De la Madrid studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
He worked for Mexico's central bank and taught law at the UNAM before securing a position at the treasury in 1965. Between 1970 and 1972 he was employed by Pemex, Mexico's state-owned petroleum company, after which he held several other bureaucratic posts in the government of Luis Echeverría Álvarez. In 1976 he was chosen to serve in José López Portillo's cabinet as secretary of budget and planning.
The next president was Carlos Salinas.