Starting Out


Money Lessons from Celebrated U.S. Presidents

Stacy Rapacon

Give your wallet a rest on Presidents Day weekend, and, instead, adopt just one new money-management discipline among those championed in these famous quotes from our nation’s celebrated leaders.



Officially, the third Monday in February is a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birth, with some states also taking the opportunity to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s birthday -- and Alabama inexplicably opting to recognize Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, too (despite his being born in April). Unofficially, Presidents Day gives us a three-day weekend of super sales to indulge all our shopping desires.

And here, dear reader, is your chance to get ahead by being contrarian -- a frequent theme within Kiplinger's most enduring advice over the years. So while the rest of the country is spending, perhaps all too frivolously, on Presidents Day, I challenge you to give your wallet a rest and instead adopt just one new money-management discipline among those championed in these famous quotes from our nation’s celebrated leaders:

George Washington said in his farewell address in 1796: “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible… but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it…”

Of course, our first commander in chief was concerned with federal funds and the danger of war. But we can apply his wisdom to our personal finances: Be frugal, but remember that sometimes you need to spend some money now to avoid dropping a lot more later. For example, to cut car-maintenance costs, my husband, Dave, learned to change the oil, saving about $100 a year. But he still spends about $50 every 6,000 miles to get his car professionally serviced, hoping to extend its life and put off buying a new one for $15,000 or more. Other things worth the cost of a routine checkup: your furnace, your pets and yourself. Take our Is It Worth It? quiz to learn when spending can be smarter than saving.

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Abraham Lincoln said to the New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association in 1864: “That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself…”

My parents came to this country from the Philippines nearly 40 years ago with little more than their educations and $50 in their pockets. They saw the wealth the U.S. had to offer and recognized it, as Lincoln advises, as an opportunity to build their own riches. And so they did. Always living within their means, they started simply, staying in a small one-bedroom apartment even once my two sisters came along (I was a “surprise” added to the family much later).

Gradually, they made their way up to the six-bedroom house they have now and spun for themselves a classic financial success story. All of us can learn from their example and from Lincoln’s words: The path to riches is one of patience and hard work, and we should appreciate the opportunity to walk it.

Read Knight Kiplinger's classic column The Invisible Rich for help with the tricky task of identifying the genuinely rich, whom you might want to emulate.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington in 1792: “Delay is preferable to error.”

Smart financial planning takes time, but avoiding money mistakes will be worth it. Since the start of our money relationship, Dave and I have spent hours talking about our finances, drawing up budgets and figuring out spending goals. It’s been tedious at times, for sure -- we were especially tempted to be impulsive when we were blessed with our wedding windfall.

But we figure having patience with these issues now is better than fighting over them later. And we’re certainly better off having no debt and a hefty emergency fund instead of the 50-inch flat screen TV and new couch we thought of first for our wedding cash.

More words from Thomas Jefferson, written in 1825 in “A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life,” addressing a baby boy: “Never spend your money before you have it,” and “Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap…”

This advice is simply stated, but not so simply followed -- even Jefferson himself took on debt to create his extravagant Monticello estate. Having learned from our past problems with credit-card debt, Dave and I now use our plastic sparingly. We budget far into the future -- as part of our New Year’s money resolutions, we planned our spending for the rest of the year. And to be sure we’ll always have cash on hand to cover all our costs, we overestimate our expenses and underestimate our income.

As for the second statement, I’m often tempted to buy too much while out shopping. At the grocery store, for example, I fell for the ten-yogurts-for-$10 deal… even though I don’t like yogurt at all. To snap up the snacks on sale, I actually convinced myself I’d learn to like them. After I tasted one cup, my husband wound up finishing off the stash, and I had basically lost $10. Lesson learned: Stick to what’s on the shopping list. And be sure to remember this tip if you’re working the Presidents Day sales!

Have other presidential words of wisdom to apply to your money matters? Share them, or any other thoughts, with us in the comment box below. And happy Presidents Day!



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