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The meaning and origin of the expression: A penny saved is a penny earned

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A penny saved is a penny earned

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A penny saved is a penny earned'?

The notion expressed in the proverbial saying 'A penny saved is a penny earned' is that it is as useful to save money that you already have as it is to earn more.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A penny saved is a penny earned'?

The original form of this proverb used 'got' or 'gained' instead of 'earned'. That is recorded as early as the 17th century, in George Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs, circa 1633:

A penny spar'd is twice got.

British penny coinThe notion appears to have been that, by declining to spend a penny and to save one's money instead, you are a penny up rather than a penny down, hence 'twice got'. Similarly, football teams, who get three points for a win, class games against their nearest rivals in the league table a 'six-pointer'. That's not great arithmetic, but it does make a good proverb.

The current format of the phrase began, with the 'gained' usage, soon afterwards; for example, this piece from Thomas Fuller's, The history of the worthies of England, circa 1661:

By the same proportion that a penny saved is a penny gained, the preserver of books is a Mate for the Compiler of them.

Not much later again and we find a 'got' usage, as in Edward Ravenscroft's Canterbury Guests, 1695:

This I did to prevent expences, for... A penny sav'd, is a penny got.

A penny saved is a penny earnedThe first usage of the current form of the phrase is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin. That attribution may be because of Franklin's image on the 'heads' side of a cent token which was issued in the USA around 1863. The proverb 'A penny saved is a penny earned' is shown on the 'tails' side of the token and this is the earliest I know of the expression being used in that form - which is probably the most literal coining of a phrase that I've yet come across.

Whoever minted the token may have known of an existing association between the phrase and Franklin or, more probably, changed the wording from 'got' to 'earned'.

Whether or not Franklin was the first to use the 'earned' variant of the phrase we don't now know - there's no known record of his doing so. It seems more likely that Franklin used the expression, which had existed in England since the 17th century in its 'got/twice got/gained' variants, and people mistakenly assumed that he had invented it.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

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