Abraham Lincoln’s Letter To Brother Asking For Money

Presidents are known for their letter-writing prowess, and many such letters offer great insight into tackling today’s problems. One of the great examples is Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his stepbrother in response to his stepbrother’s request for an $80 loan. I’ve presented the text of his letter below, along with a few of my comments.

Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, “We can get along very well now,” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again.

Do not continue to help those that refuse to help themselves. Over the years I have had occasions to help family and friends in a financial crisis. It could be said that some of my own struggles were created by my willingness to help. Through these offerings I have developed a knack for discerning which of those will take the help as a blessing and work to improve their situation, and those who will come to expect such help and do nothing to prevent their “crisis” from reoccurring.

Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work, and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it easier than they can get out after they are in.

Work is a sure-fire money-making scheme. If you find yourself in a financial hole, first stop digging. Then, get after finding additional work, whether it be a better full time job, an additional part time side hustle, or something you can start on your own as an entrepreneurial endeavor. Do not be afraid to take on additional work, temporarily, to improve your situation.

You are now in need of some ready money; and what I propose is, that you shall go to work, “tooth and nail,” for somebody who will give you money for it. Let father and your boys take charge of things at home-prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get. And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get for your own labor either in money or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work.

Give those you help an incentive to help themselves, not a reason to slouch further. Lincoln’s dollar-matching idea was a great one, but there are other ways to create similar incentives to help those who need a little push. For instance, I read a story about a woman who was afraid to make the leap into a professional job because she didn’t have money for the appropriate wardrobe (even though the job offered considerably more money). Her father agreed to help her with her wardrobe for an interview and the first couple weeks on the job if she agreed to use her first paycheck to purchase additional work clothes.

In this, I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines, in California, but I mean for you to go at it for the best wages you can get close to home, in Coles County. Now if you will do this, you will soon be out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again.

Look for money-making opportunities closest to home. It’s true that sometimes the best opportunities are right under our nose. Consider your current talents and interests and brainstorm ways to turn that idea into a paying part time gig. If you enjoy landscaping your yard, offer your services in your own neighborhood. If you love dogs, create a dog-walking service in your town (a double benefit – get paid to exercise).

But if I should now clear you out, next year you will be just as deep in as ever. You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80. Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply, for I am sure you can with the offer I make you get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months’ work. You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and if you don’t pay the money back, you will deliver possession-Nonsense! If you can’t now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been kind to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.

Affectionately your brother.

Bottom line, to change habits you have to experience a little bit of pain. Without making the necessary sacrifice you will eventually revert back to old ways, just as Lincoln’s step-brother would have surely done. This is probably why lottery winners go broke. They instantly receive a solution to all their financial problems without first changing the habits that created those problems. Pain and sacrfice are great reminders. Every time you feel the urge to run up credit card debt, remember the pain and sacrifice experienced trying to get out from under them.


  1. I really like this post. You did an excellent job of breaking it down. I wholeheartedly agree that working hard is the best way to make money and build wealth. I think our society today could learn a lesson from Lincoln’s letter. We often enable people to continue in self-destructive habits instead of teaching them to live successfully. No pain, no gain!

  2. I have to agree that loaning money to family members is not always a great idea. We have loaned money to my mother-in-law before (to prevent foreclosure on their house), and it was a disaster from the start. My husband and I came to the agreement that we would never loan them money ever again, and we have stuck to our decision.

    I love Lincoln’s choice of words – unfortunately, I don’t think I can tell my mother-in-law “Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct…”

  3. I love this letter and you did a great job of sharing it. It should be a must read for anyone who struggles with money and debt.

  4. Very interesting, I was not familar with this letter. Old Abe was dishing out a little tough love. There is no doubt that for a man to truly be a man, he has to dig out of his OWN holes. Nice Post!

  5. I’m glad I stumbled on this..letter ..message clearly states the needed steps..it is difficult to change ..especially if you are still ‘getting by’

  6. My journey through life has reveal to me that all human will always or had several trial to be frugal, perhaps in this context what i assume when to be a Samaritan or not. In my own term self first” is no selfishness, offering family aid reflect our emotional attachment with them but could be detrimental to your own financial aim at times when the predicament keeps pouring at you. Abraham’s idea is what everyman has practiced especially the financial crunch as brought drastic reduction to act of benevolence from men; critically created put your money where your mouth is idea! arguably extra generosity of spirit could still make you roll out money to needy without stringency

  7. I am always helping my brother, I know I’m an enabler and the problem keeps getting worse..it’s always more money. What’s worse is if I don’t help he goes on about how I never help him out. I finally cut him off and now he says he is no longer my brother. In short, don’t lend anyone in your family money they will rarely pay you back and it hurts relationships.