Penny wise and pound foolish
How do you manage your personal affairs? Are you someone who can be described as penny wise and pound foolish? This phrase is used to describe someone who is extremely careful with smaller, inconsequential sums but prone to make extravagant purchases. The benefits gained from being thrifty are largely blown away.
The first recorded instance of this phrase dates to the 17th century and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621 and then subsequently expanded posthumously in 1651. Burton suffered from chronic depression and wrote his book, which is a treasury of quotations from Latin, Greek, French and Spanish authors, as a form of therapy for his condition. He imagined himself as a modern-day Democritus, who laughed at the follies of mankind. His thesis was that Democritus would find more than enough in contemporary life to keep a permanent smile on his face.
One trait Burton described thus; “rob Peter, and pay Paul; scrape unjust sums with one hand, purchase great manors by corruption, fraud, and cozenage, and liberally to distribute to the poor with the other, give a remnant to pious uses, etc.; penny wise, pound foolish”.
The phrase was used by Joseph Addison in the Spectator in 1712 as a metaphor for the perils of marriage; “I think a woman who will give up herself to a man in marriage, where there is the least room for such an apprehension, and trust her person to one whom she will not rely on for the common necessities of life, may very properly be accused (in the phrase of a homely proverb) of being “penny wise and pound foolish.” By Addison’s time it had attained the status of a proverb and may well have done by the time that Burton had put pen to paper. After all, it is a pertinent description of a common form of economic management.
There are, of course, two sides to every coin and others are quick to exhort us to take care of the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. By this we are encouraged to concentrate on saving small amounts of money because in aggregate they will amount to a tidy sum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the earliest examples of the use of this homily are to be found in the letters of exasperated parents to their offspring, encouraging them to tone down their spending habits. What is interesting is that they attribute the phrase to different sources.
First up is Lord Chesterfield who sent his son, Philip Dormer Stanhope, copious letters full of sage advice on how to conduct his life. In a letter dated 6th November 1747, he wrote, “I knew, once, a very covetous, sordid fellow, who used frequently to say, take care of the pence; for the pounds will take care of themselves.” In a letter dated 5th February 1750, he was back on the same theme; “Old Mr Lowndes, the famous Secretary of the Treasury, in the reigns of King William, Queen Anne and King George the First, used to say, take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” It is tempting, and probably correct, to think of Mr Lowndes and the covetous, sordid fellow as being one and the same.
However, Edward Synge, when writing to his daughter, Alicia, on 12th October 1750, attributed the saying to a different source. “A saying of Old Judge Daly’s is in every one’s Mouth. Take care of the pence, the pounds will take care of themselves.”
Who the originator was is anybody’s guess. It is likely to have been a popular idiom appropriated by Lowndes and Judge Day rather than being their one invention. For those in charge of corporate budgets, the phrase was reformulated by Andrew Carnegie to “watch the costs and the profits will take care of themselves.”
Of course, this sage advice is provided to you gratis!