A penny saved typically refers to the full quote “a penny saved is a penny earned.” This old adage is a little challenging to understand, since people can’t earn the same penny twice. It does relate to the idea of the difficulty in being thrifty and saving money. Spending a penny, or any other amount, means the person no longer has it in his possession, while saving it means he can still count it as something earned and something held.
Another way of interpreting this maxim is to say that saving is work too. Saving is another form of earning, because it may take effort not spend the penny. In a sense, the person who saves does work twice for the penny, once to initially earn it, and then again to keep from spending it. Alternately, a penny in a savings account may earn money, granted at a very slow rate. This meaning may not have been intended with initial use of the phrase.
Most attribute the penny quote to Benjamin Franklin, and a version of it does appear in the 1737 version of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but the exact quote is not Franklin’s. Instead he says that the penny that is saved is “twopence clear.” Versions of this saying occur almost 100 years prior to Franklin’s publication though he may have popularized the sentiment.
George Herbert, a British cleric, used it in his 1640 book Proverbs, and it was used by another British minister in 1661. In 1695 an additional version of the proverb occurs in Edward Ravenscroft’s play The Canterbury Guests. It is clear that Franklin did not invent the saying, and was merely one of a long line of people who used it. Moreover, each saying is slightly different. Herbert calls the penny saved twice got, Fuller calls it a penny gained, and Ravenscroft calls it a penny got.
The modern saying, where the saved penny becomes an earned penny may not have evolved until the early 20th century. P.G. Wodehouse uses the most familiar form of the adage in his book Inimitable Jeeves. The idea of earning the penny wasn’t necessarily implied in the original phrasing. Most come closer to saying that if a person saves a penny, they still have it, or a “a penny saved, is a penny got” to quote Charles Dickens' early 19th century novel Bleak House.
Given the devaluation of pennies in modern times, may have added a new variation to the old saving. Instead of the penny being earned, “a penny saved is a penny spurned.” It is true people don’t need to look far to find pennies littered on the ground, since single coins of this value possess little purchasing power. On the other hand, collect them all and place them through a coin machine and they may truly represent savings. Many people keep change and penny cans at home to deposit all loose change, and after a while these saved pennies and other currency can add up.