Time is Money. Benjamin Franklin?

Dear Quote Investigator: As an entrepreneur I marvel at the wisdom and concision of the following maxim:

Time is money.

This is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin, but I have become skeptical about attributions after reading this blog. So, I performed my own  exploration for this saying and determined that it was indeed Franklin who said it. He reinforced the meaning of the maxim with a common sense example that states: if you skip half-a-days work then you throw away half-a-days wage [AYT]:

Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, it ought not to be reckoned the only expence; he hath really spent or thrown away five shillings besides.

He said it in 1748 in an essay titled Advice to a Young Tradesman. Is this an example of a saying that is properly acknowledged?

Quote Investigator: Great work! You have given excellent evidence that Franklin employed the maxim in 1748. The remaining question is: Did someone say it before Franklin?

Before attempting to answer this question QI wishes to recognize a pioneer in the field of quotation investigation. The author Ralph Keyes spent years tracking down the truth about various quotations, and he presented his fascinating findings in two wonderful books:

Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1992).

The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (2006).

These books were an important inspiration for the creation of this website, and I highly recommend them to all the readers of this blog.

For more than twenty years in the 1700s Franklin published a yearly almanac called Poor Richard’s Almanack that contained many aphorisms. Keyes writes the following about the originality of these texts [NGF7]:

It had long been known that some of Poor Richard’s sayings drew on the work of others. Almanac writers were notoriously sticky fingered, and Benjamin Franklin was no exception. He admitted as much himself. “Why should I give my Readers bad lines of my own,” asked Franklin, “when good ones of other People’s are so plenty?”

Keyes discusses the work of Robert Newcomb who traced thousands of sayings that appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanack to other sources. Many were taken from contemporary compilations of quotations, books that Newcomb refers to as “Bartlett’s Quotations of his day.”

With this background it is unsurprising that QI found the apothegm “time is money” decades earlier in 1719 in the periodical The Free-Thinker [FT]:

I remember to have heard of a notable Woman, who was thoroughly sensible of the intrinsick Value of Time: Her Husband was a Shoe-maker, and an excellent Crafts-man; but never minded how the Minutes passed. In vain did his Wife inculcate to him, That Time is Money: He had too much Wit to apprehend her; and he cursed the Parish-Clock, every Night; which at last brought him to his Ruin;

Note that in this earlier 1719 instance the phrase “time is money” matches exactly that is because QI searched for an exact match. However, the viewpoint expressed in the proverb has a long history, and it can be formulated in many different ways.

The online Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs [OXP] gives two earlier cites with very different phraseology. The first cite is a version from Classical Greece “the most costly outlay is time” attributed to Antiphon. The second cite is from 1572 Discourse upon Usury, “They saye tyme is precious.”

[AYT] 1793, Works of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin,  [Date on essay 1748] Advice to a Young Tradesman, Page 188, Printed for P. Wogan, P. Byrne, J. Moore, and W. Jones, Dublin. (Google Books full view) link

[NGF7] 1992, Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes, Pages 30-32, HarperCollins, New York.

[FT] 1719 May 18, The Free-Thinker, Page 128 (GN Page 119), Number 121, London. (Google Books full view) link

[OXP] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs edited by Jennifer Speake, Time, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 May)

2 replies on “Time is Money. Benjamin Franklin?”

  1. This topic is one of special interest to me. When I worked with a doctor of medicine of Chinese upbringing I was perplexed at the lack of understanding of what we native speakers of English take for granted. It is next to impossible for a non-native speaker to understand much of the English language. He confided to me the Chinese government was unable to afford to teach spoken English…just grammar and vocabulary. Although, he had a great sense of humor, I usually was unable to fully understand his speech.
    Following is one example of a common phrase he was unable to interpret:
    “Throw in the towel.”

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