In the late 1980s, I was invited along with a handful of other young journalists covering personal finance to meet with Sir John Templeton, an investing legend.
Templeton built his fortune by systematically and successfully betting against the pessimistic Wall Street crowd. He also pioneered globally diversified mutual funds when the idea of investing abroad to most Americans seemed too risky. A generous philanthropist, he died in 2008 at age 95.
Templeton shared his investment philosophy and, deeply religious, talked in depth about why he was giving away millions to improve the public's understanding of the big questions — science, religion and human purpose. Templeton responded to each of our questions.
However, what struck us the most is when he exhorted us not to borrow to buy a home. Focus on saving and investing, he advised. Don't borrow. Templeton worried that we were too ready to exchange our career freedom for the grind of debt payments. The trade-off wasn't worth it, he argued.
Naturally, we weren't buying his advice. The notion that young journalists could save and invest enough to own a home without borrowing wasn't realistic. His point of view was from another era.
Templeton went too far when he recommended waiting to buy a home until the purchase is an all-cash transaction. Templeton himself borrowed $10,000 in 1939 when World War II started in Europe to buy 100 shares in 104 companies selling for $1 a share or less (and some three dozen were in bankruptcy). Several years later, he showed large profits on most of the investments. That said, he and his wife did buy their first home with cash.
I wish policymakers had even a fraction of Templeton's thrifty mind-set. Think about the societal failure that lets roughly 40 million college graduates owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.
Worse yet is the tolerance for payday lenders and other financial predators. They push the financially vulnerable into debt traps.
In other words, you are largely on your own when it comes to embracing thrift. For most of us, that doesn't translate into the "don't borrow" message. No, it means borrow sparingly coupled with frugality in spending and savings.
Put it this way: I don't know when the next recession will arrive. I do know its savvy personal finance to focus on shoring up household finances when the economy is growing. I think Sir John Templeton would approve.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace," commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.