All Commentary
Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cinching Our Belts

Scarcity means deciding how to best use the resources we have

Marjorie Hillis, Bubbly on Your Budget, 2011 (originally published as Orchids on Your Budget in 1937).

It’s January. That means we’re all blearily looking up from a haze of frenzied shopping, highly caloric holiday treats, and three weeks or so of riding the couch while watching Twilight Zone marathons, and we are taking stock. In other words, we are thinking about heading back to the gym in hopes of experiencing some literal belt-tightening, and we are looking at our bills and bank accounts and planning to cinch in our metaphorical belts as well.

Marjorie Hillis’s Bubbly on Your Budget is a guide to personal finance for women that was published during the “recession within the Depression” year of 1937. Since personal budgeting advice hasn’t changed remarkably in the past 78 years, Hillis’s book remains at least as useful as any currently en vogue “50-30-20” budgeting rule. But Hillis adds to her advice a blunt matter-of-factness about money matters and a refreshing Depression-era expectation that people can and will solve their own problems. These characteristics make the book particularly appealing in our current period of low and slow economic growth.

Hillis’s first important point is that not having enough money for all the things you want isn’t a crisis. It’s a simple fact of living in the world.

An astonishing number of the people you know, probably including yourself, insist that they have to do a lot of economizing. They not only believe this is true, they know it is, and what’s more, they’re positive they have to do more economizing than the next person. This isn’t because of the size of their incomes, or the lack of size; it’s because they haven’t as much money as they wish they had, which would be true no matter what their income.… That covers just about all of us except Mr. Ford and Mr. Mellon and a few other plutocrats who don’t have to count the cost … and even they had better not be too sure of week after next.

Given that scarcity is baked into the cake of being human, Hillis says there is very little point in complaining about it. Instead, you have to decide how best to use the resources you do have. With luck, Hillis argues, you can do it with style. “Any problem so pressing is worth conquering, and with as much zest as possible.”

Hillis’s suggested solutions include having an absolutely clear-eyed view of yourself as an individual. If you aren’t going to be happy “pulling up stakes” and leaving New York to live in seclusion in the country, don’t do it. Instead, be ruthlessly clear about what matters to you in your life, and cut everything but that. If you need a spacious home, be prepared to live in a less desirable area. If you need a chic address, be prepared to downsize. If you are in complete misery unless you can go out and party on weekends, be prepared to eat very inexpensively the rest of the week. Making your budget fit you rather than trying to change yourself to fit a draconian spreadsheet is much more likely to lead to success — and to allow for a certain amount of fun along the way.

This clear-eyed view should extend to your romantic life. My favorite chapter in the book is titled “Can You Afford a Husband?” and opens, “Well, can you? A lot of women do, and support them nicely on a small salary at that.” Some husbands, Hillis suggests, like some apartments or some food budgets, may be luxuries that require careful consideration and planning if one is to make them work with one’s income. It’s a fairly radical suggestion for 1937, and Hillis carries it off with great panache. “The point nowadays is not merely to know the cost of a thing and whether you have money to pay for it, but to know whether it’s worth the price to you.… Knowing what you are getting for your money and how much you’ll like it when you get it is particularly important when personal relationships are involved.” Unlike the endless Internet lists of ways to know if you’re in love or things we ought to expect our beloveds to do for us, this is relationship advice that may actually be useful. Remember, Hillis tells us, to be sure that marginal benefits exceed marginal costs.

Hillis also recommends an entrepreneurial mindset to personal finance. She tells stories about women who turn their screened-in porches into dress shops, or their spare bedrooms into lingerie boutiques. She suggests knitting for money (which suggests to me that Hillis had no idea how long it took to knit a sweater or how much one would have to charge to recoup the cost), growing specialty plants to sell to less successful gardeners, or subletting rooms in the crumbling family manse. She suggests, in other words, being alert to entrepreneurial opportunities and using them to make your budget fit you.

This focus on the smallest of small businesses as a way of addressing personal budget constraints puts Bubbly on Your Budget alongside The Toothpaste Millionaire as a book whose portrait of the history of entrepreneurship leaves me depressed and angry. I didn’t go through Hillis’s book to see how many of the creative small-business solutions she details are now impossible because of increased licensing and regulation, but I would be willing to bet that it’s nearly all of them.

Though Hillis focuses most of her attention on the average woman during the Depression — a woman who is poorer than she was the last decade, but still managing — her final chapter addresses the question of what to do “When You’re Really Broke.” It is here that her voice is the most jarring for the 21st century, but perhaps the most important. She observes:

No words of ours will make a dent in the fact that every day you spend without enough money to pay for actual necessities will be a special form of Purgatory, and that, the world being as it is, this is probably as it should be. There is something definitely wrong with people who don’t mind needing to be helped. It may happen to the best of us, but that doesn’t mean that we should like it. When you stop minding, when being helped becomes a habit, you’re on the skids, and if you don’t do something about it pretty quickly, it’s going to be too late.

Unpleasant as it is, she argues, we do need to recognize when it is time to accept temporary help from family and friends. (And if we have no willing family and friends? She notes acerbically that “any grown-up who hasn’t deserves a little suspicion.”) Friendships and social networks are fun and useful. But we also have to remember that when we are really broke and we are asking for that kind of help, we are no longer talking about how to have “bubbly on your budget.” We are talking about “a possible … period when you haven’t a budget and aren’t entitled to bubbly.” The goal, having landed in that predicament, is to get out of it as soon as possible, and to gain the “feeling of power that can master an emergency.”

The important thing for Hillis, and the important thing for us to realize as 21st-century readers of her work, is that even in the Depression, the assumption was that scarcity is a constant. Destitution does not have to be.

Most people, Hillis assumes, should be able to work and plan their way out of being “really broke.” Today’s restrictions on entrepreneurship and on private charity make that task harder to accomplish. Reducing those restrictions will put more bubbly in all of our budgets and will allow us to face our pressing problems with Hillis’s zest and determination.