Marco Rubio made $174,000 as a U.S. senator last year. He earned $52,000 from book royalties and a university teaching position, and at least $5,000 more from rental property.
And yet, the 43-year-old Florida Republican also made what is typically viewed as a desperate financial maneuver — cashing out nearly $70,000 in retirement funds.
As Rubio runs for president, newly disclosed personal finance details have drawn fresh attention to a long-running problem during his political career: his struggles with money.
Rubio is one of the least wealthy senators or presidential candidates, offering a potential contrast with rivals such as Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), who charges eye-popping sums to deliver speeches, and Jeb Bush (R), who comes from a well-heeled family.
But the problem isn’t so much his income; it’s his spending. Over the years, Rubio’s spending habits have drawn regular scrutiny from opponents and have put him in an uncomfortable spot.
In his 2010 Senate campaign, for example, Rubio battled attacks over his questionable usage of a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses. He also purchased a stake in a rental home that at one point faced foreclosure and is now likely to be sold for less than the purchase price.
In new disclosure forms filed by Rubio last week, he revealed that he sold $68,241 worth of retirement funds last September. Experts say such a move tends to reflect an extraordinary need for immediate cash, since it comes with a sizable tax penalty.
“It means that he is probably on some level living above his means, because he is borrowing against his future,” said Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Rubio said that he needed “access to cash” for personal expenses and in anticipation of running for president. He said he has at least two other active retirement accounts.
“My refrigerator broke down,” Rubio said. “That was $3,000. I had to replace the air-conditioning unit in our home. My kids all go to school, and they are getting closer to college, and school’s getting more expensive.”
Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, have four children in private schools. In total, they pay about $40,000 in tuition per school year.
Florida Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert said Rubio’s explanation could be politically problematic.
“Most average Americans are not buying a $3,000 refrigerator,” he said. “Most families don’t have the luxury of sending their kids to private schools.”
Rubio placed 456 out of 538 in Roll Call’s rankings of Capitol Hill’s wealthiest lawmakers. Rubio was in the red, according to the 2013 data, with a net worth of negative $140,000.
On the campaign trail, Rubio emphasizes his humble roots, noting that he is the son of Cuban immigrants who worked as a bartender and a maid. He frequently notes that until recently, he was saddled with student loan debt.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting, because both Bush and Clinton are going to try to stress that they’re in touch with the middle class, but everybody knows they are both millionaires,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.
By his own acknowledgment, however, Rubio is far from destitute. His presidential financial disclosure shows he has made between $100,001 and $1,000,000 from his latest book, “American Dreams.” Rubio’s 2014 income alone — his wife’s income isn’t clear — puts his household into the top 5 percent nationally, according to recent census data.
When he ran for the Senate in 2010, Rubio faced heat from then-Republican opponent Charlie Crist over his use of a credit card issued to him by the Florida Republican Party. Rubio had to defend himself against charges that he didn’t practice the fiscal conservatism he praised publicly.
Records obtained at the time by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald showed that Rubio used the card to spend $1,000 to repair a family vehicle, $135 at a barbershop — he said it was for a “silent auction” — and about $3,000 on flights that he said were charged as the result of a billing mistake. He reimbursed the state GOP for the flights and said he paid for the other personal expenses that he charged to the card.
Rubio addressed his finances in his 2012 book, “An American Son.”
“Yes, I have debts. But my debts are not some exotic instruments contrived to support my extravagant lifestyle,” Rubio wrote. “They consist almost entirely of two things: my mortgages on my two homes and my student loan from law school.”
When Rubio left the Florida state House in 2008, his net worth was about $8,300, according to his filing with the state. By that point in his career, Rubio was making about $300,000 annually as a lawyer at the firm Broad and Cassel. He had more than $900,000 in debt, according to his filing, including the student loan he has since paid off.
Rubio’s latest filing shows that his remaining debt, like that of many Americans, is tied to housing. He and his wife have between $450,000 and $1,000,000 in debt from mortgages and a home equity credit line.
One of the mortgages is for a Tallahassee house he bought in 2005 with embattled former congressman David Rivera (R), a longtime ally. That purchase is shaping up as an investment gone wrong. The two were once served with a foreclosure notice on the property, and they recently put the home on the market for $125,000 — $10,000 less than they paid for it, as Politico first reported.
Rubio’s close relationship with billionaire businessman and philanthropist Norman Braman, a longtime backer, highlights another unorthodox element of his family’s finances.
Rubio’s wife owns an event-planning business that does work for the Braman Family Foundation. Her business was valued at between $15,001 and $50,000, according to Marco Rubio’s latest financial disclosure. His campaign said her revenue came exclusively from her work for the Braman foundation.
“The wonderful thing about what she does — it’s not just the advice, it’s also making sure that the funding that we provide is utilized properly,” Braman said in a March interview with The Washington Post.
Braman and his daughter, Debra Wechsler, declined to say how much or how Jeanette Rubio is paid. “We pay her,” Wechsler said. “It takes a lot of her time.”
Even at the dawn of Rubio’s career in the state legislature, money weighed on his mind. His cash problems were so severe that in 2001 he confronted the possibility that he might need to leave politics in order to provide for his family.
In “An American Son,” Rubio recalls praying in church as he braced for the possibility of resigning from the state House. Afterward, he got call from a law firm offering him a pay increase.
“I had just been on my knees in prayer asking God’s help,” he writes. “Now, a door suddenly appeared to open and offer me a way out of my predicament.”
Ed O’Keefe and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.