From Tyler to Trump: Cheap American Presidents Throughout History

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It's Their Policy

American presidents may all have their own philosophies on government spending, but they also have their own ways of handling money in their personal lives. In honor of Presidents Day, here are eight presidents (including the richest one) who have shown off their cheap sides.

Related: First Tastes: Favorite Foods of 21 U.S. Presidents

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John Tyler

Running for office as a common man against the fancy President Martin Van Buren must have been odd for Tyler, a Southern aristocrat, but our 10th president talked a good game and became known for the saying, "Wealth can only be accumulated by the earning of the industry and the savings of frugality." He also fought so hard over fiscal policy (namely whether the country would have a national bank) that he was thrown out of the Whig party and lost his entire cabinet to a mass resignation. When he and first lady Julia Tyler threw polka parties, he was the one playing violin.

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Calvin Coolidge

As a product of generations of Vermont farmers, the 30th president was a sober and serious man despite overseeing America's Jazz Age. Much of his philosophy of government sounded like that of a scrimping business owner: "We must keep our budget balanced for each year. ... Any surplus can be applied to debt reduction." He had a very cheap ritual that he believed was good for his health: He would have petroleum jelly rubbed on his head while eating breakfast in bed.

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John F. Kennedy

Being born wealthy and having a trust fund worth $170 million tucked away didn't keep the 35th president from being cheap. Kennedy was known for never carrying cash and making others — including friends, secret service agents, and, before he was president, even his dates — pay his way out on the town, according to Time. He and the glamorous Jackie argued about her spending on clothes and groceries.

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Gerald Ford

President No. 38 was known as a stingy tipper and all-around cheapskate. He would even make other people pay for his newspapers, according to Newsweek. As an economics major in college, he carried some bedrock beliefs into the White House, where he vetoed 66 bills that violated his sense of fiscal conservatism — including 39 in just his first 14 months in office.

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Jimmy Carter

Taking office during an oil crisis and legendarily long lines at gas stations led the the 39th president to focus on energy issues. The cardigan he wore during a fireside chat — to keep warm because the White House had turned down the thermostat — was named by Time as one of the top 10 political fashion statements in history. (Some pundits dubbed him "Jimmy Cardigan.") First lady Rosalynn Carter followed suit with simple, inexpensive White House dinners and off-the-rack clothing. It made sense after a political campaign that fundraised at parties that literally served peanuts and asked staffers to stay with friends while on the road instead of charging hotel rooms.

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Ronald Reagan

Before he was happily chomping jelly beans in the Oval Office as the 40th president, Reagan was raised in an Illinois tenement with no indoor plumbing and running water. When acting jobs were scarce, he wasn't too proud to try his hand at stand-up comedy to supplement his income. But the White House he shared with Nancy Reagan was known for its gilded approach to politics and luxurious living. Hey, it was the 1980s.

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Barack Obama

While attending Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1980s, the future 44th president chose to live in a cheap area of neighboring Somerville because "you got more apartment for your money," his landlord recalled for The future leader of the free world racked up 17 parking tickets that took him 17 years to pay. Michelle Obama, too, has a frugal side. In contrast to first ladies who wear exclusively high-end fashion, she is known for shopping at Target and wearing off-the-rack fashions from stores such as J. Crew and HM.

Trump's Fast Food Feast for National Champion Football Players in 2019
White House photo

Donald Trump

An actual billionaire, Trump was clearly the wealthiest White House occupant ever, but he might very well be the chintziest so far. In 2019, he hosted the national champion Clemson Tigers football team at the White House. On the menu: fast food. At the time, there was a government shutdown, and Trump said White House chefs were furloughed without pay. The event prompted a huge social media backlash at the time. Both Chicago's Michelin-starred Alinea restaurant and restaurateur and cookbook author Ayesha Curry (wife of NBA superstar Steph Curry) offered to host the Clemson players for a meal more befitting national champions. 

But wait, there's more. Again citing the government shutdown, Trump subsequently hosted the North Dakota State Bisons football team and again served fast food. For a genuinely wealthy guy who routinely brags about how rich he is, would it have really hurt him to dig a little deeper in his pocket and maybe spring for, oh, say, Olive Garden?