Are You an Ant or a Grasshopper?

By Jason White on 20 May 2008 12 comments
Photo: wwarby

This classic fable illustrates the fundamental difference in savers and spenders. Spenders live for the moment, frittering away their earnings on things like technology gadgets, eating out, and bills they've created for nice cars, expensive homes, etc. Savers prefer to get by on less and save their additional money for a rainy day (or a sunny day ). For those who don't remember the details of this little story, here's a version I found via Google:

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant walked by, grunting as he carried a plump kernel of corn.

"Where are you off to with that heavy thing?" asked the Grasshopper.

Without stopping, the Ant replied, "To our ant hill. This is the third kernel I've delivered today."

"Why not come and sing with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of working so hard?"

"I am helping to store food for the winter," said the Ant, "and think you should do the same."
"Why bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper; "we have plenty of food right now."

But the Ant went on its way and continued its work.

The weather soon turned cold. All the food lying in the field was covered with a thick white blanket of snow that even the grasshopper could not dig through. Soon the Grasshopper found itself dying of hunger.

He staggered to the ants' hill and saw them handing out corn from the stores they had collected in the summer.

Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

The Grasshopper

At some point in most of our lives we've lived the life of a grasshopper. When I was young I spent most of my earnings and justified it by telling myself I would start saving "when I got older." Well, before I knew it I was older, and I still didn't have a fully-funded emergency fund in place, and my retirement savings were anemic, at best. I should have been storing my own kernels away while the getting was good.

The Ant

It comes as no surprise that the ants are used to describe the hardest working of the two characters. The work ethic of ants is well documented. Unlike the grasshopper, the ant in this story works through the good times to prepare for the bad times. He knows that when winter comes his source of food disappears and he must survive on what he was able to stow away in the warmer months. The story ends without telling us the fate of the grasshopper, but I suspect the ant would share some of his reserves with the grasshopper, assuming he has learned his lesson.

The Moral of the Story

When we are young, and times are good, it is hard to imagine needing to live off cash reserves or saving for a retirement a few decades away. However, bad things happen when we least expect them and it makes sense to prepare for their inevitable arrival. This idea is at the very core of living a frugal lifestyle, because by living frugal you should be able to maximize resources without spending more money. With the realized savings start stockpiling for the winter season of your life - it will turn cold before you know it.

Which character best represents you? Are you an ant, or a grasshopper?

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Fred Lee's picture

In one of those "I can't believe I'm saying this," moments, I'd just like to say that you are not old. You still have a few more years of being a grasshopper, but then again, it's never too early to be an ant.

Nice allegory for life. I'm always amazed at the selflessness of ants, and believe they will one day take over the earth.

As for grasshoppers, isn't it amazing how many people have no concept of saving money? When I lived in New York, I didn't know a single person who saved money, but boy did they live the good life.

Guest's picture

not to defuse the ant/grasshopper story, but sometimes when, say, you've had cancer twice, it's time to seize the day...

Guest's picture

The ant and the grasshopper showed the two extremes...I think that it's possible to maybe be a little less ant-ish and still be prepared for unexpected events. That way, you can enjoy life a little bit too. The trick is to just not get carried away with the enjoyment.

I sort of think that the and was lucky that the grasshopper stayed friends with him. After all, the ant was so busy working he really didn't really take any time to spend with his friends.

The point of the story is definitely a good one though.

Jason White's picture

@Amy:  You make a great point - one that isn't emphasized in the story.  My grandfather told me once, sensing I was burning out in a new career, to occasionally "stop and smell the roses."  It was great advice, and something I needed to hear to remember that life is about both work AND play.

rstlne's picture

Be both. Save some and enjoy some. Don't do too much of either. Why? Because there are some things that you can really enjoy only when you're young, before you get tied down with family and responsibilities. Travel is one of those things.

Guest's picture

The world is made up of 90% Grasshoppers. Things are great when things are going good, but as soon as things get bad... well, that's when all the grasshoppers want to sponge off their ant neighbors.

As an example, witness the mortgage relief bill working its way through the U.S. senate right now.

Of course, the grasshoppers use the full weight and force of government to enforce their wishes.

Makes you wonder what's so great about being an ant?

Guest's picture

In my version of the story, the grasshopper dies, and the ants eat the grasshopper's carcass.

Then, when the child sees ants crawling over a dead grasshopper, they remember the story.

Guest's picture

One of the previous posters is correct, the world is made up of 90% grasshoppers. It really irks me that I'm going to have to pay for the real estate mistakes of these fools. Anyone who gets government help for this real estate mess, should have to do 8 hours a week of government service for 4-5 months. Maybe then they will learn their lesson.

Guest's picture

Google the "modern day ant and grasshopper story" and read the new version. It went around awhile back as an email chain. It's even more resonant than the traditional version, and hilarious. (Hint: it involves political parody)

Jason White's picture

@Meg:  I think I remember that version floating around my inbox some time ago.  And yes, it was quite funny - depending on your political persuasion.

Guest's picture

I am a frugal, saving, planning, recycling, "why did somebody throw that perfectly good _____ away," ant.

Guest's picture

I am proudly an ant. I read often on MSN money boards, yesterday an idiot, IMHO, stated that we stockpilers/hoarders (groceries/and paper supplies only) are stupid for doing so. Has this man ever heard of Murphy's Law or just plain old hard times?

My family of 4 is facing a very lean summer. Coupons, meal planning, cutting off land line phone, cutting off cable and anything else I can do to help this summer eek by. I say be ready always, just in case. Never know what might happen, don't live in fear, but in preparedness. If you are not ready then it's already too late.

Thanks for the reminder about the Ant and grasshopper. That lazy grasshopper...