Fortune, Independence, and Competence

THE answer to the question, What is fortune has never been, and probably never will be, satisfactorily made. What may be a fortune for one bears but small proportion to the colossal possessions of another. The scores or hundreds of thousands admired and envied as a fortune in most of our  communities look pitifully small beside the two hundred and fifty millions of Vanderbilt. What is a comparative fortune for a laboring man, accustomed to the society of his peers, and only spending what that grade of life requires, does not compel the use of as much money to fill his necessities, or even his desires, as for the merchant of liberal education, of extended acquaintance among the refined and cultivated, demanding expenditures commensurate with such a walk in life. The two persons are on entirely distinct bases of necessary wants, live in two distinct worlds, and are laboring in differently extended spheres. A similar remark is true of every grade or degree in life; nor is there an exception, from the scullion to the king. This is the machinery of society; and right or wrong we find it, and we must treat it.

The fortune is only to be measured by that condition where the possessor is satisfied with the supply of a given number and description of wants. Should the man be content with the things that the interest of five thousand dollars would command, then that sum is his independence, and his fortune as well. But if his independence of charity requires just this sum, and he is unhappy because he has not the means of gratifying other and more expensive desires, he might keep out of the poor-house or swing clear of public or private charity, but he would not possess a fortune. An independence may be measurably fixed in amount, but a fortune is the child of the rich man’s imagination. It may be rated much or little, comparatively, in proportion to the satisfaction of his desires.

Each grade of business has generally its relative share of income and relative proportion of expenses not altogether from the necessities attaching to the business itself, but from ‘the supposed necessities attaching to the position and wants of the persons conducting it. Generally, then, what is a fortune in one business is but a small fraction of one in another. The question, then, is with every person to decide to what rank in life he will aspire, in order that he may settle the amount of the fortune he will aim to win in his business. Few may be able to make a mark and abide closely by it; but individual imperfections do not affect a sound principle.

The closest definition that can be given to this indefinable term fortune is that it is the halo of a mysterious sum which ever recedes, increasing as we approach. Few have expressed themselves fully satisfied with the means they have acquired, however large their property or ample others may consider their fortune.

It is a quite universal ambition to acquire a fortune by those who have intelligence to understand or experience to know the pleasures supposed to be guaranteed by its possession. Peculiar qualities of the human mind are brought into action in the pursuit and possession of wealth; and it brings to men various satisfactions. The mere acquisition of money is to some a substantial, realized pleasure; while to others its simple possession gives in like manner heartfelt gratification. Again, there are those who take no especial pleasure in the acquisition, but find their chief joy in the hope and anticipation of the good things they will derive in the possession or the spending of it; while there are still others who gain to enjoy the gains, and do enjoy them by liberal expenditure in the higher and nobler deeds of the generous man of fortune and luxurious ease.

But the larger class of those who make, or desire to make, a fortune have only one idea concerning it ; and that is to be able to make all the external appearance and show of a man of means. Display is their great object, and they endeavor too often to put on the appearances of wealth, and expend freely what they may not really own. Shakspere’s question, changed to this,—

“Why do I dress myself in borrowed plumes?”

might be asked by hundreds of thousands of jackdaw imitators and would-be fashionables, if they were as honest in their confessions as they are bold in their pretenses. It is a pitiful sort of hypocrisy and pride, and generally results in utter financial and social disaster. “Pride must have a fall,” saith the old. proverb. The result is that all the earnings – or it may be inheritance – that would if saved in time make a handsome fortune, are squandered in the gratification of “the lust of the eye and the pride of life,” in an attempt to make displays and win the positions due only to him who has accomplished a worthy object and achieved a fortune.  Nor do such pretenders, in general, gain anything but the merited contempt of their creditors and of all sensible people.  With rare exceptions they fail in the end and sink finally into poverty and obscurity.

It accordingly becomes a serious question for one maturely to consider, while on the road to fortune, whether he will spend his own or the substance of others, whether he will live as his means warrant, or assume to be what he really is not.  The world in general is not deceived by such appearances, though it may be in special cases.  What real pleasure can there be in living at an altitude where there is no foundation to support one, and fear of a downfall is ever haunting the imagination.  People in this situation vainly imagine that their real deficiencies and faults do not appear, like the ostrich, which hides his head in the sand or a bush, and conceives that his huge, ungainly form is similarly obscured.  Respectability, bear in mind, does not depend of false tokens.  Quite the contrary.  Still, many seem to be satisfied to live that sort of life, as the counterfeiter is with his occupation so long as hie is not detected in his false coinages.

All persons owe it to themselves and those dependent upon them to save of their means for accident or misfortune.  It is a high moral and political duty to make themselves and and their dependants independent of public or private charity; for if they do not, they spend that which does not actually belong to them. To make one’s self independent should be the first great aim of life, looking earthward at least. Then what is an INDEPENDENCE? The answer to this question
is plain: it is such an amount of money, safely invested, as will produce an income equal to the
necessaries of life, — in other words, to enable one to live without labor. If a man could always be assured of ability to save even something, or enough to keep him from becoming a charge upon either public or private charity, there would be no need of an independence. But, as all know, such freedom from uncertainty or anxiety in regard to one’s financial condition can hardly be guaranteed to any man or woman.

While a fortune, then, is an indefinite and indefinable amount, an independence is a fixed, relative sum, dependent upon the price of necessaries and upon the country in which it is required. In some latitudes, — as in the South Seas, for example, — the amount absolutely necessary to maintenance is very small, while in others it may represent a large sum. It may be assumed that, upon an average the world over, the interest of five thousand dollars invested at
six per cent will furnish a subsistence. If, then, a man’s desires and needs do not reach beyond this, be has an independence, and in some sense a fortune. But as a general rule, even when this income is accumulated, or a much greater, according to the owner’s view of what constitutes an independence, the ever-present greed of gain will spur on its possessor to further accumulation. Yet if he have others dependent upon him for maintenance, since they can not earn for themselves, he must earn as many independencies as there are dependants to support.

Few able-bodied persons, of sound mind and body, and reasonably free from sickness or from spendthrifts in their family, can not in this country achieve an independence of labor. For all that the worker bent on this has to do is to lay aside, from what he receives, all that is not imperatively required for the necessaries of life; and by inspecting the tables near the end of this book he will find that quite small earnings and savings every day will soon mount to this standard, and then go beyond it. Parsimony or meanness is by no means recommended; but either, on the contrary, will prevent one’s making the most money that his opportunities allow. A just and proper economy is on the true line; and anyone of common sense can determine this line for himself.

No person feels so happy as when he is pursuing a legitimate business, is out of debt, and has some money at interest. From that moment he lives in a new world, is more respected, has more substantial friends, and wields a greater influence among his fellows. Not only that, but his independence of circumstances makes his services in any department of life more valuable; he commands more money for them, and so can accumulate faster. But let him be behindhand, or in debt, or forever on the anxious seat with calculations how he shall make ends meet in the support
of himself and family, or in trouble of any kind that costs him his peace of mind and full ability to protect himself, and he is in the power of anyone who has transactions with him. He becomes a suppliant for everything, almost for the right to live; and he can not, from the nature of things, get as much for what he gives as though the reverse were the fact.

An independence, then, should be the first thing aimed at, by either man or woman employed in moneymaking; and every nerve and sinew should be strained, and every expenditure scrutinized, till this end shall have been attained. Self-denial must be exercised in all things. Remember always that such a course is not only reputable and truly respectable, but will make you more friends in the end, and give you more happiness during all your business and social life. In case of success you become your own master, you are never mortgaged to another, you can proclaim that “your soul is your own,” as the old phrase goes.

But an independence, though it may free you from further labor expressly to make money by labor, does not free you of it altogether. The small mercantile or purchasing business necessary to be done to procure supplies, and provide for the home comforts, is still to be transacted. If that be to disburse three hundred dollars per annum, so much, then, is the volume of your mercantile transactions; and so of any other amount that may be named. Every dollar expended requires two persons to make the expenditure, the seller and the purchaser. The man of fortune, who spends his three thousand dollars yearly, has in this way ten times as much labor to perform as he who lays out but his three hundred dollars; and the millionaire who spends thirty thousand dollars incurs the liability to one hundred times as much labor as his fellow-man who uses but three hundred ;—provided always that in such cases the rich man attends personally, and not by stewards or agents, to the making of his many purchases.

The meaning of the terms “competence” and “competency,” so often heard, especially the former,
is not greatly different from that of “independence.” They are defined by one of the great  dictionary-makers (Dr. Webster) as “property or means of subsistence sufficient to furnish the necessaries and conveniences of life, without superfluity; sufficiency; such a quantity as is sufficient;” and by another of the authorities (Dr. Worcester) to be” such a quantity as is sufficient, without superfluity; sufficiency, especially of the means of living.” The same general principles, explanations, and illustrations applicable to an independence, are equally applicable to the consideration of a competence.

As a conclusion of the whole matter, none who want money need hesitate to work wherever they can procure employment in any reputable business; and if they can take with them into their work ample knowledge and superior acquirements, their services will be more valuable, though not a whit more respectable, in the great scale of political. economy. Bearing this steadily in mind, and seeking to profit by it, a good foundation will be laid for success in acquiring a competence, an independence, or a fortune.

by Thomas Alfred Davies and Henry A. Ford, from How to Make Money,  and How to Keep It; or, Capital and Labor, Chapter II. 1887, The Chamberlain Publishing Company. (originally written by Davies, but revised and re-issued by Ford)

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If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.

— Napoleon