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Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Ferdinand Knab, 1886

When It Comes to Managing Your Money, the Old Rules Work Best

In an era of gimmicks and hype, this “ancient” guidebook stands up best

In an age of books that extol financial freedom and wealth, The Richest Man In Babylon stands out as a volume that promises financial freedom according to laying solid and simple plans, and following a few basic rules. The book’s lessons are as healthful and dynamic today as when the author first began describing his steps to wealth in 1926. I say this from personal experience as I have successfully used them myself.

“Pay yourself first” is the key (and often copied) lesson of George S. Clason’s guide, which he presents as a series of fictional parables from the Mesopotamian empire. Clason meant that you must set aside at least ten-percent of your earnings in savings — now a standard principle in financial guides — and dedicate the remainder of your money to paying down debt, procuring a home or other investment properties, buying insurance, caring for your family, and only then allowing yourself to spend on life’s pleasures.

His approach is one of thrift. “Every piece of gold you save is a slave to work for you,” one of his ancient characters says. He does not endorse asceticism; indeed he wants money management approached in a spirit of joy and adventure — knowing that your prudence will pay off in comfort and security. This is the aim of his rock-ribbed lessons to personal prudence and safe investment. And he got rich himself offering them.

In the early twentieth century, Clason was a Denver-based publisher of maps and atlases. He published the first road atlas of the United States and Canada. In 1926, he hit upon an idea that later saved his own finances and preserved his name as one of the most popular self-help writers of the last century, and our own. Clason began writing a series of pamphlets on managing personal finances, which banks, insurance companies, and brokerage houses bought in bulk and distributed free to their clients. The map-maker’s pamphlets proved so popular that in 1930 he grouped them together in a single volume, which he issued from his own publishing company.

Clason Publishing did not survive the Great Depression. But The Richest Man in Babylon did — and in the years ahead it emerged as a mainstay of popular financial literature.

Clason’s outlook was always ardently business-friendly. Companies that sold insurance, issued home loans, or maintained savings accounts had everything to like about it. Clason endorsed modern financial products along with a cheerful and self-sacrificing work ethic. Yet for all its institutional friendliness, Clason’s book also contains solid, principled advice. There is not a fickle or unrealistic passage in it.

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For me, the book’s most effective chapter is “The Camel Trader of Babylon,” which is the about the imperative of paying down your debts, and the feelings of nobility that accrue to the individual who does so, even if incrementally. This principle reminds me of a passage that I read from The Talmud as a teen: “Who is evil?” a rabbi asks his students. After rumination, the answer comes: “He who borrows and does not repay.” That statement must be understood on many levels; but one cannot neglect the material level.

Keep in mind that debts mean not only monetary borrowings, but also deadlines or obligations in any area of life where you’ve given your word. If you’ve vowed to complete a task, even a seemingly small domestic chore, or to show up at a certain time, then do so. You’d be surprised how carefully people note such things, including your family. However you see yourself, you are evaluated and defined by your incremental workaday ethics. Whether you are aware, you also experience your own sense of performance and reliability internally; this can feed feelings of shame and anger, or of dignity and rightness.

It is, of course, natural to excuse yourself for those times when you feel justifiably late or in default on a commitment: aren’t there exceptions for unforeseen circumstance? Yes; but you should always be very disciplined about such cases. As a friend once put it: “The only real emergency is a medical emergency.” Consider this before you defer a debt, important financial project, or a personal commitment to pay someone, like a contractor, vendor, or artist.

Clason helped clarify another principle for me: You should dedicate twice as much money to your debts as to your savings. Immediately save your ten percent, he wrote; but twenty percent should go toward debt. Debt is intrinsically a drain both in terms of interest and reputation (as well as credit score).

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You will find that Clason’s lessons retain all of their original usefulness and power. Rediscovering this book has clarified important lessons for me, and put me on firmer financial footing. I challenge you to follow its strictures fully for six months — and see if you don’t feel more confident about you future and, as the author puts it, enjoy the feeling of “having gold to jingle.”

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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