I’ve been reading and re-reading this wonderful Charles Portis novel since I was a teenager. Mattie Ross is a hell of a protagonist. She’s strong, determined, relentless and, above all, frugal.
Here are 10 things you could learn from her story, courtesy of Mr. Portis and the Coen brothers. And without a single song by Glen Campbell!
1. Negotiate. Mattie convinces Stonehill the stock trader to buy back the four ponies he’d sold to her now-dead father for $25 apiece. (Whether it’s the price of a car or a shirt, you might be able to strike a deal. Doesn’t hurt to ask.)
2. Stand up for your rights. Since her father’s horse was stolen from the stock barn, Mattie asks Stonehill to accept responsibility. He refuses, she persists. (If you think you’re being hosed, say so.)
3. Only amateurs pay retail. Remember those $25 ponies? Needing transit, Mattie buys one back – but pays only $10. (Before you buy anything, check online price comparison sites to get the best deal you can.)
4. Travel lightly. Mattie lights out for the territory with just the clothes on her back, some blankets, a slicker and a few apples. (Next time you’re flying, go carry-on and save $50 to $70 round-trip.)
5. Enough is as good as a feast. In the book, Mattie buys “a cheap yet nourishing lunch” at the general store: an apple and some cheese and crackers. (Whether you’re saving for short- or long-term goals, your monthly food costs have the most wiggle room.)
6. Lodging doesn’t have to cost a lot. On her first night in Fort Smith Mattie bunks down in the funeral home with three corpses. (That’s not in the book, incidentally.) Later she avails herself of the Monarch boardinghouse’s cheapest rate: 75 cents for two meals and a shared bed. (Recently I traveled to the SaveUp 2010 conference in Chicago and stayed four extra nights at a hostel. Although I like a nice hotel or B&B as much as anyone, my personal feeling is that the cheaper I sleep, the longer I can stay. Incidentally: You share rooms, not beds, in hostels.)
7. Go with the flow. Mattie and the marshal improvise their way through the Choctaw Nation, seeking info from whoever they encounter: a couple of low-lifes, a mysterious Native guy who trades in dead bodies, a fur-clad dude with a bear’s head for a hat. (No matter how odd or scary your life gets, remember that you can learn from just about any situation.)
8. Don’t forget treats. Mattie not only provides basic care for her pony, she gives him apples; in the book, she also gives him corn dodgers. (In among all your financially responsible behavior, allow yourself a cupcake now and then.)
9. Take care of what’s yours. In a crucial moment, Mattie’s gun misfires. (A few minutes of preventive maintenance – cleaning the rain gutters, testing the smoke alarm batteries – can pay off big-time. It might even save your life.)
10. Don’t let your heart overrule your head. In the book, Mattie had a chance to get a smaller, more sensible firearm. She wanted to keep her father’s gun, however, and it nearly costs her life. (Look critically at your finances for sentimental traps. Maybe you’re determined to go to the same college your dad and grandfather attended, even though you’d have to take out massive student loans. Or you keep the family home long after your kids are gone, even though it’s expensive and hard for you to maintain. Think about what you should do, not what you want to do.)
And for extra credit: If a fur-clad guy wearing a bear’s head for a hat asks if you need medical care, the correct answer is “No.” Even if he accepts your insurance plan.