Penny wise, pound foolish?

中国日报网 2013-06-18 11:13



Penny wise, pound foolish?Reader question:

What does this headline mean?

Closing library penny wise, pound foolish.

My comments:

The government, in an effort to reduce public spending, decides to close a public library, among other initiatives.

Our headline says this is a stupid decision, because the library, relatively speaking, costs little to run.

Closing it won’t save much and therefore it won’t be worth the effort. If they really want to reduce spending, they can for instance ask all cadres to take the bus instead of riding a limousine – that will save the government, and the public, a ton of money.

To fully understand the headline, though, one needs only take a good grasp of “penny wise, pound foolish”.

Penny is the smallest coin in the British currency. It is worth one hundredth of a pound. Penny, hence, represents a small amount of money. Pound, on the other hand, represents a large sum.

Penny wise, pound foolish? It literally means sometimes people are clever in trivial money matters but are unwise when it comes to larger sums.

They save pennies but spend pounds unwisely. In short, one who’s penny wise and pound foolish is not very smart with their money.

Let’s take real examples.

Have you ever been accused of being penny wise, pound foolish?

If you haven’t, good for you. I believe we all are capable of making foolish mistakes of one sort or another in this regard.

For instance, old people tend to drive a hard bargain in the grocery store, quibbling over pennies or cents (an American equivalent) or fen in the Chinese situation.

The Chinese elderly, who are relatively rich due to life-long habits of frugal living, generally speaking hate to eat in a restaurant. “Too expensive!” is their reaction to every item on the menu.

However, some of these elderly are known to willingly spend small fortunes of sums on medicine. Dietary supplements, health tonics and things like that, things that are, if you ask most of the young people, are “too expensive” to digest.

Young people, on the other hand, are prone to foolishness in their own way. It’s not unusual, for example, for us to hear of someone who eats instant noodles on almost a daily basis but doesn’t blink an eye when it comes to buying brand clothes.

Others who eat instant noodles on almost a daily basis are known to be saving money in order to buy a bigger car, or house.

The question is how can you save from fast noodles enough to buy a fast car?

The bigger question is: If you are prepared to survive on fast noodles, what do you need a fast car for?

The bigger question is seldom, if ever, asked of course, which is the essential problem with people who are penny wise and pound foolish.

They quibble so much over small matters that they lose sight of the big picture.

Anyways, penny wise and pound foolish is an age-old idiom and, as any age old tenets are, there is some truth in it.

Alright, here are media examples:

1. Penny wise and pound foolish sounds like a funny saying, but it’s actually a pretty important concept when it comes to living a frugal life.

For those of you who don’t know what the phrase means, it more or less means you sweat the small costs so much that you either end up incurring a larger expense down the road or miss an opportunity make a ton of money.

Or, to use another idiom, it’s not being able to see the forest for the trees.

If this still doesn’t make sense, here are some real world examples. Let me know if you’re guilty of any of these:

Buying the cheapest product at the expense of quality. For example, your refrigerator breaks, so you run out to the store and replace it with the cheapest model at $500 for the sake of minimizing the expense.

Seems to make sense right? Not necessarily.

If you would have just done a little bit of research you would have found that the cheapest model lasts only five years on average, and that the $650 model – just slightly more expensive – last for eight years on average, and is more energy efficient.

So, instead of saving $150 up front, you actually end up losing at least $350 after five years when you end up replacing the cheaper fridge instead of having another three years with the slightly more expensive model....

Eat from the dollar menu at fast food restaurants because it’s slightly cheaper than a healthier home cooked meal. If you’ve made your three daily meals consist of nothing but fast food dollar menu items as a means of saving money, you’re likely setting yourself up for a lot of health related expenses down the road.

Eating nothing but junk is a great way to increase your chances of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and various cancers, none of which are particularly inexpensive to treat.

Plus, if you actually plan out your meals around sales at the grocery store, you can make much healthier home-cooked meals for very little money. For example, you can have a bowl of whole-grain spaghetti in marinara sauce with a side-salad for probably less than $4. Sounds a lot better, healthier, and cost effective than a quarter-pounder, fries, and a soda.

- Are You Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?, August 11, 2011.

2. On March 5th, I joined my colleagues on the steps of City Hall to launch the Campaign for Children to protest the mayor’s massive budget cuts to early childhood and after-school programs. I understand that the mayor and the city will have to make difficult choices during the coming budget cycle, but decimating these critical programs for children is the wrong choice.

As the mayor has said, “Teaching doesn’t stop when the last school bell rings.” He created the city’s Out-of-School Time initiative, a nationally recognized effort to bring high-quality after-school and summer programs to kids, declaring that what happens after school is as important as what happens during the school day. From his efforts to remake the schools to his Young Men’s Initiative to reverse poor outcomes for young people of color, the mayor has consistently demonstrated his commitment to New York City’s children.

That is why the mayor’s proposed cuts to early childhood education and after-school programs are so jarring. We all understand how important it is to keep kids engaged and on track beginning at a very early age. Children who are consistently involved in stimulating, educational activities grow up to be smart, safe and productive members of society. They are more likely to go to college, get jobs, support their families and less likely to end up on the streets, involved in gangs or in prison.

The combined effects of the mayor’s proposed budget and structural changes to both the early childhood and after-school systems will eliminate programs for more than 47,000 children. This is the latest in a series of reductions. Come September, a total of 90,000 kids will have lost their early childhood or after-school programs since 2009 -- a 2/3 reduction. I am not aware of any other program that has been forced to absorb cuts at that scale…

Even in difficult financial times, we shouldn’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Safe, reliable and affordable early childhood and after-school programs are critical to our current and future economy. Every $1 spent on high-quality early childhood programs for a disadvantaged child creates up to $9 in future benefits -- in new taxes collected and more productive workers, and fewer dollars spent on publicly subsidized health care, prisons and the like. A study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids New York found the majority of juvenile crime occurs between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. After-school programs not only help children succeed in school, but they also keep them off of the streets.

- Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: NYC’s Budget Cuts to Leave Lasting Wounds, by Richard Buery,, March 26, 2012.

3. Would it make sense to ask a doctor to examine a patient, but take away their stethoscope? That is what the Canadian government is asking scientists to do when it comes to ‘examining’ the ozone layer.

Many assume that the ozone problem was fixed in the 1980s. In reality, the annual Antarctic ozone hole keeps reappearing at near record sizes and last year, for the first time, scientists reported an ozone hole over the Arctic.

As the first ozone hole appeared in the northern hemisphere last year, Environment Canada decided to drastically reduce its ozone science and monitoring program. It closed several of Canada’s 17 ozone monitoring stations, stations which have provided the longest-running record of ozone levels in the world. They are about one-third of the Arctic ozone measurements.

In this penny wise and pound-foolish cost-saving measure, Environment Canada argues that satellite imagery and data collection are sufficient. History says otherwise.

In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey discovered the Antarctic ozone hole through routine ground level ozone monitoring, conducted to measure the density of the ozone layer. NASA’s atmospheric scientists say satellite imagery had missed the near total depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica.

Satellite imagery and data collection did not — and cannot — give a complete picture of the stratospheric ozone layer because of the angle of the sun’s light over the Arctic and Antarctic. Ground level ozone monitoring is essential to cross-reference the satellite data and provide a full understanding of it. In-situ measurements are essential for validating satellite measurements, asserts Johannes Staehelin, chair of the World Meteorological Organization’s ozone science advisory group.

- Penny wise and pound-foolish: reducing ozone science when we need it most,, August 28, 2012.

Related stories:

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Head start?

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Hot seat?

Off color?

Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



















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