Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/Microscopic Extravagance

From The Spectator.


One of the most childlike and in its way amusing paragraphs in Mr. Ruskin's anticipatory will, is the one in which he announces that he intends for the future to live in his country-house on £360 a year. It is of course possible that he should do it, though he will find it more difficult than he expects. The taxes on his house — which cost with some rebuilding and much furniture £15,000 — the "regular repairs," which are always accidental and always recur, the renewal of carpets and the like, will cost him at least a fourth of his income, — probably much more; and a solitary gardener, to keep the place decent, will not be secured and provided with materials for less than another fourth; but still if Mr. Ruskin can put up with one servant, confine his journeys to his own feet, enjoy the simplest food, and go without good wine, the remaining half of his allowance to himself will suffice to keep him alive and in good health. The necessaries of life do not cost very much, or the poor could not live at all; if there are no servants, there is little waste; and to many a clergyman as cultivated as Mr. Ruskin, though not as sensitive to the beautiful, the position he says he is about to assume would seem to be too luxurious. The clergyman, however, has been trained to a virtue which Mr. Ruskin, we should fear, does not possess, which is most difficult for the rich to acquire, and which is in our day perhaps the most distinctive mark of the cultivated poor, — the economy of loose silver. There is no differentia between the well-to-do and the poor which is more marked than that between their habitual conduct as regards the minor expenditures of daily life. The one has acquired a second nature, an instinct of self-defence which the other never missed. The poor man has learned by hard experience the great truth that a shilling a day is £18 5s. a year, that ten shillings a day is more than a curate's salary, and that if he indulges himself in the least in the use of the "silver key," which makes all doors so easy and daily life so smooth, all the pinching economy in his home will go for nothing. The margin between his income and his necessary expenditure which be strives so hard to create will disappear at once in an endless outflow of money for which he has nothing to show. The rich man, on the contrary, unless frugal by nature to a degree unusual among his kind, spends shillings almost without knowing it, merely to facilitate his movements or help to pass his day, and would be utterly astonished if he ever put down his yearly outgoings in mere silver in a formal account. He would hardly believe his eyes, and would resolve upon a retrenchment, which, nevertheless, he would find more difficult than almost any serious economy. It is much easier to lay down a carriage than to abstain from taking a cab, much less annoying to do without wine than to drink Gladstone claret, far less worrying to cease to entertain, than to cease to over-reward every man who does you some slight service. There is no retrenchment so difficult to a man who has been rich, or even well off, as economy in silver, and no extravagance so tempting to a man who has risen to a fair income, and perhaps increased his weight, and with it the indolence of his natural temperament, as extravagance in shillings. The sum which is yearly spent in this way, more especially in London, by men who do not wish to be wasteful, but who are not severely self-restrained as to their expenditure, would appear to poorer men, anxious to keep up appearances and lead the refined life upon small means, almost incredible, and we are not sure that they would not condemn it as also slightly wicked. It seems so hard to them that an income should be allowed, so to speak, to perspire away. We have known professional men in London, men earning their own incomes, who did not intend to be extravagant, and in great matters were even frugal, who had no especial reason for being in a hurry, and who were quite capable of self-denial, spend two-thirds of Mr. Ruskin's supposed income in cabs alone, and throw away double the sum in outlays for which they had nothing to show, and which indeed they were wholly unable to remember. Of course, it is the young and rich who are the most guilty in this way, but this form of extravagance is constantly found among men who are not thoughtless, who are earning their own living, and who would be rather shocked if they were told that they squandered in meaningless indulgences as much as would keep a respectable family in comfort. It is a great bore to be walking when one is in a hurry, and one is always in a hurry to avoid a tedious walk. Two or three cigars a day cannot matter much, and they yield a tranquillity of spirit and provide an exemption from ennui which are worth all the money. A lunch at the club is not necessary, but still it is pleasant, and is a great deal more "civilized" a method of taking food than eating a biscuit in office, with clients and business acquaintances always dropping in. A pint of claret a day is not injurious to health, and it is very doubtful if it is good for the stomach that the claret should be too cheap. One must see a couple of papers a day, say a Times and a Pall Mall Gazette, and take one weekly newspaper, and buy one of the tittle-tattle papers pretty regularly as one passes the book-stall. A book now and then cannot be considered wasteful, indeed, a book is always an economy; a toy of any sort, whether for grown-ups or little folk, is usually acceptable; and the gift of shillings to servants, porters, beggars, or other people who look as if they expected douceurs, and would be importunate if they did not get them, is very nearly a virtue, a sort of charity in everybody's opinion except that of the receiver. We have mentioned nothing in the least degree out of the way, nothing indicating a hobby, nothing for which a man earning, say, £2,000 a year, would dream of condemning himself, and yet we have mentioned expenditures almost equal to the average income of English junior clergymen. Hundreds among our readers, if they will examine their expenditure with the single-eyed keenness with which they would examine a lawyer's bill or a milliner's account, will know that the following table is for them an under-statement of the truth: —

s. d.
Cabs per diem 3 0
Three cigars 1 6
Lunch 1 6
Pint of wine 3 0
Newspapers 0 8
Books 1 0
Little purchases 1 0
Vails of all sorts 0 6
12 2

The account is wholly exclusive of needless waste in dress caused by mere thoughtlessness and indifference to expense, and includes no necessary whatever except the Times, and yet the total amounts to more than £220 a year, or, as we said before, nearly two-thirds of the total sum which Mr. Ruskin has put down as the income on which if an English bachelor gentleman cannot live he ought to die and be done with it. We believe there are men in London by no means "rich," as riches are now counted, who spend twice the amount, for we have put the outlay on cabs at a ridiculously low figure for those who move about much and like to move easily; and we know that expenditure of the kind, though of course more restricted, is one of the strongest temptations of young men with moderate incomes, even when they have to earn them for themselves. So strong is the tendency, that we have heard men who have been rich say that to learn the petty economies was as hard as to learn a new trade, and that the only way to acquire good habits was to put themselves in training, and regularly leave their money at home. And they have found that comparative poverty never came home to them so keenly as when they hesitated to spend their shillings, and no walk ever was so wearisome as the short one undertaken to save the expense of a cab.

The worst of this form of extravagance is that there is absolutely no cure for it, except the ever-present pressure which arises from want of means. The serious expenditures of life which come up in large bills are seriously considered, and arranged for with some exercise of judgment and forethought, but the petty expenditures come up separately, and seem so very small that avoiding them makes men not pressed for money suspicious of meanness in themselves. What can the shilling signify, even if the demand for the shilling comes upon them ten times a day? We do not know that it does signify, if they will only ascertain what it is, and distinctly recognize that the money does not come of itself, but is a heavy addition, producing little, to the annual outlay. We are by no means anxious to preach strict doctrine in the matter — though there is a doctrine, and a sound one, which condemns waste — and are quite aware that a man heavily occupied may find it to his permanent interest and peace of mind not to worry himself about small outgoings, or waste on them his faculty of self-restraint, which is wanted for much more serious affairs. Equanimity is worth buying at a high price, and fretfulness over sixpences is just as injurious as fretfulness over the slight exertions which would be necessary, nine times out of ten, in order to save the money. But we want them to recognize the fact that the unnoticed expenditure, the silver waste, is a heavy item in their outlays, one to be sharply remembered when they are calculating whether they cannot live very well indeed without a business income. They will find that the change tasks them much more heavily, and, above all, much more constantly than they anticipated, that silver does lubricate the grooves of life quite as much as gold, that they will miss the means of small waste much more than the means of large expenditure. Mr. Ruskin is not going to live on £360 a year, or anything like it, though he fancies he is, and tells his friends so in print; but if he tried it, a week in London would show him that he did not know how, that a man accustomed to "a carefully restricted expenditure of £5,500 a year for thirteen years" could not learn in a twelvemonth how to reduce his silver waste within the limits of the whole income he has assigned himself. Good resolutions would hardly help him. Simplicity of life would scarcely protect him. Nothing would teach him, if he had not previously learned the lesson, except pressure, the pain which comes of feeling that one has outrun one's means. It is a nature which has to be acquired, not a new habit. Almost all women, owing to their dependence for money on others, possess it without effort; and perhaps one-third of all the men who have been bred up in poverty. They have no trouble in avoiding silver waste; their trouble is, when they are rich, not to let dread of the new but trivial extravagance make them anxious over-much — we never knew a man frugal on this point ever lose the instinct, though he might abjure the practice, of this form of frugality — but for the majority, the temptation, depend on it, is almost overwhelming, and the lesson of resistance among the very hardest that they have to learn. Some very good men, too, never learn it, and can no more break with their ruinous habit than topers can with dram-drinking. They have lost the instinct of sparing shillings till real economy is impossible to them, and all dependent on them suffer, though of course with far different feelings, as if they were gamblers, drunkards, or, given to sanguineness in investment. We know of at least one dead friend who, out of an income of £600 a year, never had but £300 a year to spend, the rest going in silver extravagance; and we doubt if there are many families in England where the members, looking round, will not recognize one man of the kind. Very often he is the best of the bunch, but he is, perhaps unconsciously, the victim of the grand Scotch sin. As the cabman said of the customer who over-paid him, "He waastes the maircies in a heathen way."