This is the first in a coming series of Scribner features on F. Scott Fitzgerald to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby.
Who hasn't tried new ways to save money? In this excerpt from A Short Autobiography, F. Scott Fitzgerald recounts his expenditures and attempts to stick a budget, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, April 5, 1924.
There was no help for it--I must go to work. I had exhausted my resources and there was nothing else to do. In the train I listed all our possessions on which, if it came to that, we could possibly raise money. Here is the list:
• 1 Oil stove, damaged.
• 9 Electric lamps, all varieties.
• 2 Bookcases with books to match.
• 1 Cigarette humidor, made by a convict.
• 2 Framed crayon portraits of my wife and me.
• 1 Medium-priced automobile, 1921 model.
• 1 Bond, par value $1, 000; actual value unknown.
"Let's cut down expenses right away," began my wife when I reached home. "There's a new grocery in town where you pay cash and everything costs only half what it does anywhere else. I can take the car every morning and--"
"Cash!" I began to laugh at this. "Cash!"
The one thing it was impossible for us to do now was to pay cash. It was too late to pay cash. We had no cash to pay. We should rather have gone down on our knees and thanked the butcher and grocer for letting us charge. An enormous economic fact became clear to me at that moment--the rarity of cash, the latitude of choice that cash allows.
"Well, " she remarked thoughtfully, "that's too bad. But at least we don't need three servants. We'll get a Japanese to do general housework, and I'll be nurse for a while until you get us put of danger. "
"Let them go?" I demanded incredulously. "But we can't let them go! We'd have to pay them an extra two weeks each. Why, to get them out of the house would cost us $125--in cash! Besides, it's nice to have the butler; if we have an awful smash we can send him up to New York to hold us a place in the bread line."
"Well, then, how can we economize?"
"We can't. We're too poor to economize. Economy is a luxury. We could have economized last summer--but now our only salvation is in extravagance."
"How about a smaller house?"
"Impossible! Moving is the most expensive thing in the world; and besides, I couldn't work during the confusion. No, " I went on, "I'll just have to get out of this mess the only way I know how, by making more money. Then when we've got something in the bank we can decide what we'd better do. "
Over our garage is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o'clock with a 7, 000-word story. That was something; it would pay the rent and last month's overdue bills. It took twelve hours a day for five weeks to rise from abject poverty back into the middle class, but within that time we had paid our debts, and the cause for immediate worry was over.
But I was far from satisfied with the whole affair. A young man can work at excessive speed with no ill effects, but youth is unfortunately not a permanent condition of life.
I wanted to find out where the $36,000 had gone. Thirty-six thousand is not very wealthy--not yacht-and-Palm-Beach wealthy--but it sounds to me as though it should buy a roomy house full of furniture, a trip to Europe once a year, and a bond or two besides. But our $36,000 had bought nothing at all.
So I dug up my miscellaneous account books, and my wife dug up her complete household record for the year 1923, and we made out the monthly average. Here it is:
"Well, that's not bad, " we thought when we had got thus far. "Some of the items are pretty high, especially food and servants. But there's about everything accounted for, and it's only a little more than half our income. "
Then we worked out the average monthly expenditures that could be included under pleasure.
Some of these items were pretty high. They will seem higher to a Westerner than to a New Yorker. Fifty-five dollars for theater tickets means between three and five shows a month, depending on the type of show and how long it's been running. Football games are also included in this, as well as ringside seats to the Dempsey-Firpo fight. As for the amount marked "restaurant parties"--$70 would perhaps take three couples to a popular after-theater cabaret--but it would be a close shave.
We added the items marked "pleasure" to the items marked "household expenses, " and obtained a monthly total.
"Fine," I said. "Just $3,000. Now at least we'll know where to cut down, because we know where it goes."
She frowned; then a puzzled, awed expression passed over her face.
"What's the matter?" I demanded. "Isn't it all right? Are some of the items wrong?"
"It isn't the items," she said staggeringly; "it's the total. This only adds up to $2,000 a month."
I was incredulous, but she nodded.
"But listen," I protested; "my bank statements show that we've spent $3,000 a month. You don't mean to say that every month we lose $1,000 dollars?"
"This only adds up to $2,000, " she protested, "so we must have."
"Give me the pencil."
For an hour I worked over the accounts in silence, but to no avail.
"Why, this is impossible!" I insisted. "People don't lose $12,000 in a year. It's just--it's just missing. "
There was a ring at the doorbell and I walked over to answer it, still dazed by these figures. It was the Banklands, our neighbors from over the way.
"Good heavens!" I announced. "We've just lost $12,000!"
Bankland stepped back alertly.
"Burglars?" he inquired.
"Ghosts," answered my wife.
Mrs. Bankland looked nervously around.
We explained the situation, the mysterious third of our income that had vanished into thin air.
"Well, what we do," said Mrs. Bankland, "is, we have a budget."
"We have a budget," agreed Bankland, "and we stick absolutely to it. If the skies fall we don't go over any item of that budget. That's the only way to live sensibly and save money."
"That's what we ought to do," I agreed.
Mrs. Bankland nodded enthusiastically.
"It's a wonderful scheme," she went on. "We make a certain deposit every month, and all I save on it I can have for myself to do anything I want with."
I could see that my own wife was visibly excited.
"That's what I want to do," she broke out suddenly. "Have a budget. Everybody does it that has any sense."
"I pity anyone that doesn't use that system, " said Bankland solemnly. "Think of the inducement to economy--the extra money my wife'll have for clothes."
"How much have you saved so far?" my wife inquired eagerly of Mrs. Bankland.
"So far?" repeated Mrs. Bankland. "Oh, I haven't had a chance so far. You see we only began the system yesterday."
"Yesterday!" we cried.
"Just yesterday," agreed Bankland darkly. "But I wish to heaven I'd started it a year ago. I've been working over our accounts all week, and do you know, Fitzgerald, every month there's $2, 000 I can't account for to save my soul."
Headed Toward Easy Street
Our financial troubles are now over. We have permanently left the newly rich class and installed the budget system. It is simple and sensible, and I can explain it to you in a few words. You consider your income as an enormous pie all cut up into slices, each slice representing one class of expenses. Somebody has worked it all out; so you know just what proportion of your income you can spend on each slice. There is even a slice for founding universities, if you go in for that.
For instance, the amount you spend on the theater should be half your drug-store bill. This will enable us to see one play every five and a half months, or two and a half plays a year. We have already picked out the first one, but if it isn't running five and a half months from now we shall be that much ahead. Our allowance for newspapers should be only a quarter of what we spend on self-improvement, so we are considering whether to get the Sunday paper once a month or to subscribe for an almanac.
According to the budget we will be allowed only three-quarters of a servant, so we are on the lookout for a one-legged cook who can come six days a week. And apparently the author of the budget book lives in a town where you can still go to the movies for a nickel and get a shave for a dime. But we are going to give up the expenditure called "Foreign missions, etc., " and apply it to the life of crime instead. Altogether, outside of the fact that there is no slice allowed for "missing" it seems to be a very complete book, and according to the testimonials in the back, if we make $36,000 again this year, the chances are that we'll save at least $35,000.
"But we can't get any of that first $36,000 back," I complained around the house. "If we just had something to show for it I wouldn't feel so absurd."
My wife thought a long while.
"The only thing you can do, " she said finally, "is to write a magazine article and call it How to Live on $36, 000 a Year."
"What a silly suggestion!" I replied coldly.
More from Scribner Magazine