Benjamin Franklin is famous for his quotes on money and personal finance.
Franklin was known as “The First American” for his role in the foundation of America and his widely recognized contributions to politics, diplomacy, and American unity. A true polymath, he was an accomplished writer, printer, humorist, politician, diplomat, inventor, scientist, statesman, among numerous other accolades.
A self-made man with humble origins, he worked hard and burned the midnight oil to make his fortune. Franklin made considerable contributions to the world of personal finance, writing numerous pithy sayings on frugality, industry, and wealth throughout the course of publishing in his famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. He eventually collected his thoughts on money management in a book called The Way to Wealth.
I have collected many of his well-known quotes on money, the importance of hard work, and wealth-building, as well as given my own interpretation of their meaning. As you will see, his insights into the fundamentals of personal finance have stood the test of time for over 200 years.
1. “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.”
If you are not a person of substance then you will not be able to stand firm against all the trials and tribulations of this world. To withstand the pressure, you must have a “full sack” i.e. be a person of integrity, honesty, character, discipline, etc.
2. “The taxes are indeed very heavy, and, if those laid on by the government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly; and from these taxes the commissioners cannot ease or deliver us, by allowing an abatement.”
Idleness, pride, foolish mistakes – these are ultimately more detrimental to our finance goals than any kind of governmental tax.
3. “God helps them that help themselves.”
Don’t rely on miracles alone to solve your financial problems. While serendipity, luck, and synchronicities arguably do happen from time to time, as Louis Pasteur said, “fortune favors the prepared mind.”
4. “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears; while the used key is always bright.”
Granted, not everyone is physically (or mentally) able to engage in disciplined labor, but when it comes to building up a fortune, a solid work ethic is critical to financial success. Unless you inherit wealth or come from a privileged family, hard work and financial success go hand in hand.
5. “But dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”
While you don’t necessarily have to submit yourself to the “hustle-grind” culture of entrepreneurship, when it comes to financial success, e.g. building your own business, you will definitely make more progress towards your financial goals if you spend your free time on hobbies or side-hustles that lead to personal development as opposed to binging Netflix. Leisure and wasting time are two different things so while there’s nothing wrong with a good binge (see quote 22), be sure to separate leisure time from real time-wasting activities. After all, time is precious (see quote 7). I imagine few people on their deathbed would wish they had watched more Netflix.
6. “The sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that there will be sleeping enough in the grave.”
If you want to be financially successful, you likely need to be engaged in productive work throughout the waking day as opposed to excessive amounts of unproductive relaxation (conditional on your physical/mental ability and balancing the possibility of burnout).
7. “If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest prodigality; since, as he elsewhere tells us, Lost time is never found again; and what we call time enough, always proves little enough.”
Same lesson as quote 5. We can always make more money but we can’t make more time. All of us are given exactly 24 hours of the day. If you wish to develop independent wealth through hard work, make sure you spend your time in ways that lead to the fulfillment of your financial desires.
8. “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy.”
Having a strong work ethic eases the path to financial success. If you work hard and be frugal for 30 years while throwing a little bit of money into low-cost index funds, it is definitely possible to retire a millionaire.
9. “He that riseth late must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night; while Laziness travels so slowly, that Poverty soon overtakes him.”
Same lesson as 6. Starting a side-hustle or business, getting a promotion, or studying to move into a more lucrative field definitely take a lot of time and spending all your time on idle activities will leave little time for taking concrete actions to improve your financial situation. This is of course relative to our privilege and ability.
10. “Drive thy business, let not that drive thee.”
Take charge of your destiny by being an active participant in your professional life as opposed to a passive player. See quote 3.
11. “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Modern research has shown that people have different “chronotypes,” which typically break down to early birds and night owls. So if you are a night owl, you don’t have to necessarily wake up “early” but relative to your chronotype focusing on good sleep hygiene and developing a solid wake-up routine are proven factors in high performers.
12. “So what signifies wishing and hoping for better times? We may make these times better, if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish, and he that lives upon hopes will die fasting.”
See quote 3. Wishing and hoping will do nothing unless supplemented by the appropriate habits to make a change in your life. Wishing and hoping can influence our identity, which can affect our actions and habits, but ultimately wishes and hopes need to translate to behavior to make an impact. Manifestation goes hand in hand with dedication and focus.
13. “There are no gains without pains.”
Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth or boatloads of privilege, the path to financial success will likely involve hard work, which can involve stress.
14. “He that hath a trade hath an estate; and he that hath a calling, hath an office of profit and honor.”
Working in a solid profession with solid work skills will always serve you well. Even if you get laid off, it is nevertheless important to have good character and to have your “sack full.” (quote 1)
15. “If we are industrious, we shall never starve; for, At the working man’s house hunger looks in, but dares not enter. Nor will the bailiff or the constable enter, for Industry pays debts, while despair increaseth them.”
While, of course, we can acknowledge the injustices of late-stage capitalism, Franklin’s point is that habits of hard work often serve to keep food on the table and keep you out of debt.
16. “Diligence is the mother of good luck, and God gives all things to industry.”
Same lesson as 3. Persistence, discipline, and hard work lead to the small serendipities associated with miraculous intervention.
17. “Then plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.”
Same as 9 and 11. Franklin was famous for reading and writing well into the late hours, and his hard work paid off handsomely in his life. The lesson generalizes: those with a strong work ethic often increase their chance of success, provided, of course, that they maintain efforts of work that are sustainable. You don’t want to work so hard you burn out, which would be ultimately counter-productive.
18. “Work while it is called to-day, for you know not how much you may be hindered to-morrow. One, to-day is worth two to-morrows, as Poor Richard says; and further, Never leave that till to-morrow, which you can do to-day.”
Procrastination can be costly. Better to tackle small tasks as they arise than put them off until tomorrow. This builds momentum for accomplishing those really big tasks.
19. “Handle your tools without mittens; remember, that The cat in gloves catches no mice.”
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Metaphorically speaking, this is about not being afraid to put in the hard work, either mental or physical. Don’t just tackle low-hanging fruit. Really get in there and do the hard work.
20. “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”
Habits make up 99% of our behavior, for most of our behavior is in fact unconscious.
21. “It is true there is much to be done, and perhaps you are weak-handed; but stick to it steadily, and you will see great effects; for Constant dropping wears away stones; and By diligence and patience the mouse ate in two the cable; and Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Even if the task at hand is monumental, a journey of thousand miles starts with a single step. Step by step you will eventually reach your goal. Focus on small improvements and eventually, you can transform your life.
22. “Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure; and, since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour. Leisure is time for doing something useful; this leisure the diligent man will obtain, but the lazy man never; for A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things.”
While Franklin definitely values hard work, he left room in his wealth-building philosophy for leisure. However, a hard-working person will structure their life so that hard work gives them the opportunities for leisure that aren’t ultimately counter-productive for our big life goals.
23. “But with our industry we must likewise be steady, settled, and careful, and oversee our own affairs with our own eyes, and not trust too much to others.”
Hard work must be balanced with careful consideration. Measure twice and cut once. And if you’re going to do something right, do it right the first time.
24. “If you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve yourself.”
Franklin was a man who started from humble beginnings and achieved wealth through his work ethic and intelligence. He valued self-reliance and independence. If you want to want to have a good life, do the work to give it to yourself. Franklin, of course, did not have the same appreciation modern thinkers have today about systemic injustice but his point still stands. Putting in the work often works better than waiting around for someone else to help you.
25. “A man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his nose all his life to the grindstone, and die not worth a groat at last.”, A fat kitchen makes a lean will.”
If you want to build wealth it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if you just end up spending it all you’ll never have the nest egg needed to either retire or create generational wealth.
26. “If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as of getting.”
Same as the previous quote. Wealth and saving go hand and hand. It’s not enough to just make a lot of money. You have to know how to not spend it all as well. Otherwise, you’ll still be living paycheck to paycheck like everyone else.
27. “What maintains one vice would bring up two children.”
Bad habits are extremely costly.
28. “Many a little makes a mickle. Beware of little expenses; A small leak will sink a great ship.”
While you might not think the $5 you spend every day on vending machines at work is what is preventing you from building up wealth, the point isn’t to focus on that particular habit. The point is that we probably all have lots of “little” expenses every day that just accumulate until they end up sinking us. Stop right now and add up all your monthly subscriptions to little services like Netflix, Hulu, the gym membership you never use, etc. If you’re like many Americans that number is usually pretty high. We don’t think about them because those little leaks become automatic and unnoticed.
29. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Favor fortunes the prepared mind. Saving up an emergency fund on the off-chance occasion you have car trouble is a smart money move because not preparing for that will set you up for failure.
30. “These are not the necessaries of life; they can scarcely be called the conveniences; and yet, only because they look pretty, how many want to have them! By these, and other extravagances, the genteel are reduced to poverty, and forced to borrow of those whom they formerly despised, but who, through industry and frugality, have maintained their standing; in which case it appears plainly, that A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.”
Have you ever known someone who had the outward appearance of wealth with designer clothes, expensive cars, and a humungous house only to find out they were nearly broke and constantly on the verge of being unable to pay their massive debts and a boatload of bills? Yeah. Don’t be that person.
31. “If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing.”
If you want to learn a quick lesson about the value of money, borrow a ton of money for stuff you don’t actually need and can’t afford and soon the financial weight dragging you down will teach you well how important it is to live a life of financial responsibility.
32. “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that accumulating “bad debt” like credit card debt is an incredibly deleterious habit that leads to more misery than any short-term pleasure afforded by such debt.
33. “Creditors have better memories than debtors; creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times.”
Debt has a habit of sticking around and ruining your life long after the fleeting pleasure of instant gratification wears off.
34. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Living within your means and putting aside money into low-cost index funds is the single greatest tool for building wealth.