My real-life 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad'

Many have said that Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is a piece of fiction — that he never had a rich dad and a poor dad as described in his book. Or at least that’s what many believe.

But I did.

My parents divorced before I was 2, and both remarried. My father, who lived across town, was my “Rich Dad.” My stepfather was my “Poor Dad.” Let me tell you about them and how they each affected my views toward money, business and life.

My Rich Dad

My father started his business in college. He sold stolen records, and when that didn’t pay the bills, he hustled others for money at the local pool hall. He was apparently a real shark at billiards and pocket billiards. Mom tells the story of the time he played Willie Mosconi (prettiest blue eyes she’d ever seen) and lost. But apparently he held his own.

When he graduated, he moved away from the hot vinyl market and into a wholesale business selling posters and incense (they were big in the ’70s). After cornering the Farrah Fawcett poster market, he upgraded to selling jewelry from Mexico. From Mexican jewelry he moved on to gold jewelry and eventually diamonds.

Interestingly, he never left the posters and incense business. I spent my summers rolling posters and putting them in the clear plastic sleeves you’re probably familiar with. We’d add a label identifying the poster, and they were ready for delivery to Kmart and his other retail customers.

I can also remember going on a sales call with my Rich Dad. It was a jewelry store in The Continent, a then fashionable outdoor mall north of Columbus, Ohio, that has since declined precipitously. I can still remember the jewelry store owner looking me in the eye and saying that my father was the best salesmen he’d ever met. If only I had inherited that skill!

My Rich Dad made a lot of money. He spent a lot, too. He and my stepmother lived in a very nice home east of Columbus. They had an in-ground pool put in. They owned a condo in Florida. My father drove a Mercedes 450 SL when he wasn’t driving his 1976 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. My stepmother drove a Mercedes 450 SLC.

Rich Dad was the first to own a VCR, at least that I had ever seen. It was a massive box by today’s standards. He also had the first car phone I’d ever seen. In the 1970s, a car phone involved installing significant equipment in the trunk of the car. He belonged to a very nice country club, had expensive jewelry, and wore custom suits.

He was also extremely unhappy and died in a car accident at the age of 39.

My Poor Dad

My Poor Dad worked at the gas company. He never went to college, but was a natural-born artist. He could paint or draw anything, and was an excellent photographer and videographer. And he was a fisherman. A bass fisherman. Atournament-attending?, power-boat-buying, depth-finder-using, plastic-worm-jigging? fisherman.

He had multiple, massive tackle boxes that when expanded must have had a wingspan of 10 feet. At $2 to $3 a pop, his collection of lures was easily worth thousands of dollars. And his graphite rods and smooth spinning reels numbered in the dozens.

A day on the lake with my Poor Dad went something like this:

  • 4 a.m. Wake up, stumble out of bed, eat eggs and bacon that my mom fixed, and be on the road by 4:45 (which was always late by his standards).
  • 5:30 a.m. Boat in the water, helmets on (not kidding), and full throttle with a Johnson 150 horsepower outboard beast. If you’ve never experienced this, I can sum it all up in two words — freakin’ cold!
  • 5:33 a.m. Arrive at THE fishing hole. We know it’s THE fishing hole because the previous winter, my Poor Dad and I spent countless hours photographing the bottom of the lake. Again, not kidding.
  • 5:38 a.m. We spend 12 minutes trying to get my lure out of a tree. At $3 a pop, we would have spent 12 hours if need be.
  • 6:25 a.m. Having seen absolutely no sign of any fish at THE fishing hole, we power up and zoom off to another fishing hole.
  • 3:32 p.m. I haven’t made a cast in two hours. I sit wondering what my Rich Dad is doing at the country club.
  • 7 p.m. We’ve caught nothing all day. With live bait, we would have had a boat full of fish. But we never used live bait. Somehow live bait gave us an unfair advantage over the fish. We pack up and head home.

The reason I’ve regaled you with this story is so you’ll understand the next step in my Poor Dad’s journey. In the late ’70s, he opened a fishing and archery store in north Columbus. He didn’t quit his job at the gas company, but he did borrow against our home to fund the business. He also bought the store the business was in.

During the summers, I often ran the store. We would go entire days without a single customer. I vividly recall watching the Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe epic battle at Wimbledon on a small black-and-white TV while potential customers zoomed by without giving us so much as a glance.

In large part because of the poor economic times of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the business failed. And because my Poor Dad borrowed against our home, bankruptcy and foreclosure hung over our heads. And you’re not going to believe what kept us from bankruptcy and foreclosure — my Rich Dad’s death.

When my dad died, Social Security sent me a monthly check until I graduated from high school. That check each month went to pay for my Poor Dad’s business loan that was secured by our home. Ironic, I know.

Lessons learned

In the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” Kiyosaki describes what he learned from his Rich Dad. But he seemed not to learn anything from his Poor Dad. I learned a lot from both of mine:

  • Money doesn’t buy happiness. We’ve all heard this before, but you can’t buy contentment. My Rich Dad taught me this, as did my Poor Dad. In many respects, my Poor Dad was more content than my Rich Dad.
  • Poverty can rob you of happiness. While money can’t buy happiness, poverty can rob you of contentment. While we never slept on the street, there were plenty of times where we had no money, no food in the house, and no gas in the car. We had our electricity and gas turned off, and lived paycheck to paycheck. I vowed never to live that way if I could help it.
  • Take “smart” risks. In many ways I respect my Poor Dad for taking the risks he did when he opened his tackle store. The problem is he put his ambitions above his family. Taking risks is part of life, but don’t bet the farm. Yes, we’ve all heard of people who risked everything and it paid off. What we don’t hear about are the thousands who did the same thing and lost everything. If you have a family, they come before your ambition.
  • Save money. Perhaps above all else, both my Rich Dad and my Poor Dad taught me the importance of saving. They taught me this lesson by showing me the consequences of living without an emergency fund or meaningful retirement account.

In the end, my Rich Dad and Poor Dad both gave me a healthy dose of perspective. The difficult times made me stronger in many ways. My childhood prepared me to be a better father and husband. And it prepared me to handle money more responsibly. Do I wish I had an easier childhood? Perhaps. But it wasn’t all bad, and it prepared me to handle the difficult things that life throws at us from time to time.

How has your childhood affected the way you handle money?