Life Lessons from P. T. Barnum

You may not be familiar with P. T. Barnum, but you’d probably recognize the 19th century showman’s longstanding legacy: the Barnum & Bailey circus. In 1880, he also published the self-help/personal finance book, The Art of Money Getting; Or, Golden Rules for Making Money, which contains essentially everything you’ve ever read in a blog or book about the topic (in old timey English, for bonus points). The book is available for free on Kindle, but here are some of my favorite life lessons:

But however easy it may be found to make money, I have no doubt many of my hearers will agree it is the most difficult thing in the world to keep it…it consists simply in expending less than we earn; that seems to be a very simple problem.

This country is full of high-earning professionals with no savings or meaningful assets, woefully unprepared for emergencies and retirement. And it’s not because we earn too little; it’s because we spend too much.

Economy is not meanness. The misfortune is, also, that this class of persons let their economy apply in only one direction. They fancy they are so wonderfully economical in saving a half-penny where they ought to spend twopence, that they think they can afford to squander in other directions…”saving at the spigot and wasting at the bung-hole;” “penny wise and pound foolish.”

No point buying bargain toilet paper or clipping a few coupons if you’re going to splurge on HBO or finance more car or house than you need. While little things can add up to a big thing, they usually don’t, and they’re more easily outdone:

True economy consists in always making the income exceed the out-go. Wear the old clothes a little longer if necessary; dispense with the new pair of gloves; mend the old dress: live on plainer food if need be; so that, under all circumstances, unless some unforeseen accident occurs, there will be a margin in favor of the income.

It requires some training, perhaps, to accomplish this economy, but when once used to it, you will find there is more satisfaction in rational saving than in irrational spending.

Mindset is a critical part of budgeting satisfaction. Spending the money on yourself (e.g. retirement) shouldn’t feel like deprivation.

It is the eyes of others and not our own eyes which ruin us. If all the world were blind except myself I should not care for fine clothes or furniture…You cannot accumulate a fortune by taking the road that leads to poverty.

Note: It’s not actually possible to keep up with the Joneses.

Prosperity is a more severe ordeal than adversity, especially sudden prosperity. “Easy come, easy go,” is an old and true proverb. A spirit of pride and vanity, when permitted to have full sway, is the undying canker-worm which gnaws the very vitals of a man’s worldly possessions, let them be small or great, hundreds, or millions. Many persons, as they begin to prosper, immediately expand their ideas and commence expending for luxuries, until in a short time their expenses swallow up their income, and they become ruined in their ridiculous attempts to keep up appearances, and make a “sensation.”

Even when you finally make the money you hoped you would, for as long as you can, pretend you don’t.

The foundation of success in life is good health: that is the substratum fortune; it is also the basis of happiness.

Did someone say substratum?

These remarks apply with tenfold force to the use of intoxicating drinks. To make money, requires a clear brain. A man has got to see that two and two make four;

Drugs are bad.

Equally important that you do not commence business where there are already enough to meet all demands in the same occupation.

Find your niche.

There is scarcely anything that drags a person down like debt.

Tell that to every new doctor in this country.

The creditor goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning better off than when he retired to bed, because his interest has increased during the night, but you grow poorer while you are sleeping, for the interest is accumulating against you.

Interest doesn’t have duty hours.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.


WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT Work at it, if necessary, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now. The old proverb is full of truth and meaning, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” Many a man acquires a fortune by doing his business thoroughly, while his neighbor remains poor for life, because he only half does it. Ambition, energy, industry, perseverance, are indispensable requisites for success in business.


There is no such thing in the world as luck. There never was a man who could go out in the morning and find a purse full of gold in the street to-day, and another to-morrow, and so on, day after day: He may do so once in his life; but so far as mere luck is concerned, he is as liable to lose it as to find it. “Like causes produce like effects.

I really like this. There’s nothing wrong with benefiting from chance, because chance is likely to work in your favor at some point. But you can’t count on it, because the opposite is equally true. If it seems like someone always has luck on their side, it’s probably not actually luck.

By introducing system into all your transactions, doing one thing at a time, always meeting appointments with punctuality, you find leisure for pastime and recreation; whereas the man who only half does one thing, and then turns to something else, and half does that, will have his business at loose ends, and will never know when his day’s work is done, for it never will be done.

Make a to-do list and check stuff off.

However successful a man may be in his own business, if he turns from that and engages ill a business which he don’t [sic] understand, he is like Samson when shorn of his locks his strength has departed, and he becomes like other men.

Never let a man foolishly jeopardize a fortune that he has earned in a legitimate way, by investing it in things in which he has had no experience.

Maybe you don’t need to invest in your friend’s real estate venture?

Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.

Uncompromising integrity of character is invaluable. It secures to its possessor a peace and joy which cannot be attained without it—which no amount of money, or houses and lands can purchase.

Peace and joy sounds really nice.

Apparently the self-help genre figured out everything it had to say over a century ago, long before we discovered other classics like women’s suffrage, flight, or how to make our former acquaintances jealous with pictures of our vacations on social media.

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