For the horse, see Spendthrift (horse). For the 1936 film, see Spendthrift (film).

A spendthrift (also called profligate) is someone who spends money prodigiously and who is extravagant and recklessly wasteful, often to a point where the spending climbs well beyond her or his means. The word derives from an obsolete sense of the word "thrift" to mean prosperity rather than frugality,[1] so that a "spendthrift" is one who has spent their prosperity.[2]

Historical figures who have been characterized as spendthrifts include Karl Marx,[3][4] George IV of Great Britain, King Ludwig II of Bavaria,[5] and Marie Antoinette the Queen of France.[6]

The term is often used by the press as an adjective applied to governments who are thought to be wasting public money.[7][8]


While the pair of words may seem to imply the opposite of its meaning (as if you are thrifty in your spending), it follows the tradition of the earlier word "scattergood", the first part being an undoing of the second.[9]

In artwork

A Rake's Progress, the prison scene.

William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1732–33) displays in a series of paintings the spiralling fortunes of a wealthy but spendthrift son and heir who loses his money, and who as a consequence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bedlam.

In literarture

Legal issues

The modern legal remedy for spendthrifts is usually bankruptcy. However, during the 19th and 20th centuries, a few jurisdictions, such as the U.S. states of Oregon and Massachusetts, experimented with laws under which the family of such a person could have him or her legally declared a "spendthrift" by a court of law.[10] In turn, such persons were considered to lack the legal capacity to enter into binding contracts.[11][12] Even though such laws made life harder for creditors (who now had the burden of ensuring that any prospective debtor had not been judicially declared a spendthrift), they were thought to be justified by the public policy of keeping a spendthrift's family from ending up in the poorhouse or on welfare.[13] Such laws have since been abolished — in some countries — in favor of modern bankruptcy, which is more favorable to creditors.

Receivership is another equitable remedy for a spendthrift, by which a state-court-appointed trustee or attorney manages and sells the property of the debtor in default on debts.

In conservatorship, a fiduciary handles both the personal affairs and paying the debts of an incapacitated person. Infamously, Theodore Roosevelt was conservator for his brother Elliott Roosevelt I.


  1. thefreedictionary.com, "thrift"
  2. World Wide Words, "how thrift applied to spend can end up being someone who is not thrifty"
  3. "Marx was notoriously incapable of keeping accounts, and [his wife] Jenny was a regular customer of the London pawnbrokers." Kołakowski, Leszek (1978). Main Currents of Marxism, Vol I: The Founders, Oxford: Clarendon Press, ISBN 0192851071 p. 193-194
  4. "Engels was always sending Marx money; when he finally retired from the family firm, he made Marx an annuity of £350—several times more than the average family lived on but not enough for Marx, who always adjusted his spending to a level above what his benefactors supplied." Roger Kimball, "The Death of Socialism", New Criterion April 2002, accessed 20 November 2012
  5. Gerhard Hojer (ed.): König Ludwig II.-Museum Herrenchiemsee. Katalog (Munich, 1986, p. 137)
  6. , Fraser, Antonia (2001). Marie Antoinette (1st ed.). New York: N.A. Talese/Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-48948-5 p. 226
  7. Westmore, Peter (2011). "Why Portuguese voters punished spendthrift Government" News Weekly, June 25, 2011, accessed 20 November 2012
  8. "In capitals such as Athens, Madrid and Rome, large portions of the sovereign debt racked up by spendthrift governments are owed to the countries' own banks..." Chu, Henry and Lauren Frayer (2012). "Europe's governments, banks perilously entwined: Much of the crushing debt that was racked up by the former is owed to the latter." Los Angeles Times, 19 May 2012, accessed 20 November 2012
  9. Etymology Online:
    c.1600, from spend + thrift in sense of "savings, profits, wealth." Replaced earlier scattergood (1570s) and spend-all (1550s).
  10. William Herbert Page, The Law of Contracts, 2nd ed. (Cincinnati: W.H. Anderson Co., 1920), 2848-2849.
  11. See ORS 126.335 (repealed Or. Stat. 1961, ch. 344, § 109). Oregon's unusual law resulted in a famous conflict-of-laws opinion: Lilienthal v. Kaufman, 239 Ore. 1, 395 P.2d 543 (1964).
  12. Chandler v. Simmons, 97 Mass. 508, 514 (1867).
  13. Olshen v. Kaufman, 235 Or. 423, 385 P.2d 161 (1963). This case involved the same defendant and was relied upon by the majority in Lilienthal. Both cases involved joint ventures for the sale of binoculars.

External links

Look up spendthrift or profligate in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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