Meaning of Idiom ‘A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned’
A penny saved is a penny earned is a way of saying that one should not waste money but should save it, even if little by little. 1Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
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This maxim is so familiar that it is often shortened to just “a penny saved.” 2Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Examples Of Use
“I’m not going to buy a new car just because mine is a little beat up. A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“I’ve tried to get my wife to stop shopping all the time. You know, a penny saved and all that. But, she doesn’t listen!”
This idiom is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, aka Richard Saunders, in Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is probably not true that Franklin coined this phrase although he probably did use it.
The penny represents any money in this proverb but the word earned is confusing, as it does not seem to indicate that one will earn interest on these savings!
A slightly different version of it appeared in George Herbert’s Outlandish Proverbs, in 1633 while the current version of the phrase did not even begin until the 1800s. His version used the word “got” instead of earned:
“A penny spar’d [spared] is a penny twice got.”
The idea here seems to be that when you save a penny instead of spending it, you are ahead one penny instead of down one, meaning you are two steps ahead of where you would have been.
Later, the word got was replaced by “gained” as in a penny saved is a penny gained. The word earned replaced gained at some point by the 1800s although the “got” version continued to be used as well, as in Dicken’s Bleak House (1853): “I saved five pounds out of the brickmaker’s affair…It’s a very good thing to save one, let me tell you: a penny saved, is a penny got!” 3Speake, Jennifer. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Here we can see the sense behind the idiom: When you save money it is there for when you need it, making it the same as money newly earned or “gained.” The same benefit exists, thus, a penny saved is the same as a penny earned.
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