How the Pilgrims Did Personal Finance

By Tim Lemke on 4 November 2016 0 comments

It's the time of year when we celebrate the Pilgrims crossing over to the New World and settling the land we now call America. The stories of the Pilgrims' courage in traveling on the Mayflower and surviving those early years are legendary. But they did not survive and eventually thrive without some financial savvy.

Are there money lessons to be learned from the Pilgrims, even though they had little money to begin with? Yes. Here's a look at what we know about the Pilgrims and their financial habits.

1. They Were Deeply in Debt for Many Years

The Pilgrims' journey to the New World was financed by people who might have sympathized with their desire for religious freedom, but these businessmen believed the colony would actually generate a big financial return. In reality, the Pilgrims asked their investors repeatedly for more money just to survive. An initial debt of as little as 1,200 British pounds grew to as much as 7,000 pounds, and the Pilgrims weren't out of debt for almost 30 years, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum. That would be hundreds of thousands of pounds today.

2. They Had Little Currency, So They Used Beads

When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, they didn't have much in the way of real money — and it's not like they had any ATMs to go to. So, they instead relied on something called wampum, or strings of beads made of shells. According to The Mayflower and the Pilgrims New World, wampum was a remarkable innovative currency, with purple beads worth twice as much as white beads, and rules governing the quality, shape, and size. It quickly became the defacto currency for trading with the Native Americans.

3. They Were Thrifty

No question, the Pilgrims were forced to make do with the bare necessities. They grew and hunted their own food. They made wood slab homes from wood they chopped themselves. In fact, they were probably even more thrifty than popular images suggest. Those buckles you often see depicted on Pilgrims' shoes and hats? Those were unlikely to have been there, as Pilgrims more likely used simple leather and laces. The myth of the buckles arose from artists during the Victorian era.

4. They Were Communists — Then They Were Capitalists

When the Pilgrims first arrived, they experimented with something called "Common Course," in which all of the settlers owned property together. But it didn't last: "Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued."

By 1623, the Pilgrims divided the land equally, and an early form of capitalism began.

Conservative organizations and politicians have hailed the Pilgrims as an example of America rejecting communism for capitalism, even back then. Things are probably a little more complicated than that, but there's ample evidence that the colony began to thrive over time when each settler had land of his or her own.

5. They "Pivoted"

These days, you often hear about young startup companies shifting their focus or even their entire business concept due to market conditions. This is called a "pivot." And the Pilgrims were pretty good at pivoting. Early on, they tried to make money off the fur trade. But by 1650, the beavers they relied on became scarce, and they faced competition that made it hard to expand their operation. So, they switched to fish and lumber, and those became main revenue sources.

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