May 16, 1903
Saturday Evening Post
The Fatal Plunge
The vehement controversy has been going on lately between some of our contemporaries as to the relative cost of living in different American cities. The newly-married couple with a small income are the objects of this anxious solicitude. Details of information are lavishly poured out upon them. They are assured they can rent a whole house in Philadelphia for the cost of a tiny flat in New York; but on the other hand, New York will give them ready-made clothes for a song; Chicago will sell them meat at a reduction of three cents a pound; in Baltimore shell-fish are almost as cheap as air, while in Boston, food, rents, gas, and fuel mount to an impossible height—only books are free.
Tens of thousands of young married folk—or young folk who want to marry and dare not make the fatal plunge—are no doubt studying these price lists with bated breath to-day. But after all, it is not the price of flats, or butter, or coal that will determine their future expenses, but a fact much more subtle and important: the Public Opinion, the unwritten law of the community in which they elect to make their home. That is a bodiless ruler which controls all of us, whether we know it or not. It regulates our outlay, our behavior, and, sooner or later, our lives.
In one city money is gauge by which each man is rated. Has he millions, a comfortable salary or nothing? Then is he noble, respectable, or of no more account than the brutes. No matter what the income of our young couple may be they will always be wretched there, because it is not bigger.
In another town, if they claim some old soldier at Valley Forge as a grandfather, they may live over a baker’s shop and give dinners of mutton hash; they still will rank among the ruling class.
The challenge at the gates of still another American town is—“What have you done?” If our beginners can write a book, or paint a picture or start a new religion, or a new doubt of the old religion, they will have friends and applause enough to warm and feed them.
Every American village and every clique in a village has its unpublished law as to the quality which constitutes the “better class” and the scale of outlay proper for that class, and it is this which should decide our beginners in the choice of a home rather than the current price of mutton or potatoes.
It is a curious fact that most young married couples try to push their way into a neighborhood of richer and more pretentious people than themselves. Tom is a scholarly fellow and Jessie has a good ear and a fine touch in her music. Why should they choose to live among people who value their songs or clever talk no higher than the tricks of animals, but who value them by the cost of their clothes or their dinners? Why not find friends at the outset among their own kind? Why should Tom struggle to visit and keep pace with millionaires and so bring on himself the ridicule of his neighbors now, and paresis in his old age? He probably never can buy a yacht for his son or a poor earl for his daughter. Then let him keep out of sight of yachts and earls and so command comfort and peace in his life at the outset.
Some of our modern preachers urge us to consort with millionaires while we life a simple life. St. Francis,  they tell us, trampled his rich clothes under foot in the face of the nobles, and Epictetus,  in the midst of the glories of the court, rejoiced loudly that his soul was above these things.
If there be a St. Francis or an Epictetus among us let him carry his message to Newport or to Fifth Avenue.
But for the rank and file of us it will be wiser to live in the shade and keep out of temptation.
1. Partial paralysis.↩
2. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), Catholic friar who is best known for his humility and patronage of animals.↩
3. Epictetus (c.50-135), Stoic philosopher who advocated philosophy as a way of life rather than theory.↩
4. Newport, Rhode Island, and Fifth Avenue in New York City were among the wealthiest addresses in the country.