How a 16th-century Farmer Invented Personal Finance

As a personal finance writer for three decades (and a proud English major), I have always been curious about the link between money and language. So I was excited that my parents’ new book, So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off, included a chapter with more than 200 expressions related to money matters — from “bang for your buck” to “worth diddly squat.” These financial turns of phrase got me thinking: Where do they come from? Some research led me, surprisingly, to an obscure 16th-century guide to agriculture — think Get a Financial Life on the Farm. Called Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, the 1557 instructional poem offers the musings of a wise English farmer named Thomas Tusser, who managed to hit on just about every basic tenet of personal finance — while also offering practical advice on growing hops and keeping bees. (If that’s your thing.) Here are just a few of Tusser’s financial tips and sayings in their originally published form.

A foole and his monie be soone at debate.

This famous expression, more familiar to us as “a fool and his money are soon parted,” seems to have been coined by Tusser. It still resonates more than 400 years later: Consumers should be on guard because there’s no such thing as a sure-bet shortcut to financial security or a foolproof get-rich-quick scheme. From snake-oil salespeople to Bernie Madoff, the lesson (if it sounds too good to be true, it is) delivers financial wisdom worth its weight in gold.

The foole at the bottom, the wise at the brim.

More commonly known as “better spare at brim than at bottom,” this expression means you are better off choosing to live a simpler, sparer life when you’re young and in your peak earning years (and socking away money when your “cup is full,” so to speak) than having to do so when you’re older and not bringing in much money. The concept remains relevant for today’s financial planning: Whenever possible, save early and often in tax-favored retirement plans.

The stone that is rouling can gather no mosse, who often remooueth is sure of losse.

Today this is more commonly worded “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and it continues to be sound advice — especially when applied to investing. Research shows that people who wait out the lows and highs of the market with a diversified portfolio of low-cost mutual funds tend to earn more than people who frequently jump in and out of the market. Or, as my dad (and So to Speak co-author) Harold Kobliner liked to point out, it’s smart to stay the course.

Think not thy monie purse bottom to burn, but keepe it for profite, to serue thine owne turn.

Untangle the Elizabethan English, and this phrase roughly translates as “don’t let money burn a hole in your pocket.” One (small) silver lining of the pandemic? Americans, on average, are spending less because they don’t have the option of dining out, going to the movies, or traveling. However, with the near-historically high jobless rate, even those who managed to save up an emergency cushion may be hurting. The point: Once you’re back on your feet after a job loss, it can be tempting to celebrate by spending. Just make sure to set money aside because an emergency fund is essential.

At some time to borow, account it no shame.

I have never been entirely comfortable with “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” (An expression from a slightly better-known Elizabethan text called Hamlet.) Taking out a loan when you need it is just a fact of life. And not to get all Polonius on you, but make sure it’s for something that will pay dividends down the line, like college tuition or a home, and that the terms are favorable — avoid high-interest debt that won’t benefit your bottom line. (I’m looking at you, credit cards.) The second half of this Tusser gem is just as important: Who quick be to borow, and slow be to paie, their credit is naught, go they neuer so gaie. I don’t know if there was a 16th-century equivalent of a credit score, but these days you need to make those loan payments on time. One missed credit card payment can damage your credit for a long time, limiting your ability to secure low-interest loans (like mortgages and auto loans) and maybe even jeopardizing your chances at getting a lease on that new apartment.

Rent corn who so paieth…must liue as a slaue.

More advice about relying too much on credit. “Rent corn” was the practice of tenant farmers paying their landlords a portion of their yield at the end of the harvest rather than cash. Beware, Tusser says. For one thing, your landlord might claim that the price of corn has gone down and demand more — or added cash — to cover your rent. This reminds me of my present-day advice against subprime loans with their often-tricky variable interest rates.

Once weekelie remember thy charges to cast, once monthlie see how thy expences may last: If quarter declareth too much to be spent, for feare of ill yeere take aduise of thy rent.

This last one is a mouthful, I know, but bear with me. It’s uncannily similar to some sound modern-day advice about budgeting. I am not a big believer in austere budgets, mainly because people don’t tend to stick to them. But it’s smart to acknowledge when and where you’re overspending. Track your expenses (“cast thy charges”) over a sample month or two; if you multiply that out over the coming year and see more going out than coming in, it’s time to tighten the belt.

Author of NY Times bestsellers Get a Financial Life and Make Your Kid a Money Genius. Journalist, #finlit nerd & mom. http://bit.ly/barnesmg

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