Before Mr. Money Mustache was singing the praises of frugality, before JL Collins was making the case for F-you money, there was an American patriot known for his love of frugality and his deep-seated aversion to authority.
I am talking about none other than Benjamin Franklin, America’s original early retiree.
Ben Franklin: Media Mogul
Before becoming an American revolutionary and founding father, Benjamin Franklin was busy becoming America’s first media mogul.
His newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, was the most popular colonial newspaper and his yearly Poor Richard’s Almanack, now immortalized by Franklin’s famous aphorisms, was a massive success, selling around 10,000 copies per year.
[10,000 copies is an impressive number when the population of the colonies was less than 1.5 million. And ol’ Ben managed to do this year after year, from 1732 to 1758]
Aphorisms from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack
- You may think, perhaps, that a little tea, or a little punch now and then, diet a little more costly, clothes a little finer, and a little more entertainment now and then can be no great matter but remember what Poor Richard says "Many a little makes a mickle; beware of little expense for a small leak will sink a great ship."
- Many a man thinks he is buying pleasure when he is really selling himself a slave to it.
- Anger is never without a reason but seldom with a good one.
- Neglect mending a small fault, and 'twill soon be a great one.
- Half the truth is often a great lie.
In addition to his printing press, Franklin held the royal appointment of postmaster for the colonies. (He would later become the first United States Postmaster General.)
This provided him extra income, but, more importantly, gave him control of the postal system, which provided a distinct advantage over other printers when it came to distribution (a power he sometimes abused.)
As Walter Isaacson writes in his biography on Ben Franklin:
He had a printing press, publishing house, newspaper, an almanac series, and partial control of the postal system… He also had built a network of profitable partnerships and franchises from Newport and New York to Charleston and Antigua. Money flowed in, much of which he invested, quite wisely, in Philadelphia property.
However, in 1748, though money was raining down on him, Franklin, 42 at the time, decided to retire.
As Isaacson explains:
Accumulating money was not Franklin’s goal… He did not have the soul of an acquisitive capitalist. “I would rather have it said,” he wrote his mother, “‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich.’”
Though frugal and not driven by the accumulation of wealth, Franklin was no fool.
Upon retiring, he drew up a contract that handed over his printing business to his foreman in exchange for half of the profits (around £650 annually) for the next 18 years.
[To get an idea of how much this is, Isaacson says a common clerk made about £25 a year during this time.]
Productive Retirement Years
Now retired and financially secure, Franklin turned his attention to hobbies and interests he had neglected.
As he wrote in a letter to a friend, retirement would allow him “leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse at large with such ingenious and worthy men as are pleased to honor me with their friendship.”
In fact, his retirement years would be filled with various different pursuits, mainly science, politics, and diplomacy, which would cement his place in history.
During his retirement years, Franklin would:
- Conduct his famous kite experiment proving that lightning is electricity.
- Secure France’s support for the American cause in the fight for independence against Britain.
- Help write the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris (which ended the American Revolutionary War.)
- Invent the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove.
- Write his now famous autobiography.
- Serve as the United States’ first Postmaster General and as governor of Pennsylvania.
Not too shabby Ben.
Takeaways From Franklin’s Life
- Know how much is enough: Our eyes are often bigger than our stomach. It’s easy to get lost in the pursuit of more if you don’t know what’s enough –– once you have enough, there’s no use for more. Be smart and exchange your money for free time when the opportunity presents itself.
- Work on building assets: Franklin’s decision to retire was made easier by the fact that he had the profits from the printing press to fall back on. He dedicated his life to the printing business (starting as an apprentice in his brother’s shop) and this allowed him to cash out when the time was right.
- Cultivate passions: Franklin didn’t retire to lounge around –– he retired to work on matters he found interesting without the pressure of extracting money from them. Throughout his retirement years, Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter, among many others. He never patented any of his inventions as he had no need to draw money from any of them. As he wrote in his autobiography:
As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.