The 5 Poorest U.S. Presidents

The most powerful people in the U.S. aren't always the richest

The presidency of the United States might be one of the most powerful positions on the planet, but it hasn’t always equated to enormous amounts of wealth. Several of the men who occupied the White House endured hard times earlier in life. And though many prospered financially in their pre- and post-presidency years, some never achieved a particularly outsized income.

The website 24/7 Wall St. examined a variety of sources—including real estate holding, salaries, inheritances, and book royalties—to determine the personal wealth of each commander-in-chief. The following are the poorest U.S. presidents, as measured by peak net worth during their lifetime.

Of course, the word “poor” is a relative term. None of these men achieved a net worth in excess of $1 million in present dollars, which made them outliers among those to sit in the Oval Office. But most led comfortable lives in their later years thanks in part to a substantial if not lavish presidential salary.

Key Takeaways

  • According to an analysis by 24/7 Wall St., the poorest U.S. president was Harry Truman—and though Truman was never extremely wealthy, he still collected a solid paycheck during and after the presidency.
  • James Garfield was one of several presidents who grew up in relative poverty, although all of them earned a comparatively generous paycheck when they assumed the presidency.  
  • The Former Presidents Act, passed in the late 1950s, guarantees a federal pension and an array of generous perks to those who once served in the Oval Office, virtually guaranteeing a comfortable retirement.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the president's $400,000 salary was far higher than the average U.S. citizen's median salary of $47,684 in 2019.
  • George Washington's presidential salary was $25,000, or $777,000 today.

The Poorest Presidents

President James Garfield

Image courtesy Getty Images / Brady-Handy / Epics

5. James A. Garfield

  • Term: March to September 1881
  • Other Occupations: College president, Army officer, U.S. congressman

The 20th president was born into poverty, growing up in a log cabin in Ohio with four siblings. Garfield worked various odd jobs including carpenter and janitor to get himself through college.

Despite a distinguished (not to mention eclectic) resume, Garfield never made large sums of money. While still in his 20s, he became a college president and was later elected the youngest member of the Ohio state legislature. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the young Garfield helped assemble the 42nd Ohio Infantry, and he eventually gained the rank of major general. He went on to serve eight terms as a U.S. congressman at a time when that job paid between $5,000 to $7,500 a year (roughly $112,000 to $168,000 in today’s dollars).

Garfield eventually reached the White House in 1881, although his term was cut short when he succumbed to an assassin’s bullet just six months into office.

Chester A Arthur

Image courtesy Getty Images / Library of Congress / Handout

4. Chester Arthur

  • Term: 1881 to 1885
  • Other Occupations: Teacher, lawyer, quartermaster general, customs official 

The man who succeeded Garfield after his assassination wasn’t particularly well heeled either. Though he trained to be a lawyer, Chester A. Arthur spent most of his adult life in the public sector. 

The son of an immigrant from Ireland, Arthur grew up in Vermont and New York, eventually graduating from Union College and becoming a schoolteacher. He was later admitted to the bar and for a time worked as a lawyer in New York City, although this was interrupted by his service as a quartermaster during the Civil War.

After the war, Arthur became collector of the New York Customs House, where he developed a reputation for abetting the city’s notorious patronage system. In 1880, James Garfield tapped Arthur as his vice president, putting him in line for the presidency when Garfield was assassinated just months into his term.

Though Arthur was never a particularly wealthy man, he was known to enjoy the finer things in life, including impeccably tailored suits. Before moving into the White House, Arthur secured $30,000 from Congress so that he could have Louis Comfort Tiffany furnish the executive mansion to his liking.

Woodrow Wilson

Image courtesy Getty Images / Tony Essex

3. Woodrow Wilson

  • Term: 1913 to 1921
  • Other Occupations: Lawyer, professor, university president, governor of New Jersey

Though never exactly “poor,” America’s 28th president came from modest means and stayed there, spending much of his career in academia.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson grew up in the small city of Staunton, Virginia. After earning a law degree from the University of Virginia, he established a short-lived legal practice in Atlanta. 

Wilson would eventually go on to receive a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University, making him the only U.S. president with a doctoral degree. Afterward, Wilson taught at Princeton, where he actually earned the highest salary of anyone on its faculty—$6,500 annually, or about $187,000 today—in part to counter a competitive bid from the University of Virginia. He would later serve as the prestigious university’s president from 1902 to 1910.

Wilson left his academic career to briefly serve as the Democratic governor of New Jersey; within two years, we would ascend to the White House after winning the 2012 election. Wilson’s tenure as commander-in-chief was marked by a simultaneous progressive view of military force—he tried to keep America out of World War I until doing so became politically untenable and pushed for the League of Nations afterward—and an abiding racial prejudice on the home front. Among the more controversial aspects of his presidency was the segregation of several federal offices. 

13th U.S. President Calvin Coolidge

Image courtesy Getty Images / Library of Congress

2. Calvin Coolidge

  • Term: 1923 to 1929
  • Other Occupations: Lawyer, politician, author, columnist

During his six years in office, Calvin Coolidge’s tax cuts and laissez-faire approach to business were seen by many as exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor in America. But Coolidge himself was never particularly wealthy. 

The famously stoic politician grew up in tiny Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where his hardworking father ran a general store (Coolidge's mother died when he was just 12). He studied at Amherst College before passing the bar exam in 1898. For nearly two decades, Coolidge ran a relatively modest law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts, specializing in wills, bankruptcies, and real estate transactions.

“Silent Cal,” as he would later be known, was appointed the Northampton city solicitor in 1900, the start of a slow, steady political ascent that led to the Massachusetts governorship in 1918. A few years later, Coolidge was picked as Warren Harding’s vice president, unexpectedly rising to the Oval Office in 1923 after Harding’s unexpected death. The nation enjoyed several years of prosperity under the Vermont native’s pro-business policies, which also saw a revolution in cultural norms during the Jazz Age.

In his post-presidency, Coolidge would continue to make a respectable if not enormous income from writing a magazine column and penning his autobiography.

President Harry S. Truman speaks during a television address from the Oval Office.

Image courtesy Getty Images / Bettman

1. Harry S. Truman

  • Term: 1945–1953
  • Other Occupations: Farmer, soldier, shop owner 

The 33rd president of the United States of America spent much of his life in financial turmoil. He had a modest upbringing in rural Missouri, where he spent his early adult years as a farmer. When he returned from military service in World War I, Truman opened a men's clothing store that fell on hard times, leaving the Army veteran close to bankruptcy.

Truman spent the remainder of his career in the public sector, first as a county judge and later as a United States senator, where he became famous for investigating waste and abuse in defense contracts. He became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president in Jan. 1945, taking over leadership after Roosevelt’s death just three months later.

After his presidency, Truman and his wife Bess returned to Independence, Missouri, where popular lore suggests he led a relatively pauper-like existence. But that image may not be entirely true. 

Indeed, for a short time after leaving Washington, Truman’s income was principally from a small pension of $1,350 a year (roughly $13,800, adjusted for inflation)—from his stint in the Army, not as commander-in-chief. And he famously turned down high-paying corporate jobs, believing that cashing in on his name was below the office of the presidency.

But he signed the rights to his memoir for $600,000 in the mid-1950s—more than $6 million in today’s dollars—that was reportedly paid out over several years.

How Is the President Paid? 

While in office, presidents make a relatively modest salary of $400,000. That’s more than 11 times what a typical American worker brings in, although far less than, for example, top executives at most Fortune 500 companies.

It's after the presidency that most tend to cash in on their unique status. Often, that comes in the form of high-paying speaking engagements and lucrative book deals. 

For example, Bill Clinton reportedly earned a cool $15 million for his memoir My Life, while George W. Bush bagged around $10 million for the autobiography Decision Points. More recently, Barack and Michelle Obama signed a joint book deal estimated at a staggering $65 million after leaving the executive mansion.

And those massive fees are on top of a generous federal benefits package for which they can, ironically enough, thank Harry Truman. The apparent financial distress of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry”—a puzzling proposition given his eye-popping book deal—caused Congress to pass the Former Presidents Act in 1958. As a result, Truman was able to collect a pension of $25,000 from Uncle Sam, a figure that has been revised upward to around $219,000 today.

But that’s not all. Former chief executives also get free office space and a modest staff, with a budget of up to $150,000 for their first 30 months outside the White House. Plus, they’re given lifetime Secret Service protection and an allowance for widows of $20,000 a year.

Privilege, Power, and Poverty 

The truth is that although several presidents grew up in humble conditions, arguably none of them ended up that way. 

Even before legislation gave former commanders-in-chief a pension, presidents were making a respectable salary in the White House and in many cases found ways to profit off of that experience later. Others, from George Washington to Donald Trump, were extremely prosperous even before they landed in the Oval Office.

Indeed, when compared to a typical American worker, the concept of a “poor” U.S. president is hard to imagine. Their current $400,000 salary far exceeded the nation’s median salary of $47,684 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that doesn’t even include the other trappings of the nation’s highest office, like free lodging—at a pretty nice house, no less—and free healthcare.

In comparison to minorities, the disparity is even greater. The current presidential paycheck is more than 10 times the median earnings of Black workers, which was $38,220 in 2019, and Latinx workers, which was $36,712.

The relative affluence of U.S. presidents has been the norm throughout the country’s history, although sometimes to a greater degree than others. George Washington, for example, pulled in a presidential salary of $25,000, which would be worth around $777,000 in current dollars.

Though he came from great wealth, Theodore Roosevelt brought in a somewhat more modest paycheck. He earned $50,000 a year when he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1901, which would equate to a salary of nearly $161,000 today.

Who Was the Poorest U.S. President?

Harry Truman is considered the poorest-ever U.S. president, though he still earned a decent salary both during and after his term in office.

Why Was Harry Truman the Poorest President?

After World War I, Harry Truman opened a men's clothing store that left him deeply in debt. Additionally, he refused to take high-paying corporate jobs following the end of his presidency.

Do Retired Presidents Get a Pension?

The Former Presidents Act was passed by Congress in 1958 and grants prior commanders-in-chief an annual pension of approximately $219,000 after their term in office comes to an end.

The Bottom Line 

Several presidents have known hard times throughout their lives, from the early destitution of James A. Garfield to the failed business endeavors of Harry Truman. But even those who started relatively poor usually made a decent living as they rose through the political ranks—and earned a much higher-than-average salary when they got to the White House.

Article Sources

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