Important money lessons from classic fables

Recently Lifehacker ran a great article titled “The best lessons from childhood fables that still matter.” That’s the beauty of fables – the stories are simple, but the lessons are timeless, transcending the era in which they were first told.

A lot of those simple lessons can be connected quite directly to financial decision-making. Here are four fables you may not remember that have pretty important money lessons.

The Miser

An old man sells all of his goods for a large lump of gold, which he then proceeds to bury in a hole just outside his property. Every day he visits the spot, uncovering the gold, looking at it for a bit, then covering it back up.

One of the man’s employees notices this odd behavior and follows the old man. He sees the buried gold, and when the old man returns home, the employee removes the gold and runs away with it.

The next day the old man finds that his gold his missing and cries out in agony. A neighbor hears the old man’s story and suggests that he place a rock in the hole and cover it back up. “It makes no difference, does it? You didn’t do anything with the gold anyway.”

The lesson: Working hard is great. Making money is great. Saving money is fine. But money itself is nothing more than pieces of paper or lumps of minerals. Don’t forget that money’s true purpose is in service of a happy, healthy life. The size of the lump doesn’t make much difference if you don’t know how to use it to feel fulfilled.

The Boy and the Hazelnuts

The little boy happened upon a large, stone pitcher filled with tasty hazelnuts. The boy slipped his hand through the narrow opening and grabbed a huge handful, but found that he couldn’t pull his hand back out of the jar. The boy yanked and yanked, but couldn’t pull his hand out, and so he started to cry. A man standing nearby said to the boy, “If you were satisfied with less, you could pull your hand out easily.”

The lesson: Pace yourself. There’s nothing wrong with big dreams, but sometimes when you try to grab everything at once, you end up with nothing at all. It’s the same thing with financial goals – slow down, and don’t be afraid to pick out a series of little goals, one at a time, rather than a massive handful of goals all at once.

The One-Eyed Doe

There was once a doe who had lost an eye. She grazed near the sea, with her good eye towards the land, and her missing eye towards the shore. She did this to protect herself, feeling that she could see danger coming sooner if she kept her good eye pointed towards the fields and the forest. One day, however, a pair of boatmen were floating nearby and saw the doe grazing. They steered their little boat closer and closer until they were close enough to use a bow and arrow and shoot the doe, who never saw them coming because she was so focused on the fields and forest.

The lesson: Don’t overcompensate. That’s probably not the lesson you took from this fable initially, but I think the doe’s downfall has a lot to do with her becoming so focused on her own shortcomings. She could only see out of one eye and she became so hung-up on that limitation that she overcompensated, thinking she could only be safe if she kept her good eye to the fields, forgetting that danger comes from all sides and not trusting in her own ability to keep herself safe. If you’ve made mistakes with money, do yourself a favor – don’t get hung up on what’s gone wrong before. Don’t become so focused on what you think you can’t do well, that everything else suffers as a result. Because just like the doe, you’re more capable than you think you are.

The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey

A miller, his young son, and their donkey were making their way into market, where the miller intended to sell the donkey. As they passed a house, a neighbor jeered at them. “What fools! See how they walk when they have a perfectly good donkey?”

So the miller, feeling embarrassed, had his son ride on the donkey. Later they passed a group of old men. “See?” said one of the men. “This goes to my point: the youth today have no respect for their elders. Here a tired old man is forced to walk while his young, lazy son rides at his side.”

Again embarrassed, the miller had his son dismount and sat upon the donkey’s back himself. Soon enough they came upon a group of wash women. “What a cruel old man!” said one of the women. “Riding so easy while his little son struggles to keep pace.”

So the miller had his son join him on the donkey and they rode together into town. There a man hailed them. “What a burden to place on a donkey! That’s too much weight. I’d say the pair of you are better suited to carry that donkey than he is to carry the pair of you.”

Hearing this, the miller and his son jumped off the donkey and hefted the unhappy beast up on their shoulders. They came to a bridge in the middle of the town and as they crossed the donkey became upset at the sound of the rushing water. The donkey kicked and bucked and fell out of the grasp of the miller and his son, tumbling down into the water and disappearing. Having nothing to sell, the miller and his son returned home empty-handed.

The lesson: In life you’re going to meet a lot of very well-intentioned people who think they know what’s best for you. They’ll question your choices and offer you their opinion of what’s best. A lot of times they’ll be wrong. Trust in yourself. Pick the path you think works best for you and don’t let the well-intentioned people in your life push you off that path. You may be wrong and things might not work out the way you think they will. That’s ok. Just be true to yourself and understand that missteps are still steps, and as long as you don’t lose sight of your chosen path you’ll eventually get where you want to be.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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