Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 35 A Penny Saved

A large proportion of you, for one reason or another, will not be able to return to this institution after the close of the present year. On that account there are some central thoughts which I should like to impress upon your minds this evening, and which I wish you to take with you into the world, whether you go out from the school as graduates or whether you go as undergraduates.

I have often spoken to you about the matter of learning to economize your time, to save your time, the matter of trying to make the most of every minute and hour of your existence. I have often spoken to you about the hurtful reputation which a large proportion of the people of our race get in one way or another because of this seeming inability to put a proper value upon time, or a proper value upon the importance of keeping one's word in connection with obligations.

You know to what a large extent the feeling prevails-whether justly or unjustly-that as a people we cannot be depended upon to keep our word; that if we are hired to work in a mill or a factory, we work until we have got three dollars or four dollars in wages ahead, and then go on an excursion, or go to town, and do not return to work until what we have earned has been consumed.

And so, in one way or another, a large proportion of us get the reputation that we cannot be depended upon for faithful, regular, efficient service; and that hurts the race. Wherever you go, we wish you by your own actions, by your advice, by your influence, to try and disprove and counteract that hurtful reputation. You can do this in the most efficient manner by yourselves being the highest possible example.

The people who succeed are, very largely, those who learn to economize time, in the ways I have referred to, and those who also have learned to save, not only time, but money.

Now this may seem to you a very materialistic thought for me to emphasize this evening -- the saving of money -- but to us as a race, it is of vital importance. I have heard it expressed recently on several occasions that the Negro was becoming too much materialized, too much industrialized. Too much attention, it has been said, is given to the material side of life. Now it seems to me that I have as yet seen very little that need arouse our fears in that direction. I am not able to understand how a race that does not own a single steam railroad, that does not own a single street-car line, that owns hardly a bank, that does not own a single block of houses in a large city -- I am not able to understand how such a race as that is in danger of becoming materialized.

When you get millions of dollars in banks, when you get millions of dollars invested in railroad stocks, when you get other millions invested in street-car lines or in the control of large factories, great plantations, or in other great industrial enterprises in the South, then I shall say that there are signs of your becoming too materialistic, of your getting to be too rich; but I do not see any such signs yet. And until we do see such signs, we can rest ourselves in peace, I think, so far as that danger is concerned.

But there is a certain influence of money that I do not think we emphasize enough. In the first place the getting hold of money, the getting hold of a competency, insures us the possession of certain influences that we can get in no other way. In order to get hold of the spiritually best and highest things in life there are certain material things that we are compelled to have first. In the first place the getting hold of money and the saving of this money will assure the possession of decent comfortable houses to live in. No person can do his best work, or can be of the greatest service to himself and to his fellow beings, until he is able to live in a decent, comfortable house. You will not be ready for life until you own such a house, whether you live in it or not. Even if you own such a house and rent it out, you are that much more of a man. I often hear people say that they do not own a house, or property, because they do not expect to live long in this place or that place. I have known such people to move six times in six years. They never will own a house, simply because they have got into the habit of giving excuses, instead of trying to get to own a home.

The possession of a decent house insures us a certain amount of proper comfort. No person can do the best work, can think well, can get along well, unless he has a certain amount of comfort, and, I may add, a certain amount of good, nourishing food, well cooked. The person who is not sure where he is going to get his breakfast, or the one who is not sure where he is going to get the money to pay his next week's board, is the individual who cannot do the best work, whether the work be physical, mental or spiritual. The possession of money enables us to be sure that we are going to have comfortable clothing, clothing enough to keep the body warm and vigorous, and in good, healthy condition.

The possession of money enables us to get to the point where we can do our part in the building of school-houses, churches, hospitals; it enables us to do our part in all these directions. Money not only enables us to get upon our feet in these material directions, but it has another value. The getting of it develops foresight on our part. People cannot get money, without learning to exercise forethought, without planning to-day for to-morrow, this week for the next week, and this year for next year.

People cannot get hold of money-or at least cannot keep hold of it-who have not learned to exercise self-control. They must be able to say "No."

I want you students, when you go out from here, to be able to say "No." I want you to be able to go by a store and, as you notice the things in that store-whether candy or spring hats, or whatever it is that attracts you-to be able, notwithstanding the fact that you have the money in your pockets to buy, to exercise a self-control that will enable you to pass these things by and save your money to invest it in a home.

Persons cannot get hold of money without learning to exercise economy, without learning to make everything go just as far as it is possible to make it go.

Then, again, the getting money enables a person to become a good, steady, safe citizen. The people who kill and are killed, nine times out of ten, whether they are black or white, are people who do not own a home, who do not have money in the bank. They are people who live in their gripsacks. They are gripsack leaders. If their grip-sacks are in Montgomery tonight, there is their home. If they are in Opelika the next night, there is their home that night. There are numbers of these people who have no home except their gripsacks. Now I don't want you to go out from here to be that kind of men and women.

I want to see you own land.

I want to see you own a decent home. And let me say right here that your home is not decent or complete unless it contains a good, comfortable bath-tub. Of the two, I believe I would rather see you own a bathtub without a house, than a house without a bathtub. If you get the tub you are sure to get the house later. So when you go out from here, buy a bathtub, even if you cannot afford to buy anything else.

The possession of money, the having of a bank account, even if small, gives us a certain amount of self-respect. An individual who has a bank account walks through a street so much more erect; he looks people in the face. The people in the community in which he lives have a confidence in him and a respect for him which they would not have if he did not possess the bank account.

Now one great mistake that we make in striving to reach these things is that we keep putting off beginning. The young man says that he will begin when he gets married. The young woman says that she will begin when she gets dressed well enough, or gets a little further on in life. Yielding to this temptation or to that, they keep putting off beginning to save. It makes one sick at heart, as he goes into the cities, to see young men on Sunday afternoons paying two or three dollars for a hack or carriage to take young women out to drive, when in too many cases the men do not earn a salary of more than four dollars a week. Young women, don't go driving with such men. A man who goes driving on a salary of four dollars a week cannot own a home or possess a bank account. When you are asked to go to drive by such a man as that, tell him you would rather he would put his money in the bank, because you know he is not able to afford to spend it in that way.

I like to see people comfortably and neatly dressed; but there is no sadder sight than to see young men and women yielding to the temptation to spend all they earn upon clothes. Then when they die in many, many cases-somebody has to pass around a hat to take up a collection in order that they may be decently put away. Do not make that mistake. Resolve that no matter how little you may earn, you will put a part of the money in the bank. If you earn five dollars a week, put two dollars in the bank. If you earn ten dollars, save four of them. Put the money in the bank. Let it stay there. When it begins to draw interest you will find that you will appreciate the value of money.

A little while ago I was in the city of New Bedford, ford, the city which was formerly the home of Mrs. Hetty Green, who is said to be the richest woman in the world. I want to tell you a story about her that was told me by a gentleman who lived in New Bedford, and who knew Mrs. Green when she lived there. For many years they had in New Bedford no savings bank that would take a very small deposit. Finally a five-cent savings bank was opened there. Just after this had been done, Mrs. Green told this gentleman that she was glad they had opened a five-cent bank, so that now she would be able to put that amount in and have it draw interest. You who are here do not think about five cents as a sum to be saved. You think of it only as money to buy peanuts and candy, or cheap ribbons, or cheap jewelry.

On last Sunday evening I was in the home of a gentleman in New York who has in his family a girl who is now only eighteen years old, and who, when she came to this country a few years ago and went to work in this family as a maid, could not speak a word of English. This girl now has fifteen hundred dollars in the bank. Think of it! A young woman coming to this country poor, and unable to speak a word of English, has saved in a short time fifteen hundred dollars! I wonder how many of you, five years from now, will have fifteen hundred dollars in the bank or in some other safe kind of property.

The civilization of New England and of other such prosperous regions rests more, perhaps, upon the savings banks of the country than upon any other one thing. You ask where the wealth of New England is. It is not in the hands of millionaires. It is in the hands of individuals, who have a few hundreds or a few thousands of dollars put safely away in some bank or banks. You will find that the savings banks of New England, and of all countries that are prosperous, are filled with the dollars of poor people, dollars aggregating millions in all.

We cannot get upon our feet, as a people, until we learn the saving habit; until we learn to save every nickel, every dime and every dollar that we can spare.