Even Presidents Go Broke – 6 Interesting Stories of Presidential Financial Distress

even presidents go brokeI had grand plans of getting this post up yesterday for President’s Day but that just didn’t happen so, here it is today for President’s Day Week!;) I hope you enjoy this post that was written by my husband Aaron. – Anna

1. George Washington

The original Founding Father and the nation’s first President had his own share of debt problems. At one time, he was among the richest men in America, but soon found himself shackled with debt when his tobacco crop sales started to fail. Adopting a more frugal lifestyle, Washington was able to overcome his debt and creditors by looking for new and creative ways to expand his income. He diversified his crops, experimented with new farming techniques, and decided to sell his produce locally. His approach is not unlike what we still do today to take control of our finances.

2. Thomas Jefferson

In grade school we learned that Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd president of the United States and creator  the Declaration of Independence. What typically isn’t taught is that throughout most of his adult life, Jefferson was deep in debt. Jefferson perpetually lived beyond his means, spending large amounts of money on furniture, building projects, and wine. Lots of wine. During his 8 years as president, Jefferson ran up a personal wine bill of over $10,000. Adjusted for today’s inflation, that translates to roughly $146,000!

At the time of his death, Jefferson’s debt added up to $107,000. In todays terms that would be somewhere between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000!

3. Abraham Lincoln

Abe Lincoln had many occupations throughout his life: rail-splitter, flatboatman, lawyer, and, of course, president. While he might have been great at winning debates, wearing stovepipe hats and killing vampires, Old Abe wasn’t much of a shopkeeper. In 1832, Lincoln purchased a general store in New Salem, Illinois. Sales were dismal and as debts mounted, Lincoln sold his shares. When Lincoln’s partner died, the future President became liable for the $1,000 owed in back payments. Honest Abe continued paying of the debts well into the 1840’s and the debt wasn’t officially waived until he become a Congressman. Nowadays, most people won’t even bend down for the coin that bares Lincoln’s face, but next time you step over a penny, remember that at one point, Lincoln was penniless.

4. William Henry Harrison
Before serving as president, William Henry Harrison, was an ambassador to Colombia. While abroad his family farm went belly up and he ended up owning a lot of money to his creditors. Harrison was forced to sell off most of his land and possessions and he was reportedly still in debt by the time he reached the white house. His untimely death, after only one month in office, may have been the only thing that prevented him from reaching total bankruptcy.

5. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant helped turn the tide of the civil war, but he wasn’t much of a business man. At one point, after the collapse of his tannery business, he was forced to sell firewood on the street to support his family. During and after his presidency, he lived well beyond his means, (a common theme) traveling the world in a frivolous manner. After his presidency, he invested in a financial firm that went ultimately went bankrupt after an embezzlement scheme and he was left with hundreds of thousands in debt. After learning he had throat cancer, and with his family still being strapped for cashed, Grant began working on his memoirs. With the help of novelist and friend Mark Twain, his two-volume memoir went on to become a classic work of American literature and posthumously earned his family nearly $450,000 and helped rid his family of his debt.

6. Harry Truman

Before Harry Truman become president and helped to end World War 2 he was the proud owner of a men’s haberdashery store in Kansas City. It quickly went belly up and Truman was stuck with nearly $30,000 in debt. Truman continued to pay his debts throughout his early career in politics and it was because of his sad financial state that the Presidential salary was doubled. Truman and his wife were the first two official recipients of Medicare when Lyndon Johnson signed the program into law and interestingly enough, Truman debts weren’t official settled until 2012.

In 1947, Truman had failed to pay the newspaper delivery boy for six months worth of papers so in May of 2012 a Truman impersonator, Niel Johnson, presented a check for $56.63 to George Lund, Truman’s old delivery boy, now an 80-year-old retiree, for the unpaid papers. The original total was $7.50. Johnson included 65 years worth of interest


Do you know about any other presidential debt stories? 

P.S. Ready to get out of debt ASAP? Check out the Spending Fast Bootcamp! SpendingFastBootcamp.com


6 thoughts on “Even Presidents Go Broke – 6 Interesting Stories of Presidential Financial Distress

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  1. Jon@2-copper-coins.c

    I find it interesting that Truman had such a bad financial background and then instituted what would seem like programs and changes to cover his backside. I’m a huge fan of medicare but higher salaries for politicians? I’m never a fan of that. It is amazing how wealth or power so rarely correlates to sustained financial success.


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