Some of the oldest family fortunes were built in the 1800s, during America's rocky but formative youth. You might have heard of the Rockefellers, who grew wealthy after John D. Rockefeller struck oil, and Levi Strauss, who got rich after inventing blue jeans to meet the demand for tough work pants during the Gold Rush.

America sure was the land of opportunity for enterprising immigrants who were determined to make it big! But a few generations later, some of the greatest family fortunes are gone. What happened is technically called a "reversal of fortune" — or sometimes referred to as "blowing your family's money at the casino."

In reality, a variety of factors may contribute to a family's fortune going up in smoke. The loss can happen in just one generation or stretch out over a century or longer. However, such losses are generally driven by bad decisions, such as overspending and debt, investments that don't pan out, and family members infighting over the money.

We may not have billions to lose, but we can still learn something from these families' misfortunes. Here's how five of the richest American families lost their money — don't forget to take notes!

1. The Vanderbilts

Cornelius Vanderbilt
Library of Congress
Cornelius Vanderbilt

The patriarch of this wealthy family built a steamship and railway empire using $100 that he borrowed from his mother in 1810. Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt was so successful that by the end of his life, he had amassed a $100 million fortune. The Vanderbilts were once the wealthiest family in the United States, but over the generations the family spent a wild amount of money on expensive luxuries like classical art, sprawling mansions and gambling.

Award-winning journalist and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is the Commodore's sixth-generation descendent, and he says his mother told him early on, "There's no trust fund." Today, the family's former wealth lives on through its contributions to American institutions and the Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Lesson #1

No matter how much money you have, control your spending, budget and invest wisely. How, might you ask? It all starts with opening a high-yield savings account to ensure you're earning interest on your hard-earned money. Any cash you might have sitting in a chequing account could be working for you while you sleep.

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