I’m a “been there, done that” kind of guy. Most people who know me would say that I’m successful, at least in terms of net worth. The benchmarks for those conclusions have lost their appeal for me. I’ve learned that it doesn’t much matter how big my house is, how expensive my car is, or how fast it can go from zero to sixty. My jeans don’t have to be Calvin’s, and my scent can be plain soap and water.
Maturity might have something to do with this de-emphasis on material wealth. As I got older, impressing folks got to be less important. I saw that there wasn’t much point to making more money just to make more money. The stuff that money acquires offered little comfort during times of distress. There had to be more.
I spent many years relying on my own ability to find out what “more” was. I started my journey as a poor kid growing up in Endicott, New York, then emigrated southward during the Vietnam War years to settle in Charlotte, North Carolina. After some difficult times, I ended up on television and radio and acquired some modicum of celebrity. Mine was a kind of Horatio Alger story. Some people thought I “had it all.” This book is about setting that notion to rest and offering you a financial blueprint that allows you to avoid my mistakes as you benefit from my professional experience as an investment counselor for the last twenty years.
In 1985 I went broke. That’s right: flat, stone-cold broke. Not only did I have zero money, I didn’t have a job or the prospect of one. In fact, with me in control of my business life and my personal finances, this financial wizard managed to personally run up a debt of $400,000. Not bad, huh? Calling the shots myself, I blew 400 large on a business that failed miserably.
At one time I owned nineteen shoe stores in four states. I called them Shubooties stores (sounds a little hokey now, but it worked in the ’80s). My concept was to sell designer ladies’ footwear for one price: $6.88. When I opened the first store in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1981, women figured out that this was a pretty good value, so they bought a lot of shoes. I opened a second store, and a third, and a fourth. Before you could say “personal guarantee,” I owned nineteen stores. I had taken nothing and turned it into $4 million in annual revenue.
I thought I was the next Sam Walton. Like most human beings, when the business appeared to be successful, I thought I had something to do with it. Of course, when it all headed south, I wondered how God could do that to me.
The reality is that the success came from the Lord—and so did the failure. Obviously he needed me to be humbled to bring me to him. So he allowed me to lose $400,000.
I was thirty-five years old. I remember thinking that half of my life was over. So I made a decision: I didn’t want to sell shoes anymore. I also didn’t want to travel.
The question then became What do I want to do? That’s a question I would urge everyone to ask.
Somewhere I had read a quote that always made sense to me. It went something like this: If you can’t make your hobby your work, you will never go to work.
That forced me to ask a few more questions. What were my hobbies? Although I had an affinity for golf, that wouldn’t allow me to pay off the debt (unless I was Tiger Woods, which I obviously wasn’t). And the debt had to be paid. That was not an option.
Reading had also been a hobby. I always bought copies of the Wall Street Journal whenever I was in an airport. I didn’t understand everything I read, but I still read it.
In 1982 I had gone to visit a boyhood friend. I had been trying to sell him a Shubooties franchise. Our meeting was set for early morning, so he invited me to a breakfast meeting with several of his friends. These ten guys got together once a month to talk about the stock market. They pooled their money, made decisions about what to buy or sell, and then went to their regular jobs. This was an epiphany for me.
When I returned home, I started an investment club that later became known as Group Ten Investments. Stocks became my hobby. I devoured everything I could read about the investment business, for a couple of reasons. First, I loved it. Second, whenever you get ten guys together for an investment club, it’s difficult to get them to agree on whether they want McDonald’s or Wendy’s french fries, let alone what stock they should purchase. I rapidly figured out that I seemed to have some talent for leading their investment decisions.
So what was my hobby? Stock research and investing. Did stockbrokers make a lot of money? I suspected they did, which would allow me to pay off that looming debt. Would anybody hire me as a stockbroker? I had no idea.
I was broke. I had no formal financial training. I hadn’t even graduated from college. Now I was faced with a new question: Why would anyone trust me with their money? After all, I had just gone broke.
The investment firm handling the Group Ten account was J. C. Bradford and Company, a firm that later merged with Paine Webber and then UBS Warburg. With a definite sense of trepidation but an equal sense of “How could I possibly be any worse off than I already am?” I dialed their office. To this day I can’t believe they said yes.
On October 31, 1985, I reported to work as a stockbroker in training. I still owed $400,000, and my training salary amounted to $2,000 a month gross before taxes and deductions. While I tried not to look up at the mountain of debt facing me, I was acutely aware that if I had, Kilimanjaro would have been staring back at me.
At least I had a job with predictable money coming in. It wasn’t much, but it was steady. What next? How do you pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars on two grand gross per month? The answer is: one day at a time.
During those first years as a broker, I started teaching investment classes at the local community college at night. That meant working from seven in the morning until ten o’clock at night three or four days per week. Weekends were consumed with preparing for the next week’s class. In retrospect, it was fabulous training.
I could write another book on the specifics of how I paid that $400,000 debt back and how I guide other people to pay their debts. I don’t want anyone to think it was easy. Most assuredly it was not. However, it was worth it (although you can be sure I don’t want to do it again). Fortunately, the Lord allowed me to address the adversity, and he provided a way. I now know all things are indeed possible through the Lord who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). To me those are not just words from the Bible; they are a living reality every day of my life.
How do I know that it was the Lord who did it and not me? Because there can be no other explanation. Quite simply, on my own, I could not have paid that $400,000 back in six years. Therefore, he must have done it.
The harsh reality is that too many of us are really bad at managing money. We don’t understand budgeting, borrowing, lending, investing, or saving.
God blessed me with the ability to make a buck. Over twenty years ago I used that ability to acquire meaningless junk. Now I think the Lord is telling me to teach other Christians how to be prudent with money so we can serve the greater good for his glory. In the years since 1985 I have been managing money as a sales manager, a branch manager, and now as the senior partner of Triune Capital Advisors, LLC, a full-service brokerage firm. Prior to that I served on the Investment Advisory Committee for Interstate/Johnson-Lane. For nine years I also hosted “The Danny Fontana Show” on WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina. So I’m not a novice at giving financial advice.
First and foremost, however, this book is an attempt to teach the art of managing money using biblical precepts. Throughout the chapters I will suggest that you follow the advice in the parable of the talents: invest God’s money (see Matt. 25:14–29). Don’t hide it in your mattress, bury it in the backyard, or place all of God’s gifts in a savings account. Be good stewards of God’s blessings.
This book won’t be a textbook. God’s Word took care of the instruction manual. I will simply use real experiences from my life and some of my clients’ lives to demonstrate the mistakes most people make and then apply principles of Scripture to solve the problems.
People ask me today, “What is the source of your optimism?” The answer should be obvious. Planning is important, but trusting in the Lord is more important. If you believe it, the Lord will provide.