The Tragedy of Economy

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The Tragedy of Economy  (1920) 
by Philip Curtiss

From the "Lion's Mouth" section of Harper's Magazine, Oct 1920.

"You wrong me," he said. "If it had been the pleasures of those happy days when I was known as the leading spendthrift in town that had brought me to this sad pass, I would make no complaint. I am always willing to pay for my fun; but the bitter drop in my present cup lies in the fact that saving, not spending, has been my ruin. My downfall in life came not from extravagance but economy."



THE other day, while inspecting an almshouse, I felt a tug at my coat and, looking down, saw the face of my one-time friend, Harry Spender. Seeing, no doubt, the shock that I felt, he begged a word with me out in the garden.

"Well," he began, a bit defiantly, "I suppose that you are not surprised to find I have come to this."

"To be perfectly frank, I am not," I replied. "You know, Harry, you cannot have your cake and eat it. You had your fun in the prime of your life. You threw your money to right and left when you had it. You certainly cannot complain if now you are called on to pay the reckoning."

He shook his head sadly. "You wrong me," he said. "If it had been the pleasures of those happy days when I was known as the leading spendthrift in town that had brought me to this sad pass, I would make no complaint. I am always willing to pay for my fun; but the bitter drop in my present cup lies in the fact that saving, not spending, has been my ruin. My downfall in life came not from extravagance but economy."

"Your story interests me strangely," I answered. "Sit down."

We sat down under the trees, lighted cigars, and Harry told me his curious tale.

"The days in which you knew me," he began, "were the happiest of my life. Let us make no bones about it. I always spent every cent that I earned. I was known as a man headed straight for the rocks, but even you will have to admit that I never got there. I denied myself nothing. Nor only that, but I did what I did in the most extravagant way. I never owned the roof over my head. I paid any rent that the landlord demanded. I bought silk socks at fashionable shops and when I wanted cigars I purchased them two or three at a time at expensive hotels."

I nodded my head. The picture he painted was true.

"My friends," he resumed, "watched my course with alarm. They begged me to put some check on myself, to keep proper accounts, to get an efficient agent to run my affairs. They called me insane. They did not have the genius to see that my books were really the cleanest in town—income and outgo exactly balanced each other each month. My system was simple and fundamentally faultless. If I wanted a thing I went out and bought it—and bought that thing only. If I did not want anything I stayed at home. When I had money I spent it When I hadn't money I didn't spend any. I hadn't a care in the world until Tom Niggles appointed himself to take charge of my affairs."

Harry shook his head sadly "Of course you remember Tom Niggles. Tom, you recall, was one of those men who could never talk without beginning to figure on the back of an envelope.

" 'Now listen, Harry,' Tom used to say to me, 'The trouble with you is not that you are really a spendthrift but that you haven't the faintest conception of business methods. For instance, how much do you pay for this house?'

" 'Fifty dollars a month,' I replied.

" 'And how long have you lived here?'

" 'Twenty-six years.

"He began to figure. 'Harry,' he said as last, 'do you realize that, in that time, you have paid your landlord no less than $15,600?'

" 'Yes, but, after all, it is his house.'

" 'Quite so, but who bought it for him? You did yourself. The sum you have paid him is more than the house is worth. You have made him a present of the building and still have to pay him to live here.'

"With that he sat down to figure some more. He calculated that fifty dollars a month was the interest on ten thousand dollars. The upshot was that, in a week, I had bought a house of my own—and a mortgage. My happy days of rent slavery were over. It had sounded very plausible when Tom had said that I might just as well pay interest to a bank as rent to a landlord. He hadn't explained that I would also have to pay taxes and fire insurance, and that the city would pick the day I moved in to assess me eight hundred dollars for a school to which I had no children to send, for a pavement on which I never walked, and a sewer I never saw. When I was paying rent my landlord had never asked me to build a school house or lay down a sewer.

"What with the moving and all, I ran behind, that month, for the first time in my whole life. I went to see Tom about it. 'You got me into this,' I told him. 'Now it is up to you to get me out.'

"He laughed, as people do about other people's affairs. 'The trouble with you, Harry, is that you have never had any system. You have never looked two days ahead. Now, for instance, how much did you pay for that cigar you are smoking?'

" 'A quarter.'

" 'There you are!' he retorted. 'You are paying six cents for the gilt on the band and the privilege of buying it at a hotel. Those are the little leaks that are keeping you poor. Now I can get you exactly that same cigar, without the band, for nineteen cents. I know a place where I can buy them by the thousand.'

" 'But they won't keep.

" 'Then buy a humidor.'

"The upshot of that was that, on top of my other expenses, a box of a thousand cigars landed in the next day, and also a bill for $190. Also I began to smoke three times as many cigars. So did the furnace man and all the cook's friends and most of my own. Formerly, when I had slapped my pockets in search of cigars, my guests had said, 'Here, smoke one of mine!' But when I brought out a huge cedar chest with a thousand cigars, they never said that any more. That thousand cigars lasted thirty-one days.

"The second month I was worse in the hole than before. I told Tom about it. He took out his pencil and envelope. 'Well, now,' he said, 'let's get down to fundamentals. That old Irish cook of yours, how does she buy your groceries?'

" 'Just goes out and buys them,' I said.

" 'Most extravagant plan in the world,' replied Tom, 'buying by driblets. You're paying three profits. Let me show you how to save some money. Now I've got a brother-in-law in Chicago who is a wholesaler. He will give wholesale prices, besides a discount for cash. What you want to do is buy in quantity. My brother-in-law knows the state of the market. Let him make up a list of plain groceries to last you for several months.'

"So, the next week, a van drove up to the door, with five hundred and forty-six dollars' worth of groceries, plus freight from Chicago and cartage. The furnace man charged me three dollars for putting them in and then I had to buy a hammer to open the boxes. There were barrels of flour and sacks of rice and bags of tapioca and dozens of hams and crates of salt codfish. There were nothing but staples of course, things that would keep, but the funny part of it is how little you really use staples. The things we wanted for supper, like butter and eggs and beefsteak, we always had to go out and buy just as before. Our regular bills at the corner grocery were not affected a bit.

"We did use some of the coffee, after we had discovered that it was still in the bean and had spent four dollars and sixty cents for a coffee grinder. Then there was pepper in forty-tin lots and boxes of cloves. When they came to settle my estate in the bankruptcy court they found that my principal assets were four gross of boxes of pepper and eight dozen boxes of cloves—besides two barrels of moldy flour and three sacks of sugar full of red ants.

"By the third month I was avoiding Tom but, one day in midsummer, he caught me on the street. 'Harry,' he said, 'how much do you pay for your shirts?'

" 'Three dollars,' I said, 'but,' I added hastily, 'I don't need any now.'

" 'You'll need them sooner or later, won't you.'

"I had to admit it, so Tom said that there was a sale of shirts at Einstein's, every shirt in the store a dollar and ninety-eight cents. This, as it proved, was a misstatement. All the shirts that I liked were still the regular price, but I laid in a dozen of the least offensive of the one-ninety-eighters. My laundress's son is wearing them now."

The poor fellow came to a pause. Even with the rest and regular meals of the almshouse he was not yet himself again.

"And now the fourth month." I asked. "What happened then?"

Harry shook his head. "There wasn't any fourth month. The fourth was the month that a carriage came to the door and brought me out here."

I looked at him sadly. "I suppose," I said, "that you feel very bitterly toward Tom, for forcing this on you."

"No," answered Harry. His eyes wandered over the shaded walks and well-kept lawns of the almshouse. Under the trees old men were chatting and smoking. On benches, old women were knitting. Neat little flower beds were dotted around. It was very peaceful—sort of monastic.

"No," Harry repeated. "I can't really feel very bitterly toward Tom, for the truth is I rather like it. I suppose that this is the place for which I was always destined."

Then suddenly a shadow crept over his once handsome face. "But why—but why," he asked rather piteously, "are not men like me allowed to get here in our own good, happy-go-lucky fashion?"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1964, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.