In 2006, Chris Powell was a pretty successful fitness trainer in Arizona. He’d been featured on a morning news show, built a stable of clients and invented a portable cooler system, complete with pre-portioned containers and a countdown timer, designed to make meal plans easier to follow.
Then he decided to mass-produce his invention. He gave an overseas manufacturer $75,000 from his own bank account and credit cards, plus more than $100,000 he’d borrowed from other people. “The factory sent over a container of units, but when I opened the carton my heart dropped,” Powell says. “They’d messed up the containers, zippers were breaking and the measurements were totally off.”
He swiped his credit cards for replacement parts and hired workers to run a makeshift factory line in his friend’s backyard to fix the product. “At this point, the cost surpassed the retail price,” he says. “I stopped training [clients] while I tried desperately to revive the product, but it continued to have quality issues.”
By May 2008, Powell was more than $200,000 in debt. Collectors called daily. He couldn’t afford rent and he stopped paying his monthly bills. “I started having massive panic attacks and slipping into depression,” he says. “I packed everything into my car and slept on friends’ couches. I would only stay a few days before moving on because I felt like such a burden.”
With determination and focus he started to turn his life around the following year, and in 2011, got his biggest career break yet when he was hired as the trainer on ABC’s popular “Extreme Weight Loss” reality show. He went on to write three best-selling books and launch a fitness app with his wife. Here, Powell talks about his journey to pay off debt, the upside of failure and the money rules he and his wife Heidi follow to keep their family of six on track.
How did you start climbing out of debt?
I went to California to get a new start. I stopped at a tattoo parlor and tattooed my commitment down the side of my torso: to make a positive change in a million lives. It seemed far-fetched, but I needed something to work toward, some sort of hope. I started training again and could eventually afford to rent a small house.
At a self-improvement seminar in December 2008, I met Heidi. We were both passionate about helping people, and since she’d worked with her family’s land development company for years, she had an amazing business sense. She looked at all of my credit cards and interest rates. We attacked the highest-interest debt first. She had me actually pick up the phone when debt collectors called and settle the balances. She taught me the power of facing [debt] head on. I’m not completely debt-free yet, but I’m free from all of my past credit card debts, which is an incredible feeling.
How did you turn your life around to become a celebrity trainer and television star?
My friend David [a client who I’d helped lose 400 pounds] posted his before and after pictures on MySpace, and they went viral. News magazines and TV shows from around the world started reaching out to us. I asked a friend who was a casting producer if her company would be interested in documenting [more weight-loss transformations], and we began consulting them on the development of a show. The original plan was for a celebrity trainer to host it, but when they sold it to ABC, the execs requested me.
What did it feel like to go from being broke to hugely successful?
Being broke—and mentally broken—has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts. Not only did it humble me, but becoming a little more successful day after day means so much more. Failure in the past seems to turn the volume up on success when it happens.
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What money rules do you live by now?
Heidi is the financial brain of the family. [Here are some of her] financial rules: One, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. No matter how tempting it is to buy that new weight set on the promise of money coming in, don’t do it until the deal has closed.
Two, happiness will never come from material possessions, but misery will come from buying more than you need. Things cost money to maintain. The more conservatively you live, the more money you will have to buy experiences that create memories, not things that cause headaches.
Three, diversify! Putting all of your eggs in one basket means that if that basket goes away, so do all of your eggs.
Your weight loss program focuses on physical fitness and having a healthy mindset. Can any of your advice for getting your body in shape also be applied to financial journeys?
Absolutely. First, small steps lead to big change. Commit to completing just one thing at a time. Eventually, you will see monumental transformation. [Just make sure you have] realistic expectations. The road isn’t all hugs and high fives. Stay the course, be patient, trust the process and you will get there.
Rallying your team: Surround yourself with people who genuinely care about your wellbeing and have financial smarts. Learn from them, and ask them questions. Stop comparing yourself to others. If you do, you will never be happy, which is what you are really pursuing, isn’t it?
Take responsibility. If you mess up, own it. Let go of your ego and learn from everything that happens.
What money lessons did you learn growing up?
I never learned many money lessons. My parents focused on giving me opportunities to build skills, like music lessons, language, martial arts, sports, art, etc. They encouraged anything creative, and always shared their unconditional belief in me. It gave me the permission and courage to dream big… I just didn’t know how to build those dreams into a viable business.
What do you consider your smartest investment?
The development of our app: TRANSFORM with Chris & Heidi. The upfront costs were high, but creating a digital platform to accommodate tens of thousands of transformations at once and connect people has been both financially and emotionally fulfilling.