Roosevelt's Personal Finances

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in 1882 to parents who were members of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families. When his father, James, died in 1900, he left Roosevelt a small inheritance, but most of his estate (worth about $600,000) went to his wife, Sara Ann Delano, who also inherited about $1.3 million from her side of the family. Roosevelt remained financially quasi-dependent on his mother for decades thereafter.

In 1905 Roosevelt’s personal estate was only $12,000, $7,000 of which had come from his new wife Eleanor. But that mattered little as the couple lived at the family’s Hudson River estate, Hyde Park, and in its posh Manhattan townhouses. Roosevelt also speculated in local land, purchased automobiles and dabbled in law and politics with the aid of his mother’s money or by borrowing on the informal collateral of her immense estate. In one early election campaign, Roosevelt outspent his opponents 5-to-1 and ended up expending twice the position’s $1,500 per year salary.

In the 1910s, Roosevelt earned about $20,000 per year: $5,000 as assistant secretary of the Navy, $5,000 from renting out his New York townhouse and the rest from investment returns on his trust fund. Yet his expenditures, which included five children in fashionable boarding schools, 10 servants, half a dozen memberships in elite clubs and first-class travel, ran ahead of his income. The solution was a $25,000 per year job at the Fidelity and Deposit Company.

In 1926, Roosevelt sank about $200,000, or two thirds of his personal estate, in a hydropathy spa in Warm Springs, Georgia that helped him to cope with the paralysis of his legs, an affliction that began in late 1921 after an attack of polio or Guillain-Barre syndrome. The added expense of the paralysis and continued inattention to his personal finances kept Roosevelt on Sara’s dole until his inauguration as President initiated a $75,000 per year salary, worth over $950,000 in 2005 dollars. Sara’s death in 1941 finally completely freed Roosevelt from financial dependence on others.