WEST MIAMI, Fla. — For years, Senator Marco Rubio struggled under the weight of student debt, mortgages and an extra loan against the value of his home totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 2012, financial salvation seemed to have arrived: A publisher paid him $800,000 to write a book about growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants.
In speeches, Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, spoke of his prudent plan for using the cash to finally pay off his law school loans, expressing relief that he no longer owed “a lady named Sallie Mae,” as he once called the lender.
But at the same time, he splurged on an extravagant purchase: $80,000 for a luxury speedboat, state records show. At the time, Mr. Rubio confided to a friend that it was a potentially inadvisable outlay that he could not resist. The 24-foot boat, he said, fulfilled a dream.
Among the serious contenders for the presidency, Mr. Rubio stands out for his youth, his meteoric political rise — and for the persistent doubts about his financial management, to the point that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign flagged the issue when vetting Mr. Rubio as a possible running mate in 2012, interviews show.
Supporters lined up to see Mr. Rubio at a book promotion stop in Miami in February. Proceeds from his two books have allowed the Rubios to take steps to stabilize their finances in recent years.
Angel Valentin for The New York Times
Many of those troubles have played out in an unusually public way, leading even some of his supporters to worry. As he rose in politics, he sometimes intermingled personal and political money — using a state Republican Party credit card years ago to pay for a paving project at his home and for travel to a family reunion, and putting his relatives on campaign payrolls.
Other moves seemed simply unwise: A few weeks ago, he disclosed that he had liquidated a $68,000 retirement account, a move that is widely discouraged by financial experts and which probably cost him about $24,000 in taxes and penalties.
In the past week, he suffered a new loss when he sold his second home in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, for $18,000 less than he and a friend paid for it a decade ago. The house had previously faced foreclosure after Mr. Rubio and his friend failed to make mortgage payments for five months.
These were not isolated incidents. A review of the Rubio family’s finances — including many new documents — reveals a series of decisions over the past 15 years that experts called imprudent: significant debts; a penchant to spend heavily on luxury items like the boat and the lease of a $50,000 2015 Audi Q7; a strikingly low savings rate, even when Mr. Rubio was earning large sums; and inattentive accounting that led to years of unpaid local government fees.
Mr. Rubio has acknowledged missteps: using personal credit cards to pay for his campaigns (a bad idea, he said); appointing his wife, Jeanette, as a treasurer of a political action committee (ill advised, he said); and using the party money for the reunion trip (an accident, he said). Mr. Rubio, in his 2012 memoir, “An American Son,” confessed a “lack of bookkeeping skills” and an “imperfect accounting system.”
In private conversations, Mr. Rubio has told friends that he learned how to manage money through trial and error. His poor, immigrant parents — his father a bartender, his mother a hotel maid — had little money to manage, he told them.
In a statement to The New York Times, Mr. Rubio said, “Like most Americans, I know what it’s like for money to be a limited resource and to have to manage it accordingly.”
He added: “Our primary financial motivation over the last 15 years has not been to become wealthy. It has been to provide for our children a happy upbringing and the chance at a great future.”
Mitt Romney and Mr. Rubio arriving in Kissimmee, Fla., on a presidential campaign stop in October 2012. Mr. Romney’s campaign flagged Mr. Rubio’s financial issues when vetting him as a possible running mate.
Stephen Crowley / The New York Times
Mr. Rubio’s allies said that his financial blunders are the scars of a self-made man, who rose to prominence despite lacking the wealth and connections that eased the path for so many of his rivals.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” said Dennis Baxley, a Florida House member and fellow Republican who served in the Legislature with Mr. Rubio. “That’s part of the excitement of Marco.”
It shows, Mr. Baxley said, that “an ordinary person without the financial support structure can do this with a tremendous amount of drive.”
The Rubios have taken steps to stabilize their finances in recent years, aided primarily by proceeds from his two books. Since 2012, they have started college savings accounts for his four children, put away at least $150,000, given $60,000 to charity and refinanced the mortgage on their primary home to lower the monthly payments.
But as Mr. Rubio, 44, seeks to counter questions about his stature and readiness for the presidency, his financial history creates particular complications. It has made him unusually reliant on a campaign donor, Norman Braman, a billionaire who subsidized Mr. Rubio’s job as a college instructor, hired him as lawyer and continues to employ his wife.
And it could undermine Mr. Rubio’s well-crafted political persona: The senator has long portrayed himself as a champion of financial austerity, railing against excessive government spending and runaway debt.
“We have a country,” he said in 2013, “that borrows too much money.” In 2010, he diagnosed the problem this way: “If you allow politicians to spend money, they’ll do it.”
As he campaigns for president, Mr. Rubio is embracing his rough financial patches as he seeks to connect with an electorate saddled with debt and stuck in low-paying jobs. After cashing out the retirement account last year, he explained the decision in a deliberately folksy way: He needed to replace a broken refrigerator, and was also preparing for personal expenses related to his campaign.
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“I’m not poor,” he said, “but I’m not rich, either.”
Mr. Rubio entered public life in a deep financial hole of his own making.
Soon after he was elected to the Legislature in 2000, he reported a net worth of zero, about $150,000 in student loan debt, and $30,000 in what he called assorted credit and retail debt.
It was the inauspicious start to a decade of big financial ups and downs. In interviews, friends and advisers describe Mr. Rubio as a young politician entering public life just out of law school, whose charisma and stardom quickly outstripped his financial acumen, leaving him unprepared to manage the expensive campaigns and lucrative career opportunities that came his way.
By 28, he was juggling a new family, earning a modest salary in the Florida House in addition to his law firm work and nursing a desire for higher office that required constant travel across the state.
“A lot of it was a function of age,” said Mr. Baxley, who mentored Mr. Rubio in the Florida House and remains close to him. “It was very challenging for him. He was a clear example of when you enter early, you have to do all of these things at the same time. And it’s hard to do them all at the same time well.”
Even as his government career took off, Mr. Rubio’s financial picture grew grimmer and the demands of the Legislature endangered his work for the Florida law firm, where his bosses became impatient with his lack of focus.
Despite an income of $90,000 in 2001, Mr. Rubio wrote in his memoir, monthly expenses became so strained that he and his wife sold one of their two cars and, along with their young daughter, moved into the home of his mother-in-law.
But the belt-tightening was short-lived. In 2003, he bought his mother-in-law’s home in West Miami for $175,000, putting no money down.
Within a few years, Mr. Rubio had landed a job at a high-profile Miami law firm paying him $300,000 a year. As he would later do with the proceeds from his book, Mr. Rubio spent heavily.
First, he bought a house in Tallahassee with another state lawmaker for $135,000, again putting no money down.
Then, by the end of 2005, the Rubios completed the purchase of a new home, twice the size of their previous one, for $550,000. The house, among the more expensive in West Miami, stood out from the aging homes nearby: It includes an in-ground pool, a handsome brick driveway, meticulously manicured shrubs and oversize windows.
Within a few weeks of the home purchase, Mr. Rubio, then a Republican leader in the House, borrowed $135,000 through a home equity line to pay for improvements to the house, from a politically connected Miami-based bank, U.S. Century, after the house was reappraised at $735,000.
Suddenly the owner of three homes, the Rubios saw their liabilities soar to $1 million from $330,000 in just a year. Harold Evensky, a longtime financial adviser who reviewed Mr. Rubio’s public financial disclosures at the request of The Times, called the rapid accumulation of debt “staggering.”
“This was someone that was living financially dangerously,” Mr. Evensky said.
Little of Mr. Rubio’s income at this time went into savings. An analysis of his financial disclosures by Jude Boudreaux, a longtime financial planner and an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans teaching personal finance, shows that Mr. Rubio earned $2.38 million from 1998 to 2008 but ended up with an estimated net worth of $53,000 (slightly more than Mr. Rubio disclosed himself). His savings rate during that period was about 2 percent.
“Practically nothing,” Mr. Boudreaux said.
Still, Mr. Rubio’s advisers said that the mortgages did not create a financial strain, and that his debt-to-income ratio did not exceed the 43 percent rate that the federal government considers worrisome. (The campaign declined to provide a specific figure.)
It was during this period of growing indebtedness, in the mid-2000s, that Mr. Rubio’s personal finances converged in unusual ways with his political activities. As he climbed the ranks of the Legislature, determined to reach the prestigious post of House speaker, Mr. Rubio set up political action committees to bankroll his political endeavors and obtained a credit card from the Republican Party of Florida.
But he struggled with the new financial responsibilities. “It was a learning curve for him to make sure everything was being paid out of the right canister,” said Mr. Baxley, the lawmaker.
The structure of the PACs was unorthodox, by Mr. Rubio’s own admission. One of them was run by his wife, and was used to reimburse the couple thousands of dollars for meals, gas and long-distance calls. The other employed three of the Rubio family’s relatives.
During his Senate campaign in 2010, his opponents pounced on the arrangement, suggesting he had used the PACs to subsidize his family’s lifestyle. “It wasn’t true,” Mr. Rubio later wrote, “but I had helped create the misunderstanding my opponents exploited.”
His use of the Republican credit card for personal expenses was harder to explain. Records showed that he charged the party’s card for stone pavers at his house and travel to the family reunion in Georgia.
Mr. Rubio blamed a travel agent for the reunion charge and said he had pulled out the wrong credit card to pay for the pavers. “I wish that none of them had ever been charged,” he wrote in his book. He reimbursed the state party for each expense, he said.
But similar practices carried over to Mr. Rubio’s campaign for the Senate, and to the fund-raising group that he created after his election, Reclaim America PAC. A review of campaign finance records shows that Mr. Rubio employed two nephews who had worked for his local PAC years earlier, as well as close friends.
Since 2009, Mr. Rubio’s political organizations have paid at least $90,000 to companies registered by one of the nephews, Orlando Cicilia III, which provided consulting and video production services.
Mr. Rubio’s supporters said his reliance on close friends and even family was not a case of patronage so much as necessity: He was running for the Senate against Florida’s popular governor, Charlie Crist, who commanded the loyalty of the state’s Republican operatives and strategists.
After the race, a new problem arose. The Federal Election Commission repeatedly cited Mr. Rubio’s campaign — and fined it more than $9,000 — for running afoul of campaign finance rules. In one case, the commission found $210,000 in improper donations, many of which violated contribution limits.
The Senate has provided Mr. Rubio with a prestigious platform, to write books, travel the world, deliver speeches and, today, mount a run for the White House. But he has told friends that the job has imposed its own form of financial hardship, and he expressed occasional envy of colleagues in the private sector.
Mr. Rubio’s Senate salary of $174,000 is far less than he earned as a lawyer and consultant, and the Rubio family expenses are significant. All four of their children attend parochial school.
He has looked for other ways to bring in cash: Shortly before running for the Senate, Mr. Rubio agreed to teach at Florida International University, for $69,000 a year (the salary was later reduced). Those involved in the negotiations said it was clear that Mr. Rubio’s finances were stretched.
“I think that was an issue,” said Steve Saul, who was vice president for government relations at the university when Mr. Rubio was hired. “He needed the money.”
The Rubios have further supplemented their income with royalties from his two books and Mrs. Rubio’s work for Mr. Braman, Mr. Rubio’s wealthy campaign donor.
But Mrs. Rubio’s firm, JDR Events, has had its own bookkeeping lapses. Over the past few years, she failed to pay annual business licensing fees to the City of West Miami, despite nine written notices and repeated phone calls to her home, records show.
After The Times made an inquiry with the city on May 26, a check arrived from Mrs. Rubio two days later for the $637.50 she still owed. In a handwritten note to the city, she said that she had mistakenly believed her payments were up-to-date.
“My apologies,” she wrote.
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