Today, chef, author and award-winning television personality Anthony Bourdain is financially successful. But for many years, he barely scraped by.
As he admitted in a recent essay, he never even had a savings account until age 44: "I didn't put anything aside, ever. Money came in; money went out. I was always a paycheck behind, at least. ... I was constantly in debt." It wasn't until the year 2000, when his book Kitchen Confidential was published, that Bourdain's career and finances finally took a positive turn.
Right up until that point, he wrote, "I hadn't filed taxes in about 10 years. I was seriously behind on rent. It had been about a decade since I'd communicated with American Express in a timely manner."
To learn more about how Bourdain climbed out of debt, Mic caught up with the star Tuesday at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, New York, where he was hosting the Balvenie and American Craft Council's 2017 Rare Craft Fellowship Awards.
We asked Bourdain for his secrets to success — as well as what not to do. He spilled on a range of topics, including how to seize once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, why he hates haggling, how to survive as a craftsperson and why he really doesn't mind paying taxes.
Here are the highlights, edited for length and clarity.
Mic: Young people today are a lot like you were: They have too little savings and too much debt. How do you even start to climb out?
Anthony Bourdain: In a perfect world, we'd all be "pay as you go."
I personally ... [have] lived with debt for most of my life — the throbbing terror of being hopelessly in debt with absolute certainty that I would never be able to climb out, going to bed every night fearful, with reason, that the people I owed money to could garnish my wages or put a lien on the few hundred dollars I had in my bank account.
Now that I'm making money, I try really hard, in an almost pathological way, to pay as I go. I do not carry any credit card debt from month to month.
That is a luxury — an unimaginable one for most of my life until age 44. So I don't know what to tell somebody who is coming out of university now.
How do you get out from under your student-loan debt? I don't know what to tell you.
Mic: Is there any advice you would give or a first step you can take?
AB: Live responsibly? Don't spend money on stuff you can't or shouldn't afford? I certainly never lived that way, so I'd hesitate how to tell anyone else how to live. I'm sure there are lots of sensible steps you can take — I was just, unfortunately, never that guy.
If you are fortunate enough to put down a nice score, as I did, if you find yourself above the surface, above the water for once in your life, try not to screw up. Make the most of that opportunity, I would say. Get out from under and stay there.
But to ask a 22-year-old to not grab life by the horns, even if it's not sensible to do so? I haven't exactly led by example.
Mic: Maybe that's the advice?
AB: Yeah, don't be like me! Well, I have some good advice: Cocaine is a really bad idea. That's definitely not going to help your debt situation.
And if you do get out from under, try to make smart moves from that point forward. You don't get a lot of breaks in your life — most people don't even get one — so if you do get one? Try to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Mic: What do you wish you knew at age 20?
AB: If I went back in time, popped up and told myself everything — all the terrible, stupid, painful humiliating things that were going to happen to me — I would not have listened. I would have charged forward heedlessly anyway.
And it kind of worked out for me. But as a practical, sensible model, I'm probably not your go-to guy. I kind of screwed up my way into success. I did everything wrong, and it paid off. It's a rebuke to good sense and my mom, who can't get over it.
If you find yourself at age 44 and you're still dunking French fries, you're hopelessly in debt, with your dead Christmas tree from six months ago moldering in the corner of your apartment, waiting for the electricity to be shut off and you write a best-selling book — try to make the most of that! I did.
Mic: You don't like haggling. Why is that?
AB: Even at my brokest, I was not a haggler. I was not someone who was going to chisel every dollar out of somebody. Life is too short.
Who wins at the end of the day if you manage to get it a little bit cheaper? You've made somebody else miserable. You've made yourself miserable. You've wasted time that could be better spent enjoying your limited time on this planet.
People could say, "Easy for you to say — you're making money," but I was always that way. I'm not going to stand there trying to talk someone down a few dollars. You either pay the price people are asking or walk away.
Mic: Is there a guiding principle to follow if you want to become a craftsperson?
AB: To try to make a living selling something you make painstakingly over time in a traditional way in a marketplace where everybody else is doing it quicker and cheaper, that's a romantic enterprise — it's not good business sense.
So be sure not only that you really want to do it, but that you're good at it and that it will make you happy, whether you make money out of it or not.
My advice would be, and I try to follow this advice in everything that I do, is never ask what the market wants. Ask yourself, "What am I good at?" Or, "What's interesting to me? What do I appreciate about this work?"
It's a fatal instinct, before making a thing — whether it's a television show or a pair of shoes — wondering too hard what people want, what does the market demand, what are expectations.
Those are suffocating impulses and we'd never get anywhere if we thought that way. It's the difference between great films and lame franchises... I don't care how much money or what people promise me. That's no way to live.
Mic: The current administration wants to cut tax rates. You've said you don't mind paying taxes. Why is that?
AB: I don't like paying taxes. When you realize what percent of every dollar is going to the government to services you may or may not directly benefit from — there are moments of quiet frustration for sure. But, look, life is good. I'm doing okay. I'm doing well.
Maybe I take a different attitude, remembering what it's like to work as a short-order cook, remembering what it's like to show up at an emergency room without insurance and not knowing how I was going to pay for it, remembering what it was like living in fear of needing an unexpected root canal that would completely clean me out. ... I couldn't afford to get sick.
Remembering those things, I do feel empathy for my neighbor, whether I know them or not. I'm a New Yorker, so if I get on my elevator, I don't know my next-door neighbor's name. We barely nod at each other. But I do feel there are things that bond society together: empathy for your fellow citizens and the other people on this planet. Maybe that's an out-of-fashion way to feel, but it just seems like basic decency.
Everyone should expect a decent education. If you get sick, you shouldn't worry about dying alone and uncared for. If you shout out for help, someone hopefully will be there to help you. I don't see it as an entitlement; I see it as decent human behavior.
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