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What a 14-year-old homeowner can teach us about thrift

William Mattox Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:33 PM

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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 who 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 every day 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.

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, she asked if she could have them instead. He agreed. Soon Willow began posting notices on Craigslist, selling these and other 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 saved her earnings, amassing $6,000 over 18 months. Then, one day, she overheard her mother talking about a home once valued at $100,000 that was on the "short sale" market for $16,000. Willow said 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 — she hopes to buy another house.

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, and she plans to go to college some day. She says taking classes online gives her the flexibility she needs to run her business.

But Willow's story is about more than 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 encouraged Americans to be industrious and frugal. And Franklin did this not just to facilitate upward mobility, but because he knew that economic dependency and chronic debt hinders one's liberty.

Sadly, America's "thrift ethic" has declined in recent years. Thankfully, the John Templeton Foundation is seeking to reverse this. 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, 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 entrepreneur's example.

William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute, the project manager for All About the Benjamins, and a columnist for Florida Voices.

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