From Flat Broke at 37 to Self-Made Millionaire

Barry MaherThrough saving and investing, a lot of hard work and, in his words, more than a little luck, motivational business speaker and author Barry Maher went from being broke at age 37 to being a self-made millionaire and semi-retiree who can afford to retire completely.

What Does ‘Semi-Retired’ Really Mean?

Now 67, Maher only works when he wants, how he wants and as often as he wants. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. But who knew this would be in the cards for the boy who started out selling greeting cards door-to-door?

Maher was self-employed through college and built a successful business selling advertising products from scratch, but sold it so he could pursue a career writing fiction. Unfortunately, he financed the sale, the new owners ran the business into the ground and he lost any chance of being paid in full.

“I only got about 30 to 40 percent of the base price and a small pittance of what was supposed to be royalties. What was intended to be an annuity turned into nothing with breathtaking speed.” Making matters worse, his novels weren’t selling well and he found himself flat broke at the age of 37.

So how did Maher turn that situation around to become so successful?

The Journey from Broke to Millionaire

Maher credits his becoming a millionaire in large part to making good money in the corporate world and as a speaker. Armed with his experience of building a business from nothing, Maher got a job with GTE as a salesman. “I busted my butt because I was absolutely broke,” he confesses. “I worked ridiculous hours from the time I woke up to the time I collapsed into bed.” Maher quickly became the Fortune 500 company’s top salesman, earning a promotion and financial security.

With money to invest, Maher dabbled in the stock market. He admits that he doesn’t have the time or the expertise to pick individual stocks, but he has bought many index funds that have done well over the years.

Maher also credits his frugality for helping him to save the money he has. As he explained, “Whenever I buy something I think of how hard I had to work to make the money for it.” For example, he imagines his Honda Accord, not just as a car, but as whatever he had to do to earn the $25,000 it cost him. “That mindset always makes my Honda seem more attractive when I start to think about buying a Mercedes,” Maher quips. Barry’s view on his Honda is the same I have on my 1998 Chevy Lumina that I inherited from my grandmother.

One day, Maher’s literary agent suggested that instead of writing more fiction, he should try his hand at a business book. Although dubious at first, Maher wrote a specialty book on Yellow Pages advertising and was soon asked to speak at small business events on the topic. Maher took this opportunity to broaden his field of expertise and he began consulting on various sales and management issues.

The book that really helped to establish Maher as a sought-after motivational speaker was “Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business,” which was translated into a number of languages and was cited by “Today’s Librarian” as “one of the seven essential popular business books.”

Common Misconceptions about Millionaires

Maher stressed that many millionaires today live normal lifestyles free of limousines and yachts. He drives an economy car and lives in a typical house. Because he doesn’t have a mortgage and is frugal, he could afford to retire when he was 60. As he points out, a million dollars doesn’t have the same spending power it once did. The writer estimates that, excluding travel and business expenses, it costs him significantly less than $100,000 a year to maintain his lifestyle.

It is easy to be intimidated by Maher’s success and accomplishments, but everyone has hiccups to overcome on the road to success. Even though he might have changed some of his past decisions, Maher acknowledges that without his experiences, he wouldn’t have anything to pass on to others.

For example, Maher gave many free presentations until he got himself established as a speaker. His first gig as a paid speaker was an excruciating 6-hour seminar on the Yellow Pages that he put together himself. “I bored the paint off the walls,” he recalls. “It was terrible! But if I hadn’t done that wrong, I never would have learned how to do it right.”

What Financial Freedom Really Looks Like

Although he has been broke, Maher has never been seriously in debt. “I don’t buy it until I have the cash to pay for it,” he says. For Maher, the biggest advantage of avoiding debt was having the financial freedom to try a new career if he didn’t enjoy his job.

He built an emergency fund to know that he wouldn’t starve if nobody hired him for six months or a year. In the corporate world, this financial independence earned Maher a reputation for being brutally honest, “because I knew I could walk away from that job anytime I wanted. That is the kind of freedom that kept me working.”

“The best investment you’re ever going to make is the investment in yourself,” says Maher. “You can’t take charge of your life if you’re paying money to other people. Then the bank’s in charge of your life. You’ve got to get out from under the thumb of debt if you’re actually going to succeed in the way that you would like to.”

Advice to Give Your Younger Self

I asked Maher what he would tell young workers about how to succeed:

  1. Do your homework. Maher’s worst investment was buying a franchise for a sales business. “I thought I’d investigated it, but I really hadn’t and it turned out to be a loss. I basically had to write it off.”
  2. Be open to trying something new. If you have too rigid an idea of what your career or your retirement will look like, then you will miss amazing opportunities that present themselves.
  3. Recognize the real cost of your purchases. You might think of frugality as being a drag, but if you don’t acknowledge that every dollar you spend costs you time at work, then you will never get out of the work-spend-work-spend treadmill.
  4. Don’t be in denial about your situation. It’s hard to fess up when things are going the way you want, but you have to own your situation, drop the denial and work your crazy to get out of it.