You’ll Never Believe How Many American Presidents Went Bankrupt or Broke

The current yearly salary for the U.S. Commander in Chief is $400,000. Although the salary falls short when compared to the millions CEOs rake in each year, presidential pay is far better than it used to be. In 1789, President George Washington received a $25,000 yearly salary and had to dip into his own pockets to pay his staff.

While the salaries for the U.S. presidency have gradually increased, so has the net worth of 20th and 21st-century presidents. But if you look back to the era of the Founding Fathers and 19th-century presidents, you’ll be surprised that some of these guys were not only less than wealthy, but they also made some pretty awful financial decisions. These eight popular presidents ended up going downright broke during the course of their lifetimes. 

1. Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson left his family with a lot of debt to pay off. | Wikimedia Commons

Adjusted for inflation, Jefferson died with $1.9 million in debts. The author of the Declaration of Independence seems like an unlikely candidate for financial failure, yet the third president of the United States found himself in the thick of a financial demise.

The bulk of Jefferson’s problems stemmed from debts associated with tobacco farming, forking out his own funds during his presidency, and the downturn of land value from the Louisiana Purchase. After his death, Jefferson’s heirs sold off his slaves and his Monticello estate in order to pay his debts.

2. James Madison

James Madison

James Madison’s stepson gambled him into debt. | National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Between failed agricultural ventures and his gambling stepson, James Madison found himself in a world of debt. In order to offset the financial strain, Madison ended up selling half of his Montpelier plantation to make ends meet. Instead of freeing his slaves, Madison opted to sell them off in an effort to pay down debts. There is speculation that the nation’s fourth president had his memoirs published after his death in hopes of providing sustenance for his family left behind.

3. James Monroe

James Monroe

James Monroe had to move in with his daughter. | Wikimedia Commons

The fifth president of the United States, James Monroe found himself $1.5 million (adjusted for inflation) in debt upon retirement to his Oak Hill estate. The dissolution of his bank account also stemmed from paying for his presidential staff. Monroe ended up receiving a gift from Congress to alleviate his debt, but in 1830 he ended up selling his property. Monroe moved in with his daughter in New York City, where he eventually passed.

4. William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison wasn’t president for long, but he also died in debt. | White House

Having only spent 31 days in office, William Henry Harrison died from pneumonia shortly after his inauguration. Harrison was born into a wealthy, Virginian family, yet managed to leave this earth with hardly a penny to his name. According to Bankrate, Harrison’s stint as a Colombian ambassador, a bad year of weather destroying his crops, and his sons racking up big bills all left Harrison in complete and utter financial disarray.

5. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

His wife’s spending certainly didn’t help. | Alexander Gardner/Getty Images

Honest Abe endured his fair share of financial setbacks. Practically going bankrupt in 1831 in the aftermath of store management, Abraham Lincoln and a business partner eventually tried their hands at store ownership to no avail. Debts from his deceased business partner took Lincoln years to pay off.

Lincoln eventually became a successful lawyer and one of the most well-received presidents of all time, however, his wife’s spending put a damper on his financial prosperity. Luckily, Lincoln’s legacy outshines his financial woes.

6. Ulysses Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

An investor stole Grant’s fortune. | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The story of Ulysses Grant losing his fortune is a sad state of affairs. After his presidency, Grant and his son each invested $100,000 ($2.2 million today) into a Wall Street brokerage firm. Sadly, the investor, Ferdinand Ward, stole Grant and his son’s money, along with a slew of others. Although Ward served prison time, the Grant’s were left with nothing.

7. William McKinley

Portrait of American President, William McKinley

McKinley was left to pick up the pieces of his friend’s failed business. | Photos.com/Getty Images

William McKinley enjoyed many successes in his political career, however, the success of his pocketbook sings a different tune. McKinley’s financial collapse was the product of the Panic of 1893 when the U.S. economy was having serious problems. A co-signed loan soured when his friend’s business went under, and McKinley was left picking up the pieces. Luckily, he was bailed out by Mark Hanna and went on to become the nation’s 25th president in 1897.

8. Harry S. Truman

American President Harry S Truman

Truman’s struggles ended up getting a pay raise for future presidents. | Fox Photos/Getty Images

The 33rd president of the United States, Harry S. Truman assumed his role as Commander in Chief in 1945. Although he was not a wealthy man, Truman borrowed against his inheritance in hopes of financial gains through investing in a zinc mining business. When the mining business flopped and his co-owned haberdashery failed, Truman spent years repaying his debts.

Luckily, there is a silver lining. It was through Truman’s financial belly-up that Congress decided to increase the salary for the U.S. presidents to $100,000, plus $50,000 for expenses.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!