On Getting Older: Remember Mr. Micawber?Mar 06, 2023
They don’t teach young people anything in school anymore.
How many of my readers have thought this exact same sentence at one point or another? I usually think it when I made a reference to literature or music that someone else doesn’t get. I mean, hasn’t everyone read Charles Dickens? Doesn’t everyone know about the raven and Lenore? Or about poor Sisyphus and his boulder? Common knowledge to a man of my generation.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had a top-notch high school education. Guilford High School, in Connecticut, went through the accreditation process when I was a student there, and received a full 10-year accreditation, making it one of the top high schools in New England.
We had a module system and were able to choose electives. Most of mine were literature, and I read extensively – American literature, as well as British, Russian, and French. And we read Charles Dickens in school. Dickens novels were set in industrialized England when child labor was common, and a 40-year lifespan was a ripe old age. He wrote extensively about social conditions and some of the absurdities of life then, such as debtors prisons. Thank God we don’t have debtors prisons now, or much of America would be incarcerated.
I don’t believe he’s taught in school any longer – correct me if I’m wrong – and more’s the pity. His characters were both fascinating and memorable! I suspect that the many children who watch a version of the Christmas Carol at holiday time but don't associate it with Charles Dickens.
David Copperfield is one of Dickens most famous novels and has been made into movies over the years. One character from the novel popped into my head the other day as I was giving a brief presentation about budgeting and cash flow. My point was that if there is more month than money, there are only two options: increase revenue, or decrease expenses, until things balance. That’s it. Beyond that one goes into debt.
Mr. Micawber is the character who came to mind. He was always in money trouble and was a sometime resident of debtors prisons. For all that, Mr. Micawber maintained an optimistic if totally disconnected from reality disposition, and frequently noted that Something will turn up. Even on his way to prison, he always believed that Something will turn up.
Here’s the quote that came to mind:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds naught and six, result misery.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the pounds, shillings, and pence of the day, you can still get the point.
The Envelope System
I used a personal example for my audience – that my mother taught me budgeting when I was a teenager. She had a bound book of budget envelopes, into which she deposited cash monthly, as my dad was paid monthly. Some went into groceries, some to clothing, some to entertainment, etc. So if you wanted to go to the movies on the 25th of the month, and the entertainment envelope was empty, you had a choice: either don’t go because you couldn't afford it, or borrow from next month’s envelope. It was a good system, and worked back in the day when people paid their bills by mailing checks and were proud not to have debt. Credit cards were just becoming a thing then. It was easy to keep spending in check because, well, if the envelope was empty, there’s nothing to spend!
I’m so thankful for the way my mother taught me. And I think of young people in school today who’ve never read Dickens, don’t know this quote, have never known much want, and swipe for everything, not understanding the larger picture of the effects of spending decisions.
I would have loved to use my Mr. Micawber quote in that presentation, but my audience was 40 years too young to even get it.
Best to all,
--Glenn J. Downing, MBA, CFP®
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