Archive: What a 14 Year-Old Homeowner Can Teach Us About Thrift

When Florida students head back to the classroom this month, 14 year-old Willow Tufano of North Port will not be among them.  Willow, you see, has more important things to do – like collecting rent from the tenants that live in the house she bought recently with earnings from her small business.

If you need to re-read that last sentence, go ahead.  Because it isn’t everyday that a 14 year-old buys a house.  And Willow’s remarkable story not only should give hope to everyone worried about the future of the American dream, but it also should help us rediscover a time-honored American ideal that can help get our nation out of its current economic mess.

One Man’s Trash

Two years ago, Willow’s mother was helping process a foreclosure along Florida’s gulf coast.  When Willow learned that the man in charge of the property planned to dispose of the household belongings left behind, Willow asked if she could have them instead.  He agreed.  And soon Willow began posting notices on Craig’s List, selling these and other used items she found at yard sales and by “dumpster diving.”

Willow quickly learned the used-goods market.  “Baby items, bunk beds, video games, and electronics sell well,” she says.  “Appliances – like dishwashers and old TVs – don’t.”

Willow carefully saved her earnings, amassing a total of $6,000 over an 18-month period.  Then, one day, she overheard her mother talking about a home once valued at $100,000 that was now on the “short sale” market for $16,000.  Willow announced that she’d like to buy the home.  And buy it she did – for $12,000 (half with her savings, half with funds borrowed from her mother).

Once Willow pays back her mom – using the $700 in rent she collects every month from tenants nearly twice her age – Willow hopes to buy another house.  “I calculated that I can make more doing this than I can in a typical teenage job,” she says, innocently.

Now, in case you’re wondering, Willow is not being deprived of a formal education.  She’s taking a full slate of advanced courses through the Florida Virtual School (FLVS).  And she plans to go to college someday.  Willow says taking classes online gives her the scheduling flexibility she needs to run her business.  “On trash days, being able to go out and get the good stuff that people leave on the street is really important,” Willow notes.  “If it weren’t for FLVS, I’d never be able to do this.”

That Willow has educational options beyond the conventional classroom is a testament to the enduring influence of economist Milton Friedman, America’s original school choice champion, whose centennial birth was commemorated at more than 100 events all over the world last month.  Indeed, Willow’s propensity to see business opportunities where others see none is just what one might expect from a student who’s been conditioned to see schooling options beyond the conventional.

But Willow’s story is about more than just the benefits of educational freedom.  It’s also about the benefits of economic freedom – and the rediscovery of a time-honored idea that Benjamin Franklin once championed.

Franklin’s Thrift

“If Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Madison crafted the Constitution, then Benjamin Franklin, it might truly be said, invented the American Dream,” writes social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

In his prolific writings, Franklin encouraged Americans to be industrious and frugal – to practice thrift (which, interestingly, comes from the same root as “thriving.”)  And Franklin did this not just to facilitate upward mobility, but also because he knew that economic dependency and chronic debt hinders one’s liberty.

Sadly, America’s “thrift ethic” has declined in recent years.  Whitehead reports that the term “thrift” is rarely associated with industriousness anymore.   And frugality (which comes from the same root as “fruitfulness”) remains a foreign word to many in our day, especially government officials in Washington.

Thankfully, the John Templeton Foundation is seeking to reverse these trends.  In recent years, Templeton-funded projects in Pennsylvania and Florida have successfully revived “Thrift Week” celebrations tied to Benjamin Franklin’s Jan. 17 birthday.  As part of this effort, a supplemental thrift curriculum, All About the Benjamins, reached more than 135,000 Florida students earlier this year.

Had Willow Tufano been in the classroom – instead of out buying her first home – she might have encountered this curriculum.  But judging from this spunky teenager’s remarkable story, I think it’s safe to say Willow already knows something about the value of hard work and saving for the future.

The rest of us should follow this little entrepreneur’s example.


William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and the project manager for All About the Benjamins. A version of this article appeared in USA TODAY.