How Hill Harper went from $100K in student debt to successful investor and award-winning actor

Grow talked with the actor about the best financial advice he's received, the correlation between money and health, and why it's OK to splurge sometimes.

Hill Harper attends the Netflix Golden Globe Weekend Cocktail Party at Cecconi's Restaurant on Jan. 4, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.
Charley Gallay | Getty Images

You likely know Frank Eugene “Hill” Harper as an award-winning actor who appears in the ABC drama “The Good Doctor.” He’s also an author, philanthropist, and entrepreneur—not to mention a two-time nominee for People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year. But perhaps Harper’s most impactful work has been as a longtime advocate for financial literacy.

On that front, the Iowa City native recently partnered up with Experian to launch Experian Boost , a free online tool that helps consumers instantly raise their credit score. “A recent study showed that if you have a subprime score [like 56% of Americans do], you will pay more than $200,000 over the course of your lifetime in added fees and costs,” Harper says. “That’s not fair, and it’s also sad.”

We sat down with Harper to talk about the best financial advice he’s received, the correlation between money and health, and why it’s OK to splurge sometimes.

Grow: Your 2011 book “The Wealth Cure” has been described as "a different kind of financial book—one that not only urges us to look at how we use our money but also at how we define wealth." What compelled you to write this book, and what are the key takeaways you hope to pass along?

Hill Harper: My Manifest Your Destiny Foundation works with young people from challenged backgrounds to help them achieve their goals and dreams. We polled kids from the foundation and asked, ‘What’s your biggest obstacle?’ Most of them said something money-related, like pursuing an education and family cohesion—money is the top thing couples argue about, [so it impacts whether] families stay together. I started to think, if I can help people with their relationship to money, perhaps I can impact other areas I’m passionate about.

At the same time, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which made me think about what true wealth is. I don’t care how much money you have—if you don’t have your health, it doesn’t matter. But having a positive relationship with money also impacts your health. There is direct correlation between the level of debt you carry and your blood pressure. Becoming smarter about money can have benefits in many different areas of life.

In your book, you talk about the excess spending that you see in Hollywood. Did you ever feel pressure to live above your means?

I never felt that pressure. If you’re happy with who you are and well adjusted, you don’t feel like you have to impress people. But at the same time, I don’t vilify people who like nice things. If it makes you happy and you can afford it , then you should spend money on it.

Acting comes along with job uncertainty. How do you handle not knowing exactly how much you might earn in a given year?

Being an actor is the same as being an independent contractor. We’re moving towards a world with a high percentage of independent contractors—even an Uber driver is an independent contractor. We’re not taking jobs at companies where we get a pension after 20 years. Other people aren’t creating the financial foundation for us; we as individuals have to take that upon ourselves now. This heightens the need to be financially literate . And the information and technology is out there for us to take control.

Two years ago, you adopted a baby boy as a single dad. How has being a parent impacted your financial life?

It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood how truly expensive kids are. I had to think long and hard about the things I’m putting in place for my son and his future. I set up a 529 immediately and looked at my life insurance policies.

More from Grow:

You're involved in an effort to improve youth financial literacy. What do you think are the most critical money lessons young people should know?

Without question, the most important financial tool for young people is to understand the power of savings, the time value of money, and compounded interest. If you start saving just a little bit early on and putting the money away and forgetting about it, compound interest will work on your behalf. It can be transformative in your life and the financial life of your family. The other thing is educating yourself around debt . A lot of young people get into high levels of debt, including student loans, and feel like they can’t crawl out from under it. That can be debilitating. You can’t be free if the cost of being you is too high. So keep your debt load low.

What money lessons did you learn growing up?

My mother was a good saver, and my father was very entrepreneurial. They had two different mind-sets, and I hope I was lucky to get the best of both. The reason I think people really like my book is that I am not from the Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey school, where they make you feel guilty for spending a penny or going on vacation. That’s not the way to live. My book is not about shame, penalty, or guilt. [It’s about] finding a way to build wealth, enjoy our lives, and live a holistically wealthy life. The mind-set should be, I’ve already put smart money tools in place so I know I can afford to go on vacation.

What's the best financial advice you've received?

My father told me to set up an automatic input into an S&P 500 index fund twice a month. I went through Vanguard, and clicked the option to reinvest the dividends and allow the time value of money to work on my behalf. Ultimately, that seeded the foundation to build something bigger. I leveraged my savings and investments to purchase real estate. [Now I’m] a real estate investor/owner with properties across the country.

Biggest money mistake you've made?

I invested in some risky start-ups because the entrepreneurs were good people. But the business just wasn’t there. Still, I wouldn’t take that away because I believe in supporting people attempting start-ups. If you have created a financial foundation in some areas, you can take more risk in others.

Best financial decision?

Consistently investing in real estate over time when I could, both commercial and residential for rental properties. That has been and will always be a foundational element for any investor.

What do you consider your smartest investment?

My smartest investment has always been to invest in myself. I graduated from Harvard with two graduate degrees and over $100,000 in student loan debt. But I believe that education and training ultimately buys you options, and that’s the most valuable thing anybody can have in their lives.

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