When Lisa reviewed Live Alone and Like It last week I was stirred to action. After years of having it on my TBR list, now was finally the right time to read it. Not so, thought my library. They have helpfully misplaced their one and only copy so, being an adaptable sort, I modified my ambitions and turned to Marjorie Hillis’ other helpful guide, Bubbly on Your Budget (originally Orchids on Your Budget).
Published in 1937, a year after her successful guidebook for women living on their own, Bubbly on Your Budget is full of advice on how to live nicely on limited means. The general assumption is that the reader is a working woman, perhaps married, perhaps single, who is keen to live within her means but to still enjoy life’s little comforts – a pleasant home, attractive clothes, an active social life, and, if she is very reckless with her money, perhaps even a husband. Hillis’s advice is sensible and actionable – both then and now – and, more importantly, she is not afraid of blunt statements. Since I love bluntness, this book was utterly delightful to me.
Examples of such inspired frankness include Hillis addressing all those women who mope around offices, dreaming of domestic bliss:
There are also the women who go to offices in a martyr-like frame of mind, cherishing the belief that they would be knockouts in the role of devoted wives and loving mothers. Perhaps they would, and then again, perhaps they wouldn’t. If you’re martyr-like in one role, you’re pretty apt to be martyr-like in another.
And the consideration of what factors must be considered when a couple is trying to decide if they can afford to get by on just one salary:
Can we, or can we not, afford to marry – on the man’s salary or the man’s plus the woman’s? – This is a subject of chronic debate as violent as the seething over the Supreme Court issue, and half the debaters get the wrong answer. They do their computing on a purely dollar-and-cent basis and don’t stop to figure out what they want out of marriage anyway and whether it’s all in the budget. If your picture of being a wife is pretty luxurious, that’s an item you’d better put down right after Rent and Food, and then see whether you can cut down somewhere else. If the man’s idea of romance is built round a chic figure with glamorous clothes and lily white hands, you’d better be pretty sure that one of you can pay for them.
The hallmark of a good advice book is that it does not date. While some of the essential wardrobe items Hillis mentions may no longer be necessary (chic hats and decorative carnations sadly having little place in a 21st Century closet), the bulk of her recommendations can be just as easily applied today as eighty years ago. Hillis is particularly useful when it comes to how to approach marriage on a budget. Husbands, she warns her readers, cannot be relied upon to produce funds. In fact, the most charming and delightful men might need to be supported themselves:
It is a regrettable, but undeniable, fact that the most delightful people are seldom big money-makers. A few may have inherited large incomes, but they generally lose them or spend them. Getting rich is apt to be a twenty-four –hour-a-day job and not always worth the trouble. It leaves little time for the arts and graces, without a few of which most people are pretty trying. This has always been admitted in high-minded moments (like church and first meetings with mothers-in-law).
And will he mind you supporting him or at least working side-by-side? Not at all (if he is a practical man):
He may be full of chivalrous notions about pouring riches into your lap, during the honeymoon, but he knows too that they are part of a fairy-story out of the past. Men have always expected women to work for them, and modern ones have next to no trouble in transposing the workroom from home to office. The trouble comes when you outdo them in success, especially in their own field; but if you’re smart enough for that, you’ll probably know how to meet the problem.
That’s a useful reminder to women from any decade!
Hillis illustrates her points with case studies at the end of each chapter, giving examples of how well Miss or Mrs So-And-So has adapted to a life of thrift (or, in cautionary tales, has not). These can be fun but they are a bit too neat – you don’t actually believe any of them are real people. In the body of the text, Hillis is much more aware of the conflicts women feel between what they want, what they can afford, and what they actually end up doing.
All in all, a charming, funny, and deeply sensible book.