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An essay by A. G. Gardiner

On Spendthrifts

Title:     On Spendthrifts
Author: A. G. Gardiner [More Titles by Gardiner]

While every one, I suppose, agrees that Lady Ida Sitwell richly deserves her three months' imprisonment, there are many who will have a sneaking pity for her. And that not because she is a woman of family who will suffer peculiar tortures from prison life. On the contrary, I have no doubt that a spell of imprisonment is just what she needs. In fact, it is what most of us need, especially most of those who live a life of luxurious idleness. To be compelled to get up early, to clean your cell, to wear plain clothes, to live on plain food, to observe regular hours, and do regular duties--this is no matter for tears, but for thankfulness. It is the sort of discipline that we ought to undergo periodically for our spiritual and even bodily health.

No, the sympathy that will be felt for Lady Ida is the sympathy which is commonly felt for the spendthrift--for the person who, no matter what his income, is congenitally incapable of making ends meet. The miser has no friends; but the spendthrift has generally too many. We avoid Harpagon as though he were a leper; but Falstaff, who, like Lady Ida, could "find no cure for this intolerable consumption of the purse," never lacked friends, and even Justice Shallow, it will be remembered, lent him a thousand crowns. There is no record of its having been repaid, though Falstaff was once surprised, in a moment of bitter humiliation, into admitting the debt. And Charles Surface and Micawber--who can deny them a certain affection? I have no doubt that Mrs. Micawber's papa, who "lived to bail Mr. Micawber out many times until he died lamented by a wide circle of friends," loved the fellow as you and I love him. I should deem it a privilege to bail out Micawber. But Elwes, the miser--ugh! the very name chills the blood.

The difference, I suppose, proceeds from the idea that while the miser is the soul of selfishness, the spendthrift is at bottom a good-natured fellow and a lover of his kind. No doubt the vice of the spendthrift has a touch of generosity, but it is often generosity at other people's expense, and is not seldom as essentially selfish as the vice of the miser. It is rather like the generosity of the man who, according to Sydney Smith, was so touched by a charity sermon that he picked his neighbour's pocket of a guinea and put it in the plate. I have no doubt that Lady Ida if she had got Miss Dobbs's money would have scattered it about with a very free hand, and would have contributed to the collection plate quite handsomely. But she was selfish none the less. It was her form of selfishness to enjoy the luxury of spending money she hadn't got, just as it was Elwes's form of selfishness to enjoy the luxury of saving money that he had got.

The point was very well stated by a famous miser whose son has since been in Parliament (I will not say on which side). The old man had accumulated a vast fortune, but, in the Scotch phrase, would have grudged you "the smoke off his porridge." (He died, by the way, properly enough, through walking home in the rain because he was too mean to take a cab.) He was once asked why he was so anxious to increase his riches, since his son would probably squander them, and he replied, "If my son gets as much pleasure out of squandering my money as I have had out of saving it, I shall not mind." Both the hoarding and the spending, you see, were in his view equally a matter of mere selfish pleasure.

But I admit that the uncalculating spirit that lands people in debt is a more engaging frailty than the calculating spirit of the miser. I know a delightful man who seems to have no more knowledge of the relation of income and expenditure than a kitten. If he gets L100 unexpectedly he does not look at it in relation to his whole needs. He does not remember rent, rates, taxes, baker, butcher, tailor. No. On the strength of it, he will order a new piano in the morning, buy his wife a sealskin jacket in the afternoon, and by the next day be deeper in the mire than ever, and wonder how he got there. And there is Jones's young wife, a charming woman, who is dragging her husband into debt with the same kittenish irresponsibility. She will leave Jones on the pavement with a remark that suggests that she is going into the shop to buy some pins, and will come out with a request for L10 for some "perfectly lovely" thing that has caught her eye. And Jones, being elderly, and still a little astonished at having won the affection of such a divinity, has not the courage to say "No."

To the people afflicted with these loose spending habits I would commend the lesson of a little incident I saw in a tram on the Embankment the other evening. There entered and sat beside me a working man, carrying his "kit" in a handkerchief, and wearing a scarf round his neck, a cloth cap, and corduroy trousers--obviously a labourer earning perhaps 25s. a week. He paid his fare, and then he took from his pocket a packet tied up in a handkerchief. He untied the knot, and there came forth a neat pocket-book with pencil attached. He opened it, and began to write. My curiosity was too much for my manners. Out of the tail of my eye I watched the motion of his fingers, and this is what he wrote: "Tram 1-1/2 d." In a flash I seemed to see the whole orderly life of that poor labourer. He had an anchorage in the tossing seas of this troublesome world. He had got hold of a lesson that Lady Ida Sitwell ought to try and learn during the next three months. It is this: Watch your spendings.

For it is the people who are more concerned about getting money than about how they spend it who come to grief. A very acute observer once told me that the principal difference between the Scotch people and the Lancashire people was that the former thought most about how they spent, and the latter most about how much they got. And the difference, he said, was the difference between a thrifty and an unthrifty people. I think that is true. Nothing is more common than to find people worse off as they get better off. They have learned the art of getting money and lost the art of spending it wisely. They pay their way on L200 a year and get hopelessly into debt on L500. They are safe in a rowing boat, but capsize in a sailing boat.

Here is an axiom which I offer to all spendthrifts: We cannot command our incomings; but we can control outgoings.

[The end]
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Spendthrifts