Italicized links open a new window to an external site

Click here to display our home page

Lesson Ideas
Warm-up Activities
Interesting Numbers

How Much Money Do You Owe?

There are many purposes to which a table like this can be put.  Depending upon your students' abilities and needs, you might want to have them work (individually or in small groups) on questions like:

  1. What was the Federal Debt at the end of the fiscal year during George Herbert Walker Bush's first year in office?
  2. At the end of what fiscal year shown on the table was the change in the debt the smallest?  At the end of what fiscal year was it the largest?
  3. What were the last names of the presidents who served during the period 1977-2008, and how many years did each hold office?
  4. Under which president named in the table was the most debt accumulated?  Under which did the greatest percentage increase occur?
  5. Under which president named in the table was the least debt accumulated?  Under which did the smallest percentage increase occur?
  6. What formula would one use to calculate the change in the debt for a given row?
  7. What formula would one use to calculate the % change for a given period of time?
  8. On average, how much did the debt grow each day from October 1, 2007 through January 20, 2009?
  9. Using the daily growth number you calculated in #8 above, how much will the debt grow during the time you are in class today?
  10. How much will it grow during the time it takes you to read this sentence?

If they are familiar with this sort of data and calculations, you might want to assign each a president with whom to work, then have them use the Treasury's web site to research and complete a debt table (like that above) for the years during which their assigned president served.

If your students are unfamiliar with large numbers, you could begin by pulling numbers from the table, and showing them how to read them in English.  For example, $2,602,337,712,041.16 is read as two trillion, six hundred two billion, three hundred thirty seven million, seven hundred twelve thousand, forty one dollars and sixteen cents.

Related activities


NOTE (January 28, 2010) The Senate passed a bill previously passed by the House of Representatives to raise the ceiling on the national debt to $14.294 trillion. However, since the Senate increased the debt ceiling in the bill from the $13.029 trillion passed by the House, the bill was sent back to the House for reconsideration. On February 4, 2010, the House passed the bill as approved by Senate, and the bill was then sent to the President for his signature. President Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, February 12, 2010.

NOTE (December 24, 2009) The Senate passed a bill previously passed by the House of Representatives to raise the ceiling on the national debt to $12.394 trillion. The bill was signed into law on Dec. 28 by President Obama. It should allow the federal government to continue operations through mid-February 2010. A bill expanding the debt ceiling further is scheduled for congressional action in mid-January 2010.

NOTE (March 28, 2009) A good summary of the Federal Debt, its various components, and its history is available at the Wikipedia page on the United States Public Debt:

NOTE (October 1, 2008): For the first time in history, the U.S. Federal Debt surpassed $10 trillion. While most news outlets were reporting the efforts of the administration to have Congress enact the $700 billion "bailout"/rescue bill, nobody seemed to be reporting the actual borrowing taking place. The Treasury Department's Debt to the Penny web site showed that from September 19 through September 30, 2008 (just over 1 week), the United States borrowed slightly more than $360 billion - the fastest pace at which money has been borrowed in U.S. history. Borrowing at this rate would soon reach the debt ceiling enacted at the end of July, so the "bailout" bill includes a provision to increase the debt ceiling to $11.315 trillion.

NOTE (July 30, 2008): President Bush signed the bill raising the ceiling on the national debt to $10.6 trillion. Domestic news reports of this signing are difficult to find, but the International Herald Tribune reported it in an item located on the web at

NOTE (September 29, 2007): President Bush signed the bill raising the ceiling on the national debt to $9.815 trillion. I have been unable to find a news reports of this event, however the legislative history of this bill, showing the date of the President's signature can be read at I also found a news release on the White House web site. Among other things, it notes the signing of the bill to increase the debt limit, but provides no numbers, details or bill signing photos. You may view it at

NOTE (March 21, 2006): According to the Associated Press, "With no fanfare, President Bush signed a bill Monday pushing the ceiling on the national debt to nearly $9 trillion." The actual cap is $8.965 trillion. The NPR report on the bill is at The legislative history of this bill, passed by the House in May 2005 and the Senate on March 16, 2006, can be read at

NOTE (January 31, 2006): According to Treasury Secretary John Snow in a letter to Congress dated December 29, 2005, the Federal Debt will hit the $8.184 trillion limit (signed into law on Friday, November 19, 2004) sometime in mid-February 2006.  If the limit is not raised by then, he will be able to delay a default for approximately one month. In fact, the limit appears to have been hit during the last week in January 2006.

NOTE (November 26, 2004): On Thursday, November 18, 2004, with the government facing default, Congress passed legislation raising the debt ceiling to $8.184 trillion.  President Bush quietly signed the bill into law on Friday, November 19, 2004.  According to the Treasury's Debt to the Penny web page, the total debt immediately jumped $53 billion.  The following Tuesday (November 23, 2004) it jumped another $21 billion to $7.519 trillion.

NOTE (August 17, 2004): The Federal Debt is fast approaching the ceiling of $7.384 trillion signed into law on May 27, 2003.  At the close of business yesterday, August 16, 2004, it totaled $7,335,563,157,880.75.  This is just $48 billion beneath the ceiling.  The average monthly increase so far this fiscal year has been $52 billion.  Therefore, unless Congress raises the ceiling quite soon, the US will almost certainly hit it before the end of the FY2004, and the games described in the note above will begin anew.  Treasury Secretary John Snow wrote to Congress that the government would hit the ceiling in late September or early October, and could avoid a default until mid to late November.

NOTE: The US government reached the statutory debt ceiling (6.4 trillion dollars) at the beginning of 2003.  The Republican Congress, worrying about the political impact of raising the debt ceiling again so soon after raising it in the summer of 2002, has been reluctant to increase it.  To avoid defaulting on the debt, an almost unthinkable occurrence, the Treasury began engaging in various accounting tricks (most probably delaying required payments to government trust funds) thereby allowing it to avoid new borrowing that would breach the ceiling.  On May 12, 2003, the Associated Press reported that the Republicans passed a nearly $1 trillion debt ceiling increase in the House, and were trying to get it past the Senate.  On May 19, the Washington Post reported that the Treasury Department had told Congress that it would run out of maneuvering room on May 28; and that if a debt increase was not passed by then the following items would be threatened: (1) $21 billion in individual and business income tax refunds, (2) $40 billion in monthly payments to Social Security recipients, and (3) $12 billion in payments to defense contractors.  On Tuesday, May 27, without the fanfare that usually surrounds a bill signing, George W. Bush signed into law a bill that increased the national debt ceiling to just under $7.4 trillion.  On June 16, 2003, the Guardian reported that a Treasury Department spokesman reported the US could hit the new debt ceiling as early as April 2004.  On June 28, 2003, the Washington Post reported on an interview with a Treasury Department official who suggested that the country would be better off with no debt ceiling.

return to the Interesting Numbers page

return to the Warm-up activities page

return to the Lesson Ideas page

copyright 1998-2012 All Rights Reserved.
original web posting: Thursday, December 10, 1998
last modified: Friday, February 10, 2012