis of all progress in art, in science, in business.”
Thrift is wise use of all resources. Finally, thrift is thriving because thrift is not only wise use of money, but as a 1929 poster put it, “intelligent use of health, time, and property of all kinds, including money.” In a school educational guide called Thrift and Conservation, thrift educators boasted that in 1917, schoolchildren in Los Angeles cultivated 90 vacant city lots, and more than 14,000 tended 900 acres of home gardens. As a result, they said, “Children are trained in habits of industry and thrift, and the spirit of cooperation is developed.” For these thrift educators, conserving natural resources was an intrinsic part of the thrift ethic: Because we hold all our resources in trust, the school guide noted, “it is our duty to guard our trust faithfully and to pass it on as little impaired by our use of it as possible.”
With such a rich history, how did we let National Thrift Week fall by the wayside? Sadly, it failed to attract sponsors and ended in 1966. But educators today can lead the way in reclaiming a forgotten heritage. Here are a couple of ideas:
• Devote a student assembly to teaching thrift. Just as in the heyday of National Thrift Week, schools could partner with bank and credit-union leaders to teach students about savings, budgeting, and wise spending.
• Hold a thrift essay contest. Teachers could encourage students to research the life of Franklin as an example of how a thrifty person lives. Schools could also partner with their local chamber of commerce to award the winners savings bonds.
• Start a “green thrift team” that works on recycling and conservation projects. Schools could partner with public officials to meet local needs.
Will our children have a better life than we do? Rather than waiting for the government to get in financial shape, how about starting our own thrift movement, emphasizing hard work, wise use of money, generosity, and conservation? As we trudge out of the Great Recession, the advice of S.W. Straus from nearly a century ago rings just as true for today: “Get the thrift habit.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Bring Back Thrift Week