The Irish Mail on Sunday
From poverty in the Deep South to a $2m home in Manhattan
ONE of America’s first and most famous personal finance gurus, Alvin Hall says the best decision he ever made was investing in ‘tech shares’ in the 1990s.
Hall, 68, became famous on Wall Street for his work as a financial trainer and his ability to translate complex financial concepts into simple English. He lives in a $2m apartment in Manhattan, New York, but has never forgotten what it was like to be poor and black in the South in 1950s America.
What did your parents teach you about money?
To handle it carefully and make sure you know what your priorities are. My parents were very poor. My mother worked as a maid, earning
$25 a day, and my father was a cook in a Greek restaurant. He died when I was ten. My mother remarried several times and had seven children. I was the eldest.
I lived in a small village of 52 people, all of whom were my relatives, in the Florida Panhandle. We hardly had any money but when you live in the country, you don’t always know you are poor. As a child, I learned to fish, hunt and grow vegetables. Once a month, my mother would go to town to get flour, corn, sugar and coffee, but everything else we ate we either caught, killed or grew. Every day, no matter how hot it was, we had chores to do and rows to hoe. That taught me a lot about self-discipline.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Yes. The worst time was when I was in my 20s. I’d just graduated and I was earning more money from my first job as a high school teacher than I had ever seen in my life. I had so many credit cards – about 20 – and I overspent until I couldn’t make the minimum repayments. I got so distressed that I took a weekend job in a department store in ‘men’s furnishings’ selling underwear and socks. It took about 18 months to pay off all that debt. I never got into debt again. It all goes back to that period.
Have you ever been paid silly money?
Yes. I have been paid $20,000 (€16,616) for a 45-minute speech. It was a corporate event for a wealth management group. I was the ‘entertainer’.
The most expensive thing you have bought for fun?
It was an abstract painting by Carroll Dunham. I bought it in 1998. It is one of my rules: I only buy art and other things that I really want out of current income – never from savings. It cost about $65,000. I didn’t buy it as an investment but in 2008, I sold it for at least eight times what I paid for it.
What is your biggest money mistake?
Trusting a close friend about an investment. This was in 1985. I believed what he told me about a healthcare company and invested in it without doing any research. The stock collapsed and I lost $30,000, which at the time was about half of everything I had in the world.
The best money decision?
Buying shares in Dell – now Dell Technologies – Intel and Cisco Systems in the 1990s. I invested $4,000 in each company. Each investment has made me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Do you save into a pension?
Yes and have done so since I was 21. I was raised when black people didn’t have the option to save. I remember looking at what happened to the teachers in the school system. They were one of the few groups I knew who could retire financially secure. Everybody else struggled.
Do you invest directly in the stock market outside of your pension?
Yes. I call it the ‘go for it’ account. I enjoy investing in the stock market because I like to invest in people who have great long-term ideas.
Do you own any property?
Yes, I live in a two-bedroom apartment on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York. I paid $422,000 for it in the early 1990s and I think it’s now worth maybe $2million.
What is the one luxury you treat yourself to?
Caviar. I love it. It costs about €350 for five ounces.
If you were in charge of national finances, what would you do?
I would improve financial literacy around interest rates on mortgages, credit cards, loans and savings accounts – especially when it comes to compound interest.
What’s your number one financial priority?
Making sure my pension pot is sufficient so that when I start to draw it, I won’t feel anxious.
Alvin’s podcast series Driving The Green Book, his journey to explore the segregated South, is out now.