The author of The Great Gatsby is not known for his restraint. But what can we learn from his suggestions of how to tighten the purse strings?
‘I had exhausted my resources and there was nothing else to do’ …
This is a frugal time of year for many of us, so I feel indebted to Scribner Magazine this morning for posting a wonderful extract from F Scott Fitzgerald’s autobiography in which the Gatsby author describes his own attempts to live on a budget.
Part of a series of pieces marking the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby, it is genuinely funny and charming, as the author and his wife, Zelda, attempt to work out why they are unable to account for $1,000 a month.
“There was no help for it – I must go to work,” writes the novelist. “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: one oil stove, damaged. Nine electric lamps, all varieties. Two bookcases with books to match. One cigarette humidor, made by a convict. Two framed crayon portraits of my wife and me. One medium-priced automobile, 1921 model. One bond, par value $1,000; actual value unknown.”
They discuss their options, Zelda suggesting they “get a Japanese to do general housework” and cut down on servants; her husband counters, tongue in cheek, that “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”.
They lay out their expenses – food, $202; income tax, $198; golf clubs, $105.50 – and their spending on “pleasure”: theatre, taxis, gambling, entertaining. But they cannot track down the whereabouts of the missing money. Then their neighbour suggests sticking to a budget.
“It is simple and sensible, and I can explain it to you in a few words,” writes Fitzgerald. “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 theatre 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.”
The publisher Melville House’s excellent blog MobyLives, which alerted me to the extract, is duly impressed. “All the financial tips that run these days suggest you cut down on $5 coffees,” writes editor Kirsten Reach. “Who would have guessed we just needed to sell portraits of ourselves, cut down on the theatre tickets and subscribe to an almanac?”