Updated on 09.19.14

Theodore Roosevelt on Financial Success

Trent Hamm

teddyFor me, few things are more compelling than biographies of compelling people who led exceptional lives. In their lives and decisions, we can all find things to think about and perhaps to emulate in our own lives.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying the first volume of Edmund Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, entitled The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy led an extremely exceptional life – his presidency just scratches the surface. Beyond his political career, Roosevelt was also a professional historian, a naturalist, an author, and a soldier.

Early in the book, Roosevelt is attempting to figure out what he wants to do with his life. In Roosevelt’s own words, here’s the advice his father gave him (with emphasis added):

My father … told me that if I wished to be a scientific man I could do so. He explained that I must be sure that I really intensely desired to do scientific work, because if I went into it I must make it a serious career; that he had made enough money to enable me to take up such a career and do non-renumerative work of value if I intended to do the very best work that was in me; but that I must not dream of taking it up as a dilettante. He also gave me a piece of advice that I have always remembered, namely, that, if I was not going to earn money, I must even things up by not spending it. As he expressed it, I had to keep the fraction constant, and if I was not able to increase the numerator, then I must reduce the denominator. In other words, if I went into a scientific career, I must definitely abandon all thought of the enjoyment that could accompany a money-making career, and must find my pleasures elsewhere.

After this conversation, I fully intended to make science my life-work.

Lessons to Learn from Teddy and Questions to Consider

Spending less than you earn is an underlying principle here

If you have a job that doesn’t earn much, you simply cannot spend your money as though you have a job that earns quite a bit. It seems like common sense, but based on my own past and what I have seen others do, it’s not.

If you choose a low-paying career path, you are also choosing a comparatively low-spending life Not long ago, I had a job as a researcher in a lab. I viewed it as my career and planned to eventually work on a Ph. D. while I worked there, but I hadn’t earned that degree yet. Instead, I was earning a salary appropriate for the path I had chosen. Yet, quite often, I would get caught up with spending on a level with some of the professors around me, even though they were making twice my salary. It was simply not sensible or sustainable.

When I did get my spending under control, I found myself actually in the opposite boat – I was spending a lot less than I earned. Then I made a difficult choice – I jumped to a job (writing) that paid substantially less than I was making. This, again, lowered what we could spend.

Making good money isn’t everything

Even with that reduction in income, I felt I gained quite a bit more than I lost in that transition. I moved to writing, something I’d always dreamed about doing and something I thoroughly enjoy. I work from home, which means I don’t waste time (or money) on commuting. Most important, though, my schedule is really, really flexible, giving me more time to spend with my family when they need me and also to chase other pursuits.

There’s much more to a job than the salary. Are you happy doing what you’re doing? Do you actually enjoy the work? Is the schedule flexible enough to let you enjoy the things you want? Those things have value – for me, they carry quite a lot of value.

What about my own children?

Is it okay, if I’m in a very financially strong position, to give financial help to my children if they choose a career path that doesn’t earn much at all? I’ve often wondered about this question. If my child devoted his or her life to social work or some other low paying career, but showed obvious deep passion about it and was really making a difference with his or her work, should I support that child financially, at least in part?

To be honest, I haven’t come to a satisfactory answer to that question. I see both sides of the coin. One solution that I quite like came from an old friend, whose parents were giving one low-income child their inheritance early, doling it out over time and noting it with regular updates to their estate plans.

Here’s the real truth revealed by this quote, though: chasing the high salary isn’t everything. If you’re making a career choice, don’t let the income be your primary deciding factor. If you choose a career where income is the big calling card, you’ll wind up regretting it.

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  1. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Great article. I love Roosevelt, he is incredibly interesting. I might pick up the book myself and check it out. Spending less than you earn is essential at every level. I think people often fool themselves into thinking that they can temporarily exceed their income with their spending and later revert to a more frugal lifestyle…only to find that this is very difficult to do.

    As far as the supporting your children thing, I can’t agree with Teddy’s father. I believe you support your children while their children and then they are responsible for supporting themselves. If they want to pursue work that makes the world a better place, that’s a noble choice, but one they have to live with. They have to live with the sacrifices that go along with being a visionary. Of course, I will try to give them a head start by paying for their education and teaching them about money management.

  2. Amy B. says:

    Sometimes finding the right “fraction” is a trial and error process.

    I grew up in a military family and our small family was comfortable financially – neither poor nor wealthy. When I left college I myself went into the service, where I continued to live at a comfortable level. I didn’t experience the highs of income levels of some of my college mates, but I also had a very secure source of income, which compensated me in peace-of-mind.

    I married and left the service in the same year. I went to work in a very well compensated position with a Defense Contractor, and our household income seemed to skyrocket. Luckily, other circumstances kept us from growing into this level of income, and we were able to largely bank my salary.

    But, I HATED my job. It was truly the first job where I worked only for a paycheck. Nothing else about the job satisfied me. After about 18 months, I left and became SAHM to our new family.

    Since then I’ve grown comfortable in our smaller income once again. When I visit our friends who remained dual-income families, I’m amazed at the level of seemingly unnecessary consumption. Too much house, too many toys — you get the picture.

    I’m not saying their life is wrong – it’s just wrong for me in that the proportions just aren’t where I am comfortable living.

  3. *sara* says:

    wow, what a timeless quote! I’ve never thought of that side of the argument for pursuing a low-paying field, and how wise of the father to explain the implications of the choice. A very generous father, also, to provide for his son in that way. very interesting.

  4. Maureen says:

    I agree with the first comment. I will do as much as possible to support my dc’s education to equip them to be independent adults.

    If you choose a career that doesn’t pay very well, then you should lower your standard of living to match or take on a second job. You need to accept responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. I would strongly advise against accepting monetary support from your parents, assuming they are indeed in a position to help. Firstly, such support sometimes comes with strings attached. Secondly, it is impossible to see into the future. They may very well need that money themselves some day.

  5. Chris says:

    I disagree.. I am of the opinion that if you have the money to support your children’s passions, do it.. I don’t see any virtue in toiling away at something you hate just to put food on the table. I was very surprised to read that many, many of the most important scientific discoveries in everything from physics to geology were found by independently wealthy aristocrats who had the luxury of spending their lives chasing after that ever elusive particle, rock, or snail.

    I understand we don’t want our kids to be spoiled, no-load, societal turds, but I just don’t see the point of acquiring a bunch of wealth, dying, passing it on to our kids when they are 60 years old and don’t need it anymore, acquiring more wealth, dying, passing it on to THEIR 60 year old kids who don’t need it anymore… Wash, rinse, repeat…


  6. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    For me it’s all about balance. I can see the point Chris makes above, however I did really connect with this article.

    I’m interested in learning more about Teddy. Anyone have any good books they’ve read to suggest?

  7. Adam says:

    As a chemical engineer I have to comment that there has been a bit of a change since the days of Roosevelt. If you are serious about scientific research there are some extraordinarily well paying jobs out there and remuneration will not be a problem if you are passionate and talented.

    Good to see the opportunities opening up. I think we can all agree that the advancement of science is certainly something that benefits society in general and so society ought to reward the members working for that end.

  8. Ajax says:

    BULLY! Teddy was truly one of our greatest presidents and an all-around renaissance man.

    I think if you’ve raised your children to have a firm grasp of their personal finances and possibly supported them through secondary education then, if they choose to enter into a lower income but passionate endeavor, they will do so with a rational understanding of their decision and will adjust their life accordingly. Thereby eliminating the need for “backup” from their parents.

    Conversely, a child that has not received or ignored financial advice should not feel entitled to the things that they have not worked for and does not deserve regular support from their parents (extenuating circumstances not withstanding).

    My sister and brother-in-law both received their BAs with family support and now choose to do missionary work outside of their fields of study. They do not expect nor ask for help (though my parents donate to their cause irregularly)and they have adjusted their lives to minimize expense.

  9. Anna says:

    @Baker: Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough

  10. Anne says:

    I’m the parent of a college student. He is pursuing a degree in fire-science and wants to work as a firefighter – public service is satisfying and important but won’t leave him with much money.

    While in school, my son is involved in a number of volunteer and non-profit “causes”. An employer who will give him the flexibility for both school and volunteer work is impossible. He picks up odd jobs (usually manual labor) for cash. My ex-husband and I have made the decision to supplement with a small “allowance”. It’s enough to put gas in the car and not much else. But we believe in the non-remunerative work he does and wish to support those endeavors. He is still very, very frugal.

    We believe this solution provides balance and will help prepare him for the next phases of his life.

  11. Mike says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” as well as the follow on book, “Theodore Rex” about his administration and life after politics.

    I have to disagree with several of the commenters about support of adult children pursuing careers with low wages and high societal impact. Such arrangements were very common in those days among the scientific community and clergy with extremely low wages. Remember this is pre “tech boom” and unbelievable salaries that followed it.

    We must remember that Roosevelt’s parents were exceptionally wealthy and influential and had more assets than they could practically spend in their lifetimes. People in Roosevelt’s class were also not particularly compelled to work for wages which was considered beneath their social strata.

    An unusual situation by today’s standards.

  12. psychsarah says:

    I love the end of this post in particular. I have often been asked why I didn’t go to medical school (I have a PhD in clinical psychology), as becoming a physician would have taken a similar amount of time and would have been better remunerated than a psychologist. It’s the “intangibles” that make the difference here. I love my work, I like the lifestyle it provides (I’m not exactly making minimum wage, and I don’t have to spend weekends “on call” at the hospital), and myriad other reasons I won’t bore you with. My point is the same as Trent’s-it’s not all about the money!

    I remember hearing a quote once that said “if you marry for money, you’ll earn every penny” (meaning you’ll pay in other ways-like your happiness) and I think there is a parallel to be found in careers.

  13. Amy says:

    I have been able to combine a relatively good income in a field I like with a lot of volunteer work in the areas I am passionate about. The money I make in my real job helps me donate to these causes and I also put in lots of time with the organizations.

    You never know where volunteer work will lead you–someone I met in animal rescue passed on my resume and that’s how I got the great paying job which now allows me to give back even more in the volunteer areas.

  14. Katy McKenna says:

    As a parent of three adult children, all college educated but with disparate incomes, I would hesitate to single out one to subsidize, for any reason. First of all, who am I to assign more “nobility” to the calling of the special-ed teacher over the vocation of the software designer or the hotel assistant manager?

    I know of situations where one adult child has been given his inheritance over the course of the years because “he needs his now,” and then the parents manage to outlive their money so that the remaining children receive nothing. I believe this type of arrangement in which one child seems to be preferred over the others rarely ends well…..Just my opinion!

  15. Mule Skinner says:

    I am not particularly inspired by people who start from a position of privilege. Bill Clinton is much more interesting since he started from almost nowhere. I say “almost” to leave room for a lower class black person or Native American.

  16. Pez says:

    I recently (1 y and 2 months ago) quit a very decent paying job. I was making money but I was very tense, traveled alot, gained weight etc. I worked in excess of 60 hrs a week. A common story.

    However,I had saved money and after 1.5 years of saying I would quit. I finally pulled the trigger. I quit to figure out what I wanted to do. As it turns out, I like what I did but I was just overwhelmed by the workload. I could continue to consult in my field. My goal was to make half the salary I made and work half the time. We decided to eat out less and buy less. The result is…yes I make lesss…but…. I work far less and have a much richer life. I wish I had done it sooner.

    While I have strong opinions on whether or not to assist a child who chooses a low salary career, I will leave those questions to the parents. However I will say that I do agree with the point of it being about balance.

  17. Timbul Partohap says:

    I come from Indonesia and I find that what Roosevelt’s father did is common thing here in Asia.

    As I see it, it doesn’t matter whether what Rossevelt’s Father did is appropriate or not in child education. It was a consciencous choice, Roosevelt didn’t squander it and the whole episode turned out to be the best thing for America after all. Not a bad example if America is going to produce more “science” driven leadership.

  18. michele says:

    about helping your children: I don’t think they should have some steady source of X amount of money. I am a stay at home parent, my spouse works in public safety. We made these decisions and I can’t imangine getting some steady source of income from our parents. Now, what would be so appreciated from us is anything from a invitation for a meal or special dessert to a bag of grass seed or a load of mulch come spring time. Random acts of kindness that help relieve the financial pressure every now and then.

  19. CindyC says:

    As for helping your children, there are different ways. Perhaps you are not helping them month-to-month, but maybe you help them purchase a home.

  20. Michelle says:

    You are so correct that one should never choose a career simply because you will make a high salary. I chose to become a lawyer primarily for this reason. I am,however, miserable as I simply do not have a passion for what I am doing-it is simply a way to make a paycheck. Also, because of my lack of passion, I have never advanced to a level where I am making the high income that motivated me to take this path in the first place! It is better to do something you are passionate about and can make a difference in the world by doing, and live a lifestyle that you can support on your income.

  21. Joy says:

    “Here’s the real truth revealed by this quote, though: chasing the high salary isn’t everything. If you’re making a career choice, don’t let the income be your primary deciding factor. If you choose a career where income is the big calling card, you’ll wind up regretting it.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps because I am idealistic, my life has not followed the trajectory of college, upwardly-mobile job, family, etc. After college, I worked for several NGOs, then as a fulltime lay missionary for 10 years and now work as a writer and editor for a Christian publication. I sleep well, I earn enough to let me live, I lead a significant life. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.

    This is the first time that I leave a comment here. Thank you for your articles. The past two months (I think) that I have subscribed to your blog, your articles have been consistently well thought out, non-commercial, and really helpful in daily living. Thank you. God bless you!

  22. Janette says:

    Interesting thoughts.
    There are five adult children from my parents. One went into business. Everyone thought she would fail. She is retiring this year with plenty in the bank. One went into software at the early stages, is widowed and ill- she will have to be careful, but is going to be ok in the long run. One went into education. She lives comfortably on a teacher’s salary (yes, that would be $40,000 at 25 years of teaching) but not at the level she was raised- but loves her position- STILL. The other two raced after the money dream instead of the profession- both are broke going into retirement. Choices are made and work is done. We are now all entering our mid 50’s and early 60’s.
    The largest difference in all of us- the last two were always “helped” by my parents to keep them in my parent’s “class” of income. Not only did they blow it for the two kids, it makes the others downright resentful at this stage. Mom is planning on helping their retirement. “I don’t want them to be broke!” The rest of us get what ever is left….UGGG!

  23. Thanks for this post– I am a Teddy fan, I will have to read that book.

    Second, I am a big history fan and believe we can learn much by going “old school” . . . those who came before us knew a thing or two.

  24. ROS says:

    The more things change the more it stays the same! Amazing. What a profound passage from this book. On a side note, (it is most likely covered in the bio too), His eldest daughter Alice was the Paris Hilton of their time, she was a media-princess who loved the adoration of her fans when the family was in the White House!

  25. tightwadfan says:

    I have mixed feelings on the parental support decision too. As Katy said, who’s to judge which child’s career is more noble? On the other hand, I have a brother with a very low-paying job that he works incredibly hard at and is in the field that’s his passion. And I wouldn’t mind at all if my parents gave him some money and not me, in fact, in my family we all look out for him and come up with ways to help him out, because we’re so proud of him. It helps that he’s very frugal so you don’t feel like your supporting a spendthrift lifestyle or anything like that.

    My parents don’t give him an regular allowance or anything like that though. It’s more like buying his plane tickets home for Christmas, or giving him their old car when they bought a new one, stuff like that.

    If I had a child in a similar situation I would want to do the same thing. I guess it’s technically not “fair” to my other children but if they’re like me and my siblings they wouldn’t care at all.

  26. Eric says:

    Another good book about TR is When Trumpets Call by Patricia O Toole.

    It sums up his life and work after the White House and is a good companion to Edmund Morris previous 2 books.

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