So You Can’t Live on Your Income: Budgeting Lessons from 1946

A budget expert from 1946 gave money advice that led to saved marriages, successful adoptions, and the choice of a dog over chairs.

Photo of Elise Stapleton

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Trying to figure out how to spend less money than one makes has vexed people for thousands of years, going back to the traders in Jericho who used clay balls to keep track of wheat and sheep. Keeping track of the budget was definitely on the minds of many Americans in the mid-1940s; shelter and food costs were rising due to war-related shortages, but the post-war boom was just getting its feet under it. Soon, there would be plenty to spend your money on, but who was going to help you figure out where to spend it?

Enter Mrs. Elise Stapleton, a professional budgeter who had helped 30,000 households get their finances under control. Profiling her in the April 6, 1946, issue of this magazine, reporter Wesley Price described Mrs. Stapleton’s no-nonsense approach to money: “Budgets help people to save money, but more important, in Mrs. Stapleton’s view, they help them to spend it. Many people have vague ideas about what they want from life. Their money doesn’t buy the things they want. It buys things they don’t want.”

Like all good budget planners, Mrs. Stapleton made allowances for what was most important to her clients, however impractical. One woman loved her dog, even though she really couldn’t afford him and was going without basics like furniture:

Mrs. Stapleton drew up the budget. It included food and veterinary fees for the dog. No chairs. Forget the chairs, she advised. If visitors tired of standing up, they knew what they could do—sit on the floor or go home.

On the other hand, she disagreed with the new American trend of making sure that children wanted for nothing:

Here is the American family, as she knows it, with its budget out of whack. This may be you: You fear that you won’t do enough for your children. You want them to have the best of everything, the best clothes, education and social position. It becomes silly, says Mrs. Stapleton; American children have too much done for them.

Mrs. Stapleton believed that one should always budget some money for fun. The problem was that “so few people get any real fun out of their fun money.” She helped one man realize that despite his large “fun” budget, he was miserable. She advised him to outfit a workshop and build a boat. He and his wife were never happier.

Given that Mrs. Stapleton’s advice is 75 years old, there are some out of date notions. No expense was to be spared when it came to luring a husband:

A prosperous father wearied of being tapped for extra money by his pretty daughter, who had a twenty-five-dollar weekly allowance for routine clothes replacements and out-of-pocket expenses. He sent her to Mrs. Stapleton, who worked out a budget reserving five dollars weekly for emergencies. The following week the girl wanted daddy to advance $100 against the five-dollars-a-week she hadn’t started to save. Daddy refused. She appealed to Mrs. Stapleton, who asked, “What’s the emergency?”

Well, it seems she was invited to a college dance, and there was a boy on the verge of proposing, and he probably would propose if he saw her in a simply beautiful white taffeta dress with a red bow, which would only cost $100 [about $1,350 in today’s money], a ferocious bargain, and if that isn’t an emergency, what is? Mrs. Stapleton allowed that it was an emergency unexampled in world history, and sanctioned withdrawal of the money from a $200 savings account. Weeks later the girl returned pitter-patter to report what $100 worth of white taffeta can do.

“Did he propose?”

“No, he didn’t. Much more wonderful. His roommate did.”

Since 1946, the relative cost of some items has decreased. Few people these days would spend 15 percent of their budget on clothes – that’s a lot of t-shirts and sweatpants. And spending 25 percent of your budget on food would be unusual today, when the average household spends 9.5 percent of their income on food (including going out to eat).

Other categories, like shelter, have risen dramatically. Good luck spending only 20 percent of your budget on your living space; the average American uses 37 percent of their budget for housing.

Some things are just as distressing today as they were 75 years ago. Mrs. Stapleton shared the story of a family who couldn’t seem to save any money, despite their very frugal habits. It turned out they were spending $500 each year [$6,700 today] to pay off their child’s surgery. She wasn’t able to help them cut any more corners; their medical costs had overwhelmed everything else.

Most of Mrs. Stapleton’s clients had spending issues that were more prosaic: learning to budget for alimony, life insurance, and family vacations. She points out that there are always psychological problems to be considered: “‘You can change budgets,’ says Mrs. Stapleton, ‘if people will change their habits. But you can’t really change people.’”

Mrs. Stapleton’s Rules for Budgeting

  1. Be optimistic and businesslike as you approach budget making, not rebellious.
  2. Figure on minimum income and maximum outgo. That bonus may not come through, and Uncle Jake may forget to send his Christmas check.
  3. Decide what you want most out of life.
  4. Live by your own budget, not the Joneses’.
  5. Call the entire family in on budget discussions.
  6. Expect no immediate miracles. Your budget won’t be accurate in the first draft.

Mrs. Stapleton’s Spending Recommendations

  • Shelter: 20-25 percent
  • House operation: 7-12 percent
  • Food: 20-25 percent
  • Clothes: 13-15 percent
  • Savings: 10-15 percent
  • Fun: 10 percent

 

First page of the article "So You Can't Live on Your Income" as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post
Read “So You Can’t Live on Your Income” by Wesley Price from the April 6, 1946, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Elise Stapleton (David Robbins / SEPS)

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Comments

  1. Mrs. Stapleton was onc smart. shrewd lady. I think her advice from 1946 from a 2021 standpoint has held up remarkably well. 75 years of unprecedented change in the economy alone (never mind everything else) as a backdrop for comparison would likely make most other advice on other topics, painfully but also amusedly obsolete long before now. How much advice from ’21 would have application in 2096? That question puts today in the same context, only future forward. I’m guessing nearly nothing will apply long before then.

    With the pandemic causing unprecedented change with massive permanent business closures, people losing their homes. climate change and so much more, even 2026 will be drastically different from now.

    Her advice to the woman to go without the chairs in favor of the dog probably would have seemed weird back then, and I get it. It hasn’t been until comparatively recently dogs have been greatly elevated in status, making a much smaller percentage thinking it strange or disagreeing on that today.

    As far as the college girl goes, her romantic but still practical side shows with her declaring the desire/need for the white taffeta dress an ’emergency’ after all, even though she hesitated at first. I’m reading into this Mrs. Stapleton thought of it as a small investment if it would land this girl a good husband and financial support. She may have suspected the girl was IN college TO get her ‘M.R.S’.

    The other thing was her father was prosperous. Money marrying money. It was probably wise for dad to give her the funds. The first guy didn’t propose but the 2nd one did, so there ya go. Had I been her ‘non-prosperous’ dad I might have said, “Now honey, your life is NOT over now any more than any other time you’ve said that, or ‘that I’ve ruined your life’ by saying no! If these young men don’t appreciate you from your already lovely wardrobe, wit, intelligence and sparkling charm, than they’re not worthy of you, and you’ve weeded them out. Take a deep breath, smile, and give your dad a hug for fixing this one too.”

    There. All solved. It’s what I do. Mrs. Stapleton was one smart, shrewd lady.

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