The Prodigal Son

One of Benjamin Franklin's most widely quoted and therefore presumably wise proverbs is, "A penny saved is a penny earned." It is a pithy, virtually self-complacent espousal of the virtue of thrift, and while I've always admired Benjamin Franklin, I'd like to give this particular proverb a sidelong glance and make a case for the virtue of self-indulgence.

The proverb's message is that saving money is a good thing, which of course it is. But, to paraphrase another venerable proverb, "There are more ways than one to skin a critter (I'm too fond of cats to use the original line). Personally, from my earliest years I was a complete washout when it came to saving money. I remember as a kid owning a record that told the story of the grasshopper and the ants, which described the frivolous, prodigal behavior of a grasshopper who played a fiddle and sang all summer while the ants worked hard at storing grain for the winter. Winter came and the ants were having a warm and festive party in their home when the grasshopper, cold and hungry, came to their door. In this version of the story, the ants took him in and let him join the party, an act that undermines the story's lesson, which would only be communicated effectively if the grasshopper perished as a result of his lack of foresight. In any case, I understood the fundamental symbolism of the story, but I was nonetheless more inclined to behave like the grasshopper than the ants.

I tried to save money. Once I accrued something like seven dollars. This was in an era, incidentally, when it cost fifteen or twenty cents to go to a movie, a comic book cost a dime, and a burger and fries set you back thirty-five cents. My undoing when I had saved the seven dollars was the discovery of a pinball machine that cost a nickel to play but on which one could win free games that could be exchanged for a nickel. I sank all of my savings into a mano a mano with the machine, and when the dust settled all of the nickels I'd managed to win were gone along with my savings.

I was also an avid comic book reader. At some point the heat was put on comic books by a psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose book, Seduction of the Innocent, made the claim that comic books were the chief source of juvenile crime. To be sure, comic books had a powerful effect on me and many of the people I now know. Reading science fiction, horror, and mystery comics played an undeniable part in turning us into not felons but writers and artists. The heady sensationalism proffered by comic books unleashed the wild animals of our imaginations, an experience in creative liberation that one would hope a psychiatrist might recognize as natural and healthy.

In any case, in 1952 a new and fabulously original comic book appeared. It was love at first sight when I discovered Mad. I would not have considered saving a single dime that I felt could be better spent on Mad or any of the other titles by the same publisher, all of which were clearly to me much more sophisticated than any other comics. And, in fact, I didn't save a dime. I was consistently self-indulgent. But part of that self-indulgence was to keep my comic books and keep them in good condition. Recently, mint condition copies of the first twenty-three issues of Mad sold at a Sotherby's auction for $44,850. I own near-mint condition copies of the first twenty-three issues because I was prodigal enough to splurge my dimes on them instead of saving the money. The first issue of Mad is listed in the current edition of Overstreet's comic collector's price guide as being worth $4,800 in near-mint condition, which is exactly 48,000 times what I paid for it. I won't even go into what the other hundred or so comic books I own are worth. I think my point is made. Such are the wages of sin, Dr. Wertham. And, Ben, for the most part, a few pennies saved will not increase in value, while the things you might spend them on when you're young will increase in value enough to provide a nest egg when you're older.

What I'm getting at is that as a parent one should not be too eager to discourage a son's or daughter's need to have that new comic book, magazine, CD, poster, toy, or whatever. Some of the soda bottles I used to get a three-cent refund for at the grocery store now sell to collectors for fifty or sixty dollars. It isn't just old books, toys, records, games, and the like that become valuable collector's items, but all manner of seemingly trivial items: match books, ash trays, signs, product boxes, etc.

Under the circumstances, I think the piggy bank should be happily consigned to the endangered species list. In fact, a concluding irony is that all of those novelty banks I saw as a boy are now collector's items, many worth hundreds of dollars. I remember, for example, the clown bank (when a coin was deposited, his tongue came out and he swallowed it) and the monkey bank (it tipped its hat for each coin). Kids who used those banks may have saved a few bucks, but it is the banks they should have saved.

I exhort you, then, to give short shrift to Ben Franklin's facile proverb and instead hearken to something I'll call The Nostalgia Factor. Which is to say anything that reminds one of the past will be worth big money. And that's what I mean by there being more than one way to skin a critter when it comes to saving money.


Larry Tritten has published some 700 pieces in such publications as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Spy, The American Way, Harper's, and more. He is a freelance writer living in San Francisco, California.

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