Chinese Proverbs About Money and Personal Finance

A commenter on Wise Bread wrote a Chinese proverb about marketing that reminded me that there are many Chinese proverbs about money and personal finance. Here are a few of the ones I hear quite often.

An inch of time is worth an inch of gold, but it is hard to buy one inch of time with one inch of gold - I was taught this proverb at a young age. It can be interpreted as "time is more precious than money" and in many ways I find that to be true. I trade my time for money at work, but I cannot buy the time I spend at work back. It is sometimes used as a lament by older people who are well off financially when they mean that they can never buy back their youth.

Money could make demons turn grind stones
- This proverb has two sides in its meaning. In one sense it means that if you have money you have the power to hire anyone you want to do your bidding. In the more negative usage, it is said when people commit crimes for money. For example, whenever there is some corrupt official being executed in China for embezzling, people would say this phrase to mean that money can lead people to do bad things.

Giving your child a skill is better than giving him one thousand pieces of gold - This is is akin to the proverb "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." However, the difference is that the Chinese version is more concerned about inheritances. I agree that teaching a child a marketable skill that he or she can use to generate income is much better than giving a child a set amount of money to spend.

If you save the green mountain, you will not worry about having no firewood to burn - On its surface this could be a statement about conservation and environmentalism, but it also means that as long as you are alive and producing something in the world, you do not have to worry about not being able to survive. I often hear this proverb in TV shows where heroes failed spectacularly in life and lost everything, but they still have their life and skills left so they can rebuild.

There are many more Chinese proverbs about money and life, but I will stop here for today. What are some of the proverbs you grew up with? How do they apply to your life today?

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Guest's picture
Peter Jeziorek

Thank you! What are the Chinese equivalents? I know 2. 有钱鬼推磨.

Guest's picture

I love all of those proverbs. So poetic yet so pithy! Here are a few of the sayings that got me thinking whenever my dad cryptically tossed them about:

1. "It's better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in the big ocean."

2. "Blood is thicker than water."

3. "Friends come and go, but family is forever."

4. "Work when you work, play when you play."

5. "If you laugh and cry at the same time, you'll grow hair on your butt." (Don't ask. I have no clue!)

I also still don't get "The sheep's hair grows on the sheep's back." I did a quick search on the internet and didn't find anything to shed further light on it. I'll have to ask around. Thanks for the cool post!

Guest's picture

This is similar to "There's no such thing as a free lunch" and "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is". Basically, if someone's offering you a good deal, it often means that they're going to get something out of it, too.

Guest's picture
Jimmy Lim

An inch of time is worth an inch of gold; but it is hard to buy one inch of time with one inch of gold

I still remember I first taught of this saying during my primary school days.

The teacher of course use it to motivate us to study hard but I can't recall how this proverbs meaning relates to study.

But this post further reminds me the importance of achieving financial freedom as early as possible.

If one fulfills his financial obligations in life, he can free up his time to do whatever he likes.

Guest's picture

Cool idea for a blog post. One of my favorite Chinese proverbs relating to finance is "Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.".

I take it to mean it's better to take responsibility for your actions and situation if you are not happy with the current status (debt) rather than pity yourself and simply complain. Thanks for the motivation!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Here are the proverbs in traditional Chinese 

1) 一寸光陰一寸金,寸金難買寸光陰.

2) 有錢能使鬼推磨

3) 賜子千金,不如賜子一技

4) 留得青山在﹐不怕無柒燒


Fred Lee's picture

Nice to hear the ancient wisdoms applied to modern life. It's no wonder that China is becoming such an economic superpower.

Guest's picture

A few favorites

"Friendship improves happiness and abates misery by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief." - Marcus Cicero

"Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy though he be master of the world." - Epicurus

"He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves." - Chinese proverb

I love them all and reading wise words is a great way to keep mentally fit.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks so much for sharing these!  I love nifty sayings that actually mean something to me!  :)

Guest's picture

I haven't heard much about the second meaning you mention here. It's interesting, but I do believe 99% of the time, the first meaning is the intended one.

In fact, in recent years, I've heard a growing number of people taking this a step further and changing the phrase to "Money could make grind stones turn demons (有钱能使磨推鬼)," meaning that money REALLY talks.

Guest's picture
Outsourced and struggling

The Chinese sure have nice thoughts about money. In China the average salary for a worker is 25 cents an hour.They work 12 to 14 hour days, 6 days a week!!!!
Thank you China for putting 45 thousand USA factories with good paying jobs out of business. Thank you China for paying slave wages so we Americans can't compete anymore. Thank you China for such wonderful proverbs about money. I will study them as I continue my search for a low paying job because my 20 dollar an hour factory job was sent to China.

Guest's picture

This is an example of trickle-down economics on a global scale. For generations, Americans wanted bigger, nicer things. Therefore, businessmen took the risks and created those things, and created jobs in the process.

Then, Americans wanted more and more things at cheaper prices so super stores were created.

Then, Americans wanted cheaper things that only looked expensive so the Kmarts and Walmarts were invented.

During the industrial revolution, Americans unionized and demanded fewer hours, and cleaner/safer working conditions.

Over the decades they have increased their demands to include more pay, overtime pay, and full benefits.

The environmentalists (who are not coincidentally also anti-capitalists) demanded reductions in pollution emissions, including "air scrubbers" on smokestacks, and outlawing chemicals such as Freon which provide comfort to office and factory workers all over the USA.

So, for every $20 you earn, your employer has to pay half your SS tax burden (7.65%) and your health care, sick days vacation pay, etc. so your hourly cost is actually more like $35/hr. Add to this OSHA and EPA costs, insurance overhead etc. and you are pretty darned expensive!

So China steps up to the plate and says, "gee, we have a gazillion peasant people living in grass huts without plumbing of any kind. Maybe their children would like the opportunity to a) earn some money, b) go to school, c)have a place with concrete walls in which to live, d) learn a trade or skill for free, e) learn to speak English, the language of business, f) have a shower and toilet, and g) have their meals and health care provided for. We can do these things for them. And the Americans will benefit from buying cheap goods, too! It's a win-win."

Now, China's cost of living is not as high as the USA's and with all the benefits provided to their workers, it's hardly "slave labor" (I seem to recall that slaves do not get paid). China's factories are also not burdened by the costs of OSHA, EPA, and air scrubbers. Of course their air quality proves that point.

However, they are in the midst of their own Industrial Revolution, and their peasant people are experiencing opportunities and wealth unseen in China in 6000 years. Do you really wish to deny opportunity to people who live in grass huts and farm with oxen and handmade plows so that you can have Premium Cable?

Guest's picture

Pls share the rest of your classical Chinese proverbs. The ancient Chinese were so wise - the more things change, the more things remain the same.

Recently I have been thinking about the saying that the character for danger also means opportunity. (I may have mangled that a bit - but the idea still is there.)

Guest's picture


In literal translation: Even when dust piles up, it become a mountain.

Actual meaning: Even if you are putting small change aside to save, if you do it consistently it would eventually turn into a large amount of money :-)

Very true.

Guest's picture

I really enjoyed reading ur proverbs.

Guest's picture


Guest's picture

These are some very interesting proverbs! I just found your site when was searching about finances. I mentioned you my post this week.