Financial Planning

What the founding fathers can teach us about finance

ConstitutionThey were brilliant, forward-thinking patriots who built the United States from scratch. But when it came to personal finances, some of our country's founding fathers apparently were no more talented than Americans of today.

I'm nearing the conclusion of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book John Adams, a remarkable biography of our nation's second president. The book contains an interesting passage about Thomas Jefferson, who, like Adams, was a revolutionary and architect of the Declaration of Independence, and who would follow Adams as our third president. Writes McCullough:

"In matters of economy, as in other aspects of his life, Jefferson did not practice what he preached. He would insist to his daughter Patsy that she keep to the rule of 'never buying anything which you have not the money in your pocket to pay for,' and warned that 'pain to the mind' of debt was greater by far than having to do without 'any article whatever which we may seem to want.' Yet this was hardly how he lived. A chronic acquirer, Jefferson is not known to have ever denied himself anything he wished in the way of material possessions or comforts. Once settled in Paris, he never held back, spending for example, more than 200 francs for an initial stock of fifty-nine bottles of Bordeaux -- 200 francs being the equivalent of three months' wages for the average French worker."

Now compare Jefferson's actions to those of Adams, who prided himself on living within his means -- to the point when, as George Washington's vice president, he once boarded with a member of Congress to cut personal expenses. Again, quoting from McCullough:

"To further reduce expenses, Adams had given up (his) small house in Philadelphia and taken a room with the secretary of the Senate, Samuel Otis, and his wife, who did not normally accommodate boarders but felt the Vice President of the United States should have something better than the usual lodging house. Never again would he spend money he did not have just to keep up appearances, Adams vowed. 'I am so well satisfied with my present simplicity that I am determined never to depart from it.' "

As CPAs continue to espouse the virtues of financial literacy, let's add the examples set by Jefferson and Adams to our arsenal of financial cautionary tales. We'd all be better off if we were "well satisfied" with our "present simplicity."

Here are some helpful and informative financial literacy resources:


Bill Sheridan