The Value of a (Half) Dollar

For this post we’re traveling back in time to an 1866 Fourth of July celebration as described in Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The “Independence Day” chapter includes a great object lesson about the value of a dollar, or a half-dollar in this case.

At the town’s Fourth of July celebration, the nine-year-old main character, Almanzo, watches his cousin Frank buy a glass of lemonade for a nickel. Frank brags that his father gives him money any time he asks, but Almanzo has never had money. Frank dares Almanzo to ask his father for money, so he reluctantly approaches his dad for a nickel and tells him why. His father slowly takes a half-dollar out of his wallet and asks, “‘Almanzo, do you know what this is?’

‘Half a dollar,’ Almanzo answered.

‘Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is?’

Almanzo didn’t know it was anything but half a dollar.

‘It’s work, son,” Father said. ‘That’s what money is; it’s hard work.'”

After going back and forth with a friend about whether a boy Almanzo’s age can understand this principle, Father asks him to describe the long, hard process of raising potatoes to sell. Then his father asks, “”How much do you get for half a bushel of potatoes?’

‘Half a dollar,’ Almanzo said.

‘Yes,’ said Father. ‘That’s what’s in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.’

Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.”

His father gives him the half-dollar to keep, and explains that he could buy a baby pig with it, raise the pig and its babies, and sell them full-grown for $4 or $5 each. Or he could spend it on lemonade which is gone in a few moments.

What would you do with the hard-earned half-dollar? Would you invest in a baby pig that, after several years could yield a 50-fold return? Or would you spend it on a pitcher of lemonade?

Almanzo buys the pig, and we all like to think we’d do the same. But what have you actually done? The half-dollar is real; it’s your hard work and valuable time traded in for a paycheck. Are you getting your work’s worth out of your money, or are you blowing it on trinkets and treats that’ll be gone too soon? Remember, the value of Almanzo’s half-dollar was not only the hard work that earned it, but also the potential value of growing his money through investment.

Somewhere in the shift from corn rows to cubicles, we’ve stopped viewing work as the opportunity cost of our spending. We looked at this principle in “What Are You Working For?” and Life Is Not About Your Preferences. Maybe we understood this trade-off when we were teens entering the work force, until our expenses got more complicated and our work became full-time and perhaps cushier.

It seems less back-breaking labor is often more soul-numbing, which is probably why so many white collars I know fantasize about becoming farmers! Whatever color your collar, gleaning from previous generations’ view of money can help us fight against the imbalances we’re unwittingly steeped in. Check out the Live Like Grandma Challenge for more throwback financial lessons.

Without obsessing about how many minutes at work each purchase we make costs, we can value our time enough not to take spending lightly. The best way to keep spending in check without obsessing about it is to set a limit on your lifestyle. Contentment is the true secret to financial freedom. Know when enough’s enough. And if you’ve already passed the threshold into “too much,” it’s never too late to turn back. Sell that junk, pay off your debt, and make the decision to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. And inflate someone else’s lifestyle by helping others with your money while you’re at it. (The only money Almanzo had handled until that Independence Day was a weekly penny for the church collection.)

Reigning in your lifestyle also allows you to enjoy life now. Rather than frantically work extra hours, frivolously spending to entertain work-numbed souls, or fretting to maintain a lifestyle above your means, why not consider what’s actually worth your hard-earned half-dollars? Cut the rest, and enjoy some free blessings like nature, friends, family, and library books. Why not add Farmer Boy to your summer reading list?.

What has taught you the value of a dollar? Do you agree that we’ve lost sight of this as a culture? 

All excerpts taken from my 1971 Harper & Row edition of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

24 Responses to “The Value of a (Half) Dollar”

  1. Joel says :

    I would’ve said I’ll take that Half dollar, can I have a nickel?

  2. Hannah says :

    I have no fantasies of being a farmer (except if I could get a small garden going that might be nice). I think that if there is one thing that my parents did right (and they did many although I’m not always that good of a reflection of their skill), they taught us how to work for money. I think I started earning money regularly at around age 5 or 6, and I haven’t stopped since.

  3. DC YAM says :

    Oh we’ve definitely lost sight of the “simple lessons” like this. I really enjoyed reading the half-dollar story. It’s interesting how simple the concept can be, but how we have trouble applying it to our “complicated” life. I definitely am trying to divert more of my income to investments. I may have to give up X today, but I can have Y tomorrow.

    • Kalie says :

      Glad you liked the story, and are working toward increasing investments. I’ve found I don’t even miss most of the things we decide to give up. There is some sacrifice involved but living a simpler life has its own rewards.

  4. Abigail says :

    Yeah, I try to think of my spending in terms of my hourly wage. Especially when it comes to whether I should attempt home repair on my own. But I need to remember to start putting more purchases in the frame of how much work it’s costing me.

    • Kalie says :

      For some reason I find it easier to think of the time-cost trade off for home projects than for non-routine purchases, too. I guess it’s more practical to consider your overall lifestyle than to analyze every purchase, but it helps to think this way for big purchases.

  5. SavvyJames says :

    “There is some sacrifice involved but living a simpler life has its own rewards.” Absolutely agree. My experience has been that as I have simplified my life it has become more rewarding and the things I previously identified as ‘needs’ were really just ‘wants’ and didn’t bring any real happiness or help me get any closer to my long-term goals.

    • Kalie says :

      I like that you mention how simplifying can help you reach your goals. There is a lot of talk about living simply, but if we don’t consider why then we won’t have the motivation to keep going, or we get too focused on the money itself which could lead to stinginess.

  6. Sarah Noelle says :

    This is awesome! And definitely a lesson that I need to keep in my mind more. It’s surprisingly easy to forget how long and hard one needs to work in order to earn a given amount of money. I bet a lot of people would buy less stuff if they really thought carefully about how many hours of work the cost of a given item was worth.

    • Kalie says :

      I thought you’d like this story. Thanks for checking it out. I too think we would all pause more before purchasing if we could think this way.

  7. Josh says :

    I just had a similar experience last week on vacation. We went out for ice cream (normally we make it ourselves or buy a carton from the store). For the two of us it came to a few bucks. As it was our lunch (long story), I was going to buy a double amount but decided not too.

    Similar to Almanzo, I realized I would need to cut an expense somewhere else to cover the additional expense & at the end of the day there is only so much time in a single day to work. The instant gratification wasn’t worth the opportunity cost.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your example, Josh. That’s awesome you’re thinking in terms of opportunity cost! I think that’s hard to get our minds around, especially once our salaries get bigger.

  8. Amanda says :

    Thanks for sharing this story, Kalie! I became more aware of the time-work-money connection several years ago after I read “Your Money or Your Life”. This thinking has encouraged me to spend with more intention and in line with my values/priorities.

  9. Dividendsdownunder says :

    We have definitely lost sight of the value of money. It is something to be frittered away, rather than built and nurtured. People want the latest thing *now* they will not save for it.

    We try to keep in control of everything that we do, we have said to ourselves we’ll never let our spending get too far beyond what we currently spend, except with the added kid expenses.

    I love the message and tone of this article 🙂


    • Kalie says :

      Thanks Tristan. It’s unbelievable what readily available credit has done for our sense of the value of money. I know credit has been used throughout history in various forms, but it’s now used so widely and frivolously. That’s awesome that you’re largely freezing your lifestyle. It’s so important to decide that upfront!

  10. Harmony says :

    Great lesson! I think salaries are part of the problem for modern workers – we get the same paycheck every other week, regardless of the amount of work we do. Granted, there may be raises at some point in the year, but our pay remains pretty constant. I found that side hustling has given me a better appreciation for the value of money. Trading a couple hours of my “free time” to do some freelance writing and only receiving $40 was pretty humbling.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point, Harmony. I think we both lost sight of this for a while when we transitioned from hourly college side jobs, to salaried careers. I’m glad side hustling has brought it back into perspective for you. I can totally see why it would.

  11. FinanceSuperhero says :

    I agree completely with your assessment. It is hard for our culture to value a dollar when it carries such little purchasing power. Many people today won’t even bend over to pick up a dollar in a shopping mall.

    As you suggested, the value of money is intertwined with hard work, and I think that relationship makes learning the value of money very difficult, particularly for young people.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, a single dollar isn’t worth much anymore, which probably makes it hard to appreciate its value. I’m finding it hard to know how much to pay my son for doing special jobs around the house. I don’t want to give him too much in proportion to what he’s done, but you can’t really buy anything for 20 cents anymore, not even gum!

  12. Our Next Life says :

    I love this! It reminds me of Your Money or Your Life, which was life-changing for me. It’s one of those things that seems so obvious in hindsight, but I just hadn’t thought about money equaling life force before. But making that connection really did change everything for me, and made me see money and its value completely differently! I think I’d make a better choice with the half dollar now than I would have before I read YMOYL. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, it is very similar to the principles in that book. It’s a hard connection to make, and I can see why. So glad to hear it was a life-changing realization for you!

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