FOOL ON THE HILL
Financial Wrecks, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll

We can take away more from VH1's "Riches to Rags" special than a wry smile at the follies of fame and fortune. You don't have to be a celebrity to have your money squandered by "professionals" or to live beyond your means.

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By Robert Brokamp (TMF Bro)
September 9, 2002

We all love a good success story. But what we love even more (in the dank mud puddles of our hearts) is a story of success gone bust. We admire motivation, perseverance, and creativity -- but we relish a tale of hubris, dereliction, and prodigality.

VH1 knows this. The cable video music channel is celebrating the five-year anniversary of its "Behind the Music" series, which follows the rise, fall, and rise again (unless you're Milli Vanilli) of every music act from AC/DC to Weird Al Yankovic. To commemorate the milestone, VH1 is running a few special episodes, including "Riches to Rags," which counts down the top 10 artists who blew their fortunes. Who were they? We knew you'd ask.

10. Willie Nelson: To settle a tax tab of $2 million, Nelson's lawyers and accountants recommended that he borrow $12 million to invest in cattle and gain a tax-write-off. The IRS didn't allow the write-off and, when the back-taxes and penalties exceeded $30 million, confiscated most of Nelson's property (leaving Willie to sing, "To all the stuff I've owned before / That the IRS lugged out my door...").

9. Billy Joel: He's the third-best-selling singer in the U.S. (behind Garth Brooks and Elton John), but at one point, Billy Joel didn't have much to show for it. The Piano Man hit the wrong keys by letting his ex-brother-in-law manage his money. Alan Weber defrauded Joel out of $30 million, $10 million of it toward worthless investments.

8. Dee Snider, lead singer of Twisted Sister: Lawsuits over tour advances and endorsements led Snider to bankruptcy. Despite his music success (and famous showdowns with Tipper Gore), Snider eventually took a minimum wage computer sales job, riding a bike because he couldn't afford a car. (The "Riches to Rags" episode noted that Dee had a radio gig in Connecticut, but since the show ran, he's been replaced by syndicated blob-jock Bubba the Love Sponge.)

7. Harry Wayne Casey, lead singer of K.C. and the Sunshine Band: When he wasn't shake-shake-shaking his booty, Casey was abusing his snooty. He spent $100,000 a year on cocaine and drank a fifth of Vodka every day.

6. The Goo Goo Dolls: They sold 2 million albums but owed money to their record label. These guys weren't profligates as much as over-eager artists who signed a contract that turned them into indentured servants.

5. Ted Nugent: He let others handle his money, which ended up invested in mink farms and Clydesdales. According to Nugent, the managers "wiped me out -- flat broke."

4. Eric Burden (lead singer of The Animals): His $6 million fortune, managed by a fellow by the name of Mike Jeffries, disappeared into a "tax-free Caribbean account." Where the money really went will never be known, since Jeffries was killed in a plane crash.

3. Peter Frampton: Too busy touring to keep an eye on his money, he let others do it -- until he realized a million bucks was unaccounted for. He lost the rest in the market crash of 1987. (One can't help but wonder if Frampton sold at the bottom when he should have held on. The VH1 special doesn't say.)

2. TLC: Their album "CrazySexyCool" sold 10 million copies, yet the group had to declare bankruptcy. After paying their lawyers, accountants, managers, production company, record company, and taxes, the three members of TLC saw their $5.6 million take dwindle to $50,000-a-year incomes. (Of course, for most people, 50 grand a year is just fine.)

1. MC Hammer: Good old Stanley Burrell (a.k.a. Hammer) squandered $30 million by buying a lavish mansion and maintaining a $500,000-a-month payroll. Some of those on Hammer's dole managed his resources in ways that weren't too legit. Says Burrell: "You can't watch everybody, and when you can't watch everybody, watch out."

Not ones to merely snicker at others' misfortunes, we at the Fool have drawn a couple of lessons from these cash-careless crooners.

Lesson 1: The agony of abdication
Did you notice a trend in these mega-million-dollar sob stories? Most of these performers gave up control of their affairs. They let other people -- the wrong people -- mind the store. They didn't stick their heads in the kitchen to see who had his hands in the cookie jar. They apparently didn't even check their bank statements. They wore silly clothes.

However, the privilege of getting taken to the cleaners is not just for the rich and curiously coiffed. You, too, can pay a stiff price for letting someone else direct the destiny of your dinero.

We wish we could tell you differently, but you can't trust everyone. You don't have to look long and far to find stories of brokers more worried about their commissions than their clients' returns. Even if you're working with people who aren't doing anything illegal, you can still pay way too much for the services they provide. Why pay a 5% up-front commission and a 1.5% annual expense ratio to have a broker put you in a mutual fund that underperforms the market when you can match the market with an index fund that charges 0.18% annually?

There may be times when you need professional advice, especially if your finances are complicated, you're too busy, or you become a sudden millionaire from your hit song, "It Was You Who Moved My Cheese." But if you get professional help, keep an eye on who's minding your money. Understand how your advisors are compensated. And be very wary of giving anyone power of attorney on your account, permitting them to buy and sell investments without your permission. (For more on getting the most from professionals, visit our Hiring an Advisor area.)

Lesson 2: Expenditures rise to meet income
No matter how much money we make, we'll find a way to spend it.  That's what the late British historian and author C. Northcote Parkinson asserted with his famous Second Law: "Expenditures rise to meet income." (His First Law was also insightful on the human tendency to spread: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." To these, I add my own rule of expansion: "No matter how full I am, I will find room for more fries.")

Many of these musicians (not to mention movie stars and professional athletes) let their consumption get ahead of their compensation, even though they were pulling in millions. That's just ridiculous.

But on a much smaller scale, it happens to all of us. Think back five or 10 years and recall your annual income. Perhaps you thought back then, "If I just made $____ more a year, I'd be set." But how many of us do make more money now, yet still feel like we're scraping by -- or worse, still can't get out of debt?

The simple suggestion is to make sure that a portion of every raise or bonus you receive is socked away, before it can be frittered away. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of your labor, so go ahead and spend some of your money as you see fit. But if your savings rate increases along with your income, you'll be in good shape.

The more complicated suggestion is learn how to be happy with what you have, and not try to overspend yourself into self-fulfillment... but that's a topic for another article.

Until then, do a little dance, make a little love, and get TMF Money Advisor, if you need affordable, unbiased financial direction.

Robert Brokamp often thinks to himself, "If I just made $50,000 more a year, lost 15 pounds, and could fly, I'd be set." The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.