The U.S. Presidents Who Were Horrible With Money

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In the current campaign for the U.S. presidency, politicians and the media have sometimes scrutinized candidates’ finances. Martin O’Malley’s massive student loan debt — nearly $340,000 — got a lot of attention as he outlined his plans to make college more affordable. In 2010, Sen. Marco Rubio caught flak for making personal purchases on his credit card from the Florida Republican Party while reportedly going through some financial struggles, and that scandal has returned to the spotlight as he continues to vie for the Oval Office.

If, for example, Rubio became president, he wouldn’t be the first in our nation’s history to have had personal finance problems. Like many Americans, some of the country’s leaders struggled to succeed in business, repay debts and stay on top of their budgets (we’re talking about personal ones here, not the national budget). Here are a few past presidents for whom money was a regular headache, according to some presidential historians.

Thomas Jefferson (3rd President, 1801-1809)

It’s no secret that Jefferson died in debt.

“Well, it wasn’t all his fault,” said Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia. “It’s easy to moralize about his consumption and many historians have done so.”

It’s true that Jefferson liked nice things, but he also found himself in unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. He married into debt his father-in-law owed to British creditors, and after his presidency, Jefferson co-signed a loan for his political protege (and his grandson’s father-in-law), Wilson Cary Nicholas. When Nicholas defaulted on the $20,000 loan, Jefferson was on the hook.

“He died in debt to the tune of $100,000,” Onuf said. “That was an extraordinary amount of money, meaning the estate had to be liquidated and the slaves sold and the plantation sold.”

Speaking of the plantation — Jefferson’s farming skills didn’t really help his situation. Onuf said Jefferson only focused on running the plantation for about a three-year period in the 1790s, and it was rarely profitable.

Ulysses S. Grant (18th President, 1869-1877)

Grant rose to prominence as a general in the Civil War, but before that, he wasn’t doing so well.

“He went through a kind of series of jobs and was kind of a failure at everything until the Civil War,” said Mike Purdy, presidential historian at PresidentialHistory.com.

Even after his presidency, his finances were in a dismal state, as he spent his life savings on a business venture that ended badly. “He ended up being defrauded by one of his business partners. He ended up declaring bankruptcy, actually,” Purdy said.

Grant turned to writing to try and provide for his family, and his estate eventually got nearly half a million dollars for his memoirs. That, however, was no easy task.

“He’s writing his memoirs, writing feverishly against the clock, because he was dying of throat cancer,” Purdy said. He died days after finishing them.

Harry S. Truman (33rd President, 1945-1953)

Before entering politics, Truman opened a haberdashery with a friend, but it went bankrupt after about 3 years. It took him more than a decade to repay the related debts. After his presidency, he had no savings and only a small army pension to make ends meet.

“He never owned a house of his own, so when he got married to Bess they lived in her mother’s house, and you know what, when Truman retired from the presidency they went back to Independence, Mo., and they lived in the house that had been her mother’s house,” Purdy said.

He made some money publishing his memoirs and selling property he had inherited from his mother. Truman eventually was one of the first presidents to receive a pension for having held the office, which helped him out of debt.

Do you face similar debt issues? It might be having an impact on your credit scores. Your credit utilization is the second most important factor in your credit score, and if you’re spending over 30% of your limits, it may be dragging you down. You can check your credit utilization and get two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

More on Managing Debt:

Images: iStock, National Archives and Records Administration

Christine DiGangi

Christine DiGangi is the former Deputy Managing Editor - Engagement for Credit.com and covered a variety of personal finance topics. Her writing has been featured on USA Today, MSN, Yahoo! Finance and The New York Times International Weekly, among other outlets.

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Christine DiGangi