YOU, A FINANCE GEEK? I majored in English in college, but I've always been interested in investing. My brother and I started the Motley Fool out of Alexandria as an advice newsletter in 1994. We began a discussion group on America Online soon after, and an AOL executive e-mailed, inviting us to develop some sort of service. By '96 we were on the cover of Fortune; that's when I started getting calls from shocked friends, saying, "I was in your poetry class!"
SPEND WISELY: It's impossible to avoid all debt, but you can avoid bad debt. Good debt is something that improves your quality of life or truly builds value: Student loans help you get an education, and they carry a low interest rate. A mortgage earns tax credits, plus the house appreciates. Credit cards are bad debt: You don't get tax credits, and most of what you buy is a 100 percent loss. I know a little about poor spending habits. Once I spent $2,000 for a video camera, thinking I'd make cool little documentaries about D.C. or something. I didn't make a single one; my brother now owns that camera.
IN YOUR BEST INTEREST: When it comes to credit cards, you should never have to pay interest north of 12 percent. If you're doing so now, call your credit card company and threaten to move your business elsewhere if they don't lower your rate. Sound intimidating? Pour yourself a glass of whiskey, loosen up and then make the call.
A SIMPLE PLAN: To instill discipline, take something you love and say, "I'm not allowed to have this until I get to X point in winnowing down my debt." Whether it's "I want TiVo" or "I want to spend six months in a Buddhist monastery," you're going to need to set aside cash. Start by tracking how much you spend in one month. Put a shoebox next to your desk, and at the beginning of each month start throwing in all your receipts. After 30 days, sit down and tabulate it. Next, beat yourself silly for an hour. Then pick yourself up and separate the receipts into two categories: things I needed, things I wanted. If you have credit card debt, you have to look at the things you wanted and ask, "Why?"
ZERO BALANCE! NOW WHAT?: Once you've paid down your card, don't forget how painful the process was. Look at the benefits of carrying that card. Do you get miles? Cash back? A free toaster? You can try to use the card smartly; it's interest-free cash with a perk attached if you pay it down each month. If you're not going to do that -- cut it up!
As told to Jennifer Balderama